One of most frustrating things about the practice of law is feeling out of control over your own time.
It begins with non-stop requests coming in from all directions and too little time to manage them all. This grows into a feeling of constant reactivity and an inability to commit to plans for fear things will change at the last minute. It can then turn into feelings of hopelessness and resentment
Ultimately, it can become the reason some women decide working in law firms is not for them.
Often, we want to blame our lack of control on others. “If they would just stop asking me to do so much, I could get some control over my life.”
Or we think that control is just around the corner. “Things are really busy at work right now. If I can just get through to next week, everything will calm down and I can get back on top of things.”
The problem is, we can’t change other people and the calm future may never come. But there IS something we can do next time we feel like control is slipping from our grasp.
What To Do Next Time You Feel You’re Losing Control
When you start to feel that familiar spiral of losing control, take these three specific steps:
- Stop what you’re doing – especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Assess the situation.
- Pull yourself out of reaction mode (re-engage your prefrontal cortex).
- Give yourself time and space to think about what control would actually mean – and what it looks and feels like. Here’s how to do this:
Accept These Factors: They Are Out of Your Control
Begin by accepting the factors that truly are beyond your control. In particular, these include:
The Demands of Your Firm (or any organization for that matter)
Organizations are hungry monsters who will take what they can get. And why wouldn’t they? Expecting requests to slow down on their own is wishful (and unproductive!) thinking.
Repeat after me: “I cannot change other people.” Not their beliefs, attitudes or moods. Not their readiness to commit, nor their quality of work. And certainly not their time-planning or thought-processes.
I know how hard it can be to really accept these realities. But if we wait for someone else to change, we are likely to stay stuck forever. Worse yet, we make ourselves victims by giving away our power.
Four Things That ARE Within Your Control
Next, identify what IS within your control. There is always more than you initially think! For example, the following are squarely within your own control:
1. YOUR Priorities
Not all things matter equally. But when we’re really busy, we often react without thinking and prioritize the “loudest” rather than the most important tasks. Some of the most important things – like planning, thinking, business development, or playing with our children – may not be the loudest or the most urgent.
This is precisely why we need to take time every day to prioritize what matters most for that day, put these priorities on our calendars, and do our best to protect them.
You might even consider doing what matters most first, so you know it will get done. (Daniel Pink encourages naming your MIT – or “Most Important Task” – and doing that first.)
2. YOUR Time and Commitments
It is true that clients and other lawyers in your firm can wreck even your best laid plans – no matter what stage of your law career.
But while you may not be able to control others’ requests, you can always control your response.
If your client wants something by tomorrow (Tuesday) and you know you can’t do it by then, ask the client if Wednesday will work.
You will often be surprised how accommodating clients can be, as long as they know they can really count on you to produce when you said you would. If you really can’t do something, can you suggest someone who can? Can you seek help from other colleagues? The key is to focus on solutions rather than the act of saying “No.”
Many senior lawyers tell me that they frequently feel frustrated at the end of the day, because they have not accomplished what they intended. If this happens for weeks on end, you are likely not scheduling enough “margin” time in your day.
Anticipate the unanticipated. Surprises and distractions are normal and inevitable. Factor them into your day by including margin time around your scheduled activities.
Wherever you are in your career, remember that you have more control and more resources than you think.
3. YOUR Resources
When we are in reaction mode, it can be very hard to “see” all the potential supports that may be available to us.
Often, we fall victim to ideas like “It will be faster if I do it myself.” Or, “only I can get this done.”
When this happens – ask yourself – is this really true?
Next time you “have” to do something, ask: “Is this my top priority? AND is it something only I can do?”
If the answers are no – STOP. Think as broadly as possible about your resources and delegate or drop it. Save your energy for more important things.
4. YOUR Energy
When we have more energy, we accomplish things more efficiently and effectively.
Also, time does not serve us in a linear way. When we have “too much” time, we end up stretching a task into taking longer than it needs. When we have “too little” time, time becomes irrelevant as adrenaline and laser focus kick in. Or, we feel exhausted and defeated and give up.
So instead of asking yourself “Do I have time?” ask “Do I have enough energy?”
If the answer is “No,” invest time in replenishing your energy before starting. It WILL pay off.
Sometimes feeling more in control is simply a matter of accepting the realities of the moment. For example, if you have to work on a beautiful Saturday, you may think “I really don’t want to be here,” or “I can’t believe that I am missing something fun with my friends and family.”
But distracting yourself with resistance will only make the task take longer. Instead, just DO it. You will be less stressed, feel more in control, and move on more quickly to other priorities.
And the next time you find yourself wrestling with that out-of-control feeling, take a step back and ask “What matters most?” Do that. Then ask it again. And do that. Lather, rinse, repeat.
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