Bar News - March 9, 2007
Are You a Superhero? What to Do When There’s Too Much on Your Plate
By: Betsy Black
When you think of a superhero, do you think of an action figure leaping tall buildings in a single bound? Are you trying to be a superhero in how you live and work?
I use the word “superhero” because lawyers are often called upon to be heroes: to facilitate outcomes for clients, to offer sage advice, to make things happen, to help people achieve a more favorable outcome than they could on their own. The profession attracts people who are very responsible, which is a great and useful quality—to a point. But trying to do or be too much can be self-defeating if you cannot keep your promises.
I recently read a fun little book that put into print something I knew, but have been reluctant to accept: You will never be caught up. I repeat: You will never be caught up.
The context—as offered by Brian Tracy in Eat that Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time—is this: “If you are like most people today, you are overwhelmed with too much to do and too little time. As you struggle to get caught up, new tasks and responsibilities just keep rolling in, like the tides. Because of this, you will never be caught up. You will always be behind in some of your tasks and responsibilities….”
If you think it’s just you who can’t keep up, or believe you could if you tried harder, think again. As a professional, you want to get everything on your plate done. You likely have a host of reasons such as personal and professional ethics, values, and looming consequences. But consistently promising yourself you’ll do more than you are capable of and breaking those promises is a recipe for disappointment, stress, and negative consequences.
Fortunately, Tracy offers hope for coping with an overloaded plate. The main strategy he promotes is to select the most important task at any given moment and do it, move on to the next most important task and do it, and so on, while avoiding the distraction of less important tasks. Not exactly rocket science, but few of life’s important lessons are.
How do you decide what to remove from your plate? Acknowledge that you have too much to do and take responsibility for the situation. Pull out pen and paper and list your commitments. Take the time to honestly assess whether you can or cannot accomplish what you have committed to. For the things you cannot complete, adjust your plans. Is there latitude for when something has to be done? Can the task be delegated? You might need to contact the affected party, apologize and explain that you are unable to follow through. Backing out of a commitment is an extremely difficult thing to do, but it is better than the consequences of not executing a promised task.
The best strategy, of course, is to avoid taking on too much to begin with. There are many techniques, but let me start with this one: Learn from your past successes and failures. Think of a time when you were asked to do something, were too busy to do it, and you declined. Consider this decision. What was your decision-making process? What were the consequences? Now think of a time when you were asked to do something, were too busy to do it, and you accepted. Consider this decision. What was your decision-making process? Did you follow through with the task? What were the consequences?
The following are some other methods to consider:
- Listen to your body. If you get a rush of enthusiasm or a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when asked to do something, you might want to delay decision- making until you can assess why you feel the way you do.
- Examine your law practice and consider the application of the Pareto Principle—the 80/20 rule, which postulates that 20 percent of your efforts will yield 80 percent of your results. Examine how you spend your time. Are you spending the most time on your best clients, or chasing after your worst ones? What can you do to better manage your time?
- Use whatever latitude you have in your decision-making about clients and other commitments to your advantage.
- Buy time. If you are prone to say “yes” when you later wish you had said “no,” discipline yourself to routinely ask for time to consider the request.
Fortunately, if you’re wearing the yoke of the superhero, you have permission to ditch it. According to Wikipedia, a superhero “is a fictional character who is noted for feats of courage and nobility, who usually possesses abilities beyond those of normal human beings.” If you have difficulty letting go of your superhero identity, here is a fun, lower-cost option: Dress up next Halloween in spandex and put a big “L” symbol on your chest. Being a lawyer is serious business, but you don’t have to be a superhero.
Betsy Black is an accredited executive and life coach and lawyer who has left the practice of law. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 603-228-6195.