My early years as an attorney at a corporate law firm, can be summed up in one word: frazzled. The panic that set in when you saw an email at 5:59pm on a Friday from that one partner that always had a way of destroying your weekend plans. Or that feeling you got when you were at lunch with your parents who were in town visiting for one day and you got a call on your cell phone from the office. And my very favorite, when you were in the middle of putting out one enormous fire and you got an email from a more important partner who wanted you to draft a new document within the next hour. Ugh. That feeling of sheer panic is the stuff nightmares are made of!
There is no downplaying the pressure and the stress that comes with practicing law. Learning to answer to many masters and prioritize important projects is a skill and it comes with practice.
One of the things I teach my clients is how to juggle the load and strategize so that when all hell breaks lose, which it will, you can better anticipate it and adjust accordingly. So often, many of us in legal practice simply put our heads down and let the blows keep coming. We don’t take the time to examine what is on our plate because that would suggest that (i) there is time to do this soul-searching and (ii) there are options that don’t involve just doing the work.
Many times I found myself or young associates failing to take appropriate inventory of their projects and workloads and, by the time they realized they were overextended, the only option was to pull an all-nighter or do sub-par work. And, let’s be honest, overnighters only yield subpar work so there truly is only one option (and that option will cost you).
This behavior is usually driven by our belief that there is no other choice than simply doing the work. What I would like to suggest is that there are limits to your ability to produce and if you fail to recognize and address those limits appropriately, your career will suffer.
The first step to this process is simply getting organized. Schedule time once a week (I use Friday mornings) to go through your projects list, update your projects list and prepare a list of all other “to do” items floating around your head and taking up mental space. Write. Down. Everything. This includes: calling the plumber, updating your address with the bar association, ordering groceries, cooking dinner, packing for a work trip, meal prepping, going to the gym. Everything. Write it all down. I also use this time to plan my meals for the following week.
(Side note: An easy way to coordinate your meals for the upcoming week is to create a private Pinterest board where you can save recipes solely for the upcoming week. I have a private board entitled “This Week” where I save recipes I plan to cook in a given week. Then, when my Friday morning planning session comes around, I pull up the board and order the groceries for those meals, schedule my grocery delivery, and decide which nights I will cook which meals. Life. Changing. Added bonus: if you have kids, this will allow you to vet recipes with them and get their buy-in for your upcoming meals — kids like food pictures too!)
Once you have this list, prioritize it. This doesn’t need to be an overly formal process, you just need to know what items need to be addressed immediately and which ones can wait until you are standing in line at the grocery store. Be ruthless in this evaluation. Not everything can be a priority — that is the thinking that gets you into the all-nighter conundrum!
Now that all of the things causing momentary panic in your brain are down on paper, put them on your calendar. Schedule everything. Give yourself plenty of time for each item on your list and do not forget to schedule “free time” as well as time to eat, rest, and breathe.
When it comes to work projects, be sure to schedule prep time in anticipation of any upcoming meetings and schedule blocks of “reserved” time where possible to account for shifts in priorities or unforeseen projects. This is about giving yourself the space to ensure that you are able to show up as your best, every time. You don’t have to be faced with the choice of turning in subpar work because of your poor planning. You are better than that.
Then the best part: throw the damn list away. Burn it. Whatever floats your boat. Just get rid of it and breathe in the knowledge that you have all of those little nagging thoughts addressed and scheduled. Your brain is clear.
This tactic is not going to protect you from those chaotic, unpredictable moments that are simply a part of life but what it is going to do is provide you with a much better understanding of your capacity at any given moment. It will allow you to properly forecast how you can (or cannot) handle the new project that lands in your inbox in shouty CAPS! The goal here is to free up your brain to allow you to forecast where your energy is going and determine when priorities truly conflict.
When you get all those BS “to dos” out of your head, you will be much less likely to get frazzled. When you have allocated time for all of the things on your to do list, it is much more difficult for your brain to pile on and get sucked into the blackhole of “when am I going to have time to do that, I still have to finish that project for client Y, and I haven’t done laundry for a week, and I still need to get a birthday card for my mom, and oh my gosh, I don’t have any freaking groceries! what am I going to eat this week?!” The spiral is a waste of your mental energy and a distraction.
This approach will take some practice but if you can get into the habit of truly examining what’s going on in your life, finding time for all of those things, and committing to stick to your plans, this alone can transform your stress level.
Practicing law is difficult and sometimes you will have to reorganize your carefully laid plans or have some challenging discussions about competing priorities. It happens. Success is about learning to honor yourself and your abilities and not expecting yourself to tackle every single thing that comes your way. There are limits to your ability to handle it all. Getting organized is the first step to recognizing those limits.
Clean up your brain and throw away your to do lists, I dare you.