Many lawyers feel as if they're fighting a forest fire with a squirt gun, playing a zero-sum game that leaves them empty, exhausted and unfulfilled. Indeed, many practitioners are stressed-out by the expectations of their clients; overwhelmed by the demands of their practices; and lost in the technology that's meant to serve them.
Here are seven tips that will make your practice — and your life — easier and richer… in every way:
1) Get up an hour earlier. Almost every personal and professional book you'll ever read suggests that the first hour of your day sets the entire tone. What happens for many folks, though, is that they wake up late, grab a coffee (and a doughnut), and then tear off to the office already feeling harried and behind the power curve. Getting up an hour earlier allows you to enter the day more deliberately. You can use it to read, write, and plan your day; stretch, exercise, walk or bike; connect with your spouse or significant other; have a great breakfast; and see your kids off to school.
2) Don't check your email first thing in the morning. Your inbox is someone else's agenda for your day. Nearly 80 percent of folks sleep with their smartphones (which is itself an insane practice) and then, as soon as they get up, they check their email. There are adversarial notes from opposing counsel, angry messages from clients, urgent messages from colleagues, overdue bills from vendors, and, of course, the Nigerian woman who wants you to collect her alimony from her deadbeat ex-husband that just happens to live in your neighborhood. Everyone competing for your attention, and expecting an immediate response. Not one of these people cares about your mindset at the beginning of the day or about what you might want to accomplish. And every single one of them will survive until 11 o'clock in the morning. You can respond and not react; you get to choose.
3) Have a plan and work the plan. So many folks show up at their offices without a clue as to how their day will unfold. Instead, the day lurches from uncertainty to uncertainty, from one emergency to another. Peak performers have an overall plan for the week that's been outlined at the very beginning, usually on Sunday. The most important tasks have already been scheduled by the time Monday morning rolls around. Know when you're going to arrive at the office in the morning; and even more important, know when you're going to go home. Work expands to fill a vacuum. Don't allow the vacuum. You are the architect of your day and your week; don't hand the plans over to someone else. Be clear on your most important objectives for the day. Do the most important first.
4) Work in block time. Computers are designed to work 24/7, 365 days of the year; always on. We aren't designed that way. We're designed to work in waves. Research suggests that we work best in 60- to 90-minute blocks. When you're working on a project, focus completely on the task at hand. Take a break in between blocks. And then get back to it. Turn off your email and social media alerts. You don't need to jump like a Pavlovian dog to every incoming piece of stimuli. Distractions come at the high cost of lost time — getting back on task takes eight to 10 minutes. Multiply that by 10 distractions in a day and all of a sudden you've recovered the time for your son's Little League game you thought you'd have to blow off. And by the way, multi-tasking is a myth. We actually work sequentially. When we try to multi-task, we divide our attention and dilute our focus. One rather amusing study found that endeavoring to multi-task reduces effectiveness by nearly 30 percent, while smoking a joint impedes effectiveness by only 10 percent. No endorsement here; just the facts.
5) Say no. This is one of the most challenging lessons for lawyers to learn. We're helpers. We want to help. We want to fill our practices productively. We want people and clients to like us. We want business flowing in the door. We want money in our bank accounts. And so we say "yes." Even when we know should say "no." Most practitioners, if they're really honest with themselves, know when a client is not the right fit. There's an old business adage: how things are at the beginning are how they will always be. And even when a lawyer knows the client will be a problem, there is an overwhelming temptation to get involved. Say "no." Say "no" to the commitments that won't work for you; say "no" to the interruption in the middle of your research; say "no" to the appointment at 5 p.m. when you know you'll miss your family's dinner… again. Say "no" to the spur-of-the- moment lunch invite that will disrupt your gym routine; say "no" to the files in the evening; say "no" so that you have the time and the space to say "yes" to what really truly matters.
6) Get a handle on your health. It's cliché to say that without your health you have nothing… because it's true. And lawyers, for some reason, seem to be among the worst offenders when it comes to wellness. Be mindful of the three Es: Eating, Exercise and Emotional Well-Being. Put only good fresh foods in your body; cut out the fast foods, the processed foods, and the sugar. Good eating starts with what you bring into your home and into your office. And weight loss is nothing more than calories in and calories out. (Yeah we're lawyers, but even we can do math like this.) Exercise means moving. Aerobic exercise is good for the mind and the spirit…and the body. Move every day. Walk, run or bike. Take the stairs; walk the course. Strength training, too, is essential, especially as we get older: Join a gym; get a trainer. And do not overlook the last E. I'm not talking about some spiritual woo-woo thing. I'm talking about getting connected to your heart, what drives you, what lights you up. Consider journaling, a meditation practice, perhaps some yoga. Get quiet… and reconnect with why you do this great work we get to do.
7) Take your vacations. Every single one of them. When I first started at the "big firm," my mentor told me that I got three weeks of vacation every year… but nobody ever took them. That seemed stupid to me. I promptly booked three weeks of vacation. We seem to "buy into" the principle that, for athletes, rest and recovery are integral components for success. Yet, in the business world we're told that, in order to succeed, we need to work faster, longer, harder. This is categorically untrue and there's plenty of research to support this. Running flat out is a recipe for ineffectiveness, depression, burnout and malpractice. Time away refreshes and renews your mind, spirit and soul so that you can go back to the people you serve restored and refreshed. And by the way, when you go off, leave your electronics and communication devices behind; otherwise it's not a vacation. Yeah, I'm talkin' to you!
We have this amazing profession. We get to work for justice, advocate for folks in need, negotiate complex matters and enjoy financial rewards that few others can. Surely there are many challenges that can throw us off our game; but with a few tweaks, we can rock the world.•