Beat Overwhelm Now!

When I’m working with an individual client, I always listen carefully for signs of overwhelm.
 Whether overwhelm comes from business development activity or (more commonly) from the press of billable work, the result is catastrophic for business development success.

Business development aside, overwhelm can tank a day faster than just about anything else.  On days with overflowing email, an endless task list, and phone calls that just won’t stop, you may find it almost impossible to operate  effectively.  Even if you manage to limp along, overwhelm-driven distraction may send things falling through the cracks.  Over the years, I’ve hones in on a variety of methods to beat overwhelm, and these are the top 10, based on my own experience and client feedback:

  1. Move.  Overwhelm tends to cause mental paralysis, and the fastest fix is a quick burst of physical activity.  Walk around the block or your office floor, dance for 30 seconds (close the door!), or do 10 jumping jacks.  Get your blood pumping.
  2. Lift your mood.  Overwhelm breeds lethargy.  Use music, fresh flowers, aromas, or whatever works for you to get a lift.  I keep a bottle of orange essential oil at my desk because I find that a drop or two perks me up almost instantly, and I have a “get going” playlist of peppy songs that gets me going every time.
  3. Focus intently for a short time.  After the computer and telephone, your most productive piece of equipment could be a digital timer.  When you feel stuck, set the timer for 45 minutes and power through that time, knowing that you can take a break as soon as the timer beeps.  Make it a game:  compete against yourself using the timer to see how quickly you can sort through papers or complete other dreaded tasks.  The timer and competition will get you going, and momentum may keep you working even after the alarm sounds.  Here’s the timer I use.  (I recommend you  NOT use the timer on your cell phone–too much temptation to check email or Facebook there.)
  4. Clean it up.  Clutter reduces productivity and creates overwhelm.  If your desk is too messy (and “too messy” will vary person to person), set aside 15 minutes to clear it off, even if that means stacking papers and moving them to the floor.  If your email in-box is so full that you feel anxious when you open it, set aside an hour to tame it.  (Don’t know how to accomplish that in an hour?  I’ll have some tips for you next week.)
  5. Call in the reinforcements.  Find the right help for your source of overwhelm.  Perhaps your assistant can help you clear your desk, or a colleague may be able to give you feedback to help cut through the mental clutter.  When you feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to see outside the bubble of stress.  Get some help.
  6. Dump it.  One common source of overwhelm is the mental  task list.  When you’re juggling “must do” items in your head, fighting to remember all of them, you’re pulling energy from productive activity for simple memory maintenance.  Do a brain dump and get the tasks on paper.  Free up  your mind for more useful work.
  7. Get out of the office and do something else.  Admittedly, you can’t always implement this tip, but it can be very effective.  Have you ever noticed how often brilliant ideas strike while you’re in the shower, running, walking  the dog, or doing other activities unrelated to work?  When the body is working and the mind is free to wander, creativity flourishes.
  8. Access a different part of your brain.  One litigator I know uses art to focus himself before a trial.  Art allows him to pull back from the logical, analytical side o f his brain and bring forward the emotional and creative parts.  What can you do to bring another part of your skills to the table?
  9. Mind map.  If you’re searching for an elusive link between facts or trying to form a creative argument, try using a mind map.  Get a clean piece of paper, draw a circle in the middle of the page and label it with the problem or circumstance you’re contemplating.  Think about related subjects, actions you could take, and people who might be helpful in addressing the issue, and draw lines and branches to represent the ideas that come up.  If you’re really stuck you may find a mind map more useful than an ordinary list.  Click here for a video on this technique.
  10. If you’ve tried several of these approaches unsuccessfully, you may be exhausted.  Think of your energy as a pitcher of water.  If you pour and pour and pour without replenishment, the pitcher will empty and nothing you try (except adding more wateR) will allow it to pour more.  If a quick break or quick spurt of energy doesn’t refresh you, your pitcher may be dangerously close to empty.  Identifying that spot and taking action is a critical professional competency.


Build Better Relationships & A Better Practice by Being Fully Present

Do you often find yourself doing one activity and thinking about another?
  Maybe you check email while you’re on the phone or even while talking with someone in your office.  Or you scan the paper or browse the web while your partner or child is trying to tell you something?

We generally think we’re making good use of our too-short time by multi-tasking, right?  And yet, most of us have also had the experience of getting “busted”:  the person who’s talking realizes we aren’t listening, or we make an error because we’re juggling two (or more) tasks simultaneously.  At a minimum, our stress level goes up because the brain isn’t wired for multi-tasking.

Try being fully present with what you’re doing.  If you’re in conversation, close your email and put your phone on “do not disturb” so you can direct all of your attention to the discussion.  Conversations tend to go more quickly when you’re fully present because you’re at full attention, and you’ll notice that you catch not only what’s said, but also the things that are going unsaid that should perhaps be explored.

For instance, imagine that a colleague is briefing you on an expert witness deposition prep session and the words say all is well.  If you are fully present to your colleague, you might notice tension in his face that you would miss if you were looking at papers or email while he’s talking.  Seeing the tension, you’d have an opportunity to inquire and learn that although he can’t put his finger on the issue, something isn’t right about the testimony or the way the expert is presenting it.  That’s valuable information that could go undetected.  (Should your colleague raise the concern without being asked?  Absolutely.  However, many of us are uncomfortable bringing up a concern without any evidence to back it up, and so he might well not mention it.)

The need for presence is even more true when it comes to relationship-building as a part of client service of business development activity.  After all, if you can’t bring your full focus to your client (or potential client, or referral source), why would that person believe that you’d bring your full focus to a legal problem?  Relationships require attention, and attention and multi-tasking are incompatible.

How to become fully present?  I recommend meditation or even a quick centering exercise, which can be as simple as taking 3 or 4 slow, deep breaths.  Bring all of your attention to the present activity, and if you find your attention wandering, breathe deeply again and bring it back.  This level of focus will allow you to be more effective and less stressed.

(Think this sounds silly?  Check out these posts about the business benefits of meditation.  In the 21st century, meditation is recognized for physical and psychological benefits galore.)

As Malcolm Forbes said, “Presence is more than just being there.”  Being fully present focuses all of your senses on the task or person at hand.  It’s a learned skill.  Try an experiment:  resolve to be fully present for a couple of hours a day and see what you notice.  I’d love to hear your feedback!

When Life Throws You A Curveball…

Life has a way of throwing curveballs.
  Sometimes they come in the form of emergencies that demand attention, sometimes they’re staff departures, (planned or otherwise), and sometimes they’re opportunities that you just can’t pass up, even though jumping in will eat every bit of time and energy you have.

How do you cope with those curveballs?  You can implement three strategies now so that you can deal with curveballs as they come your way.

  1. Create an “operations manual”.  Those of you working in large firms may have access to some sort of manual that defines how certain tasks are to be completed.  However, whether you’re in a large firm or working as a sole practitioner, you must have a document that explains how we do things around here.  How should an assistant answer your telephone, when should he schedule appointment for you, and what should he tell clients who need to reach you urgently?  What needs to be accomplished every day without fail?  It’s daunting to imagine creating such a document from scratch.  Start today.  Document every task that you complete and ask your assistant to do the same.  (No assistant?  No excuse!  If everything is in your head, the need is even greater.)  The manual that you build will allow you to cut down on the time necessary to train a new employee, and if you are called out of the office without notice, the manual gives a roadmap to keep things running without you.
  2. Use technology well.  Most lawyers now use some sort of electronic calendar and docketing system.  Who else has access to your professional calendar?  Even if you choose not to allow anyone access to that information on a day-to-day basis, you should consider creating a login that you can provide on an as needed basis to an assistant.  If you are currently working without an assistant, you should create a way for a temporary assistant to have access to your calendar so that she can contact your clients and reschedule appointments if necessary.  (In fact, it may be incumbent upon you to do so, depending on the ethics rules in place in your jurisdiction.)  Let’s hope that you’re reachable in the case of a curveball — but if you’re hit by a bus, some mechanism must exist to meet your clients’ needs.
  3. Maintain a comprehensive “to do” list.  Many of us go through our days tucking “to do” items into our memory.  This approach creates stress, as you’ve experienced i you’ve ever been lying in bed, just about to drift off, when you’re suddenly jolted to full consciousness with the question, did I send that email / make that call??  For purposes of the “what if” conversation, however, if you maintain your task list in your head and get pulled away by a curveball, there’s little change that you’ll be able to sort tasks effectively to be sure every task is covered.  If the curveball should take you suddenly out of commission, you’ll have no opportunity to pause and download all of the tasks in your head onto paper.  Instead, use a Word document, a spreadsheet, or a task management application to keep track of every task (of any magnitude), and be sure you can sort those tasks by due date, importance, client, and project.

If you use these strategies, you’ll be able to handle the curveballs that come your way.  Remember that curveballs generally come with no notice, so assess your preparations today and begin to fill the holes you discover now.

Legal Business Development: Plans Are Important, But Nothing Happens Without Action!

It’s obvious that action is required to bring in new business, right? 
Sometimes, though, you have a great justification for not action…  When everyone is out of town or busy, when you’d like to get started with networking, but no available group feels like a good fit, when you just don’t know where or how to get published or to get an opportunity to speak, what then?

Here’s the simple truth:  you will hit roadblocks, quagmires of uncertainty or doubt, and even roadblocks in your business development journey.

A few of my clients have run into this situation, and their response often predicts (or even determines) their level of success.  Those who move forward in a helpful direction, even if it isn’t optimal, tend to do well; those who stall out and wait for the “right” conditions tend to flail and eventually fail.  The successful ones pursue a common line of analysis, and that’s what I’d like to share with you today.

Step one:  determine whether this is an obstacle, meaning a temporary challenge that can be resolve through action or by the passage of time, or a roadblock, meaning a long-lasting challenge that is due to issues you don’t control.  Imagine that you’ve identified an organization that sounds ideal for your practice.  If it’s on hiatus for the summer, that’s just an obstacle.  If your review of the events calendar shows that activity has dwindled to nothing and that the organization appears to be moribund, that may be a roadblock.

Solve or wait out obstacles; strategize an alternative approach to get around a roadblock.  Continuing the organization example, if the group is on hiatus for the summer, you can simply wait for Fall to get involved, and perhaps you can consider helping the group find ways to stay active even over the summer.  If the group is moribund, however, even though you could try to revive it, it probably wouldn’t be the best use of your resources, so you should look for another activity.

Step two:  if you’re waiting out an obstacle, get started with something else in the meantime; if you’ve hit a roadblock, go to plan B.  Could you identify some leaders in the group whom you might contact directly?  Is there a next best organization you might join?  You might choose instead to work on getting an article written and published, or you might track down a speaking opportunity that makes sense for your strategic plan.

There is always a viable Plan B.  If you find that you’re tied to a single approach, pull out a piece of paper and brainstorm alternatives, giving yourself permission to list even the silliest ideas in service of finding the right idea.

Whether you adjust your plans to move around an obstacle or a roadblock, you must keep moving.  Don’t allow an obstacle to prevent you from launching or continuing your business development plan.  There’s always more than one route to a goal.  Choosing to wait until you can execute your original plan (or even what feels like the best plan) is analogous to delaying the start of an exercise program because you plan to ride your bike but can’t because it’s monsoon season.

In summary:  make your plans, but be ready to adjust them in response to obstacles and roadblocks.  Plans are important, but when it comes to business development (and just about everything else, too), nothing happens without activity.