Top 10 Tips to Overcome Overwhelm

Overwhelm can tank a day faster than just about anything else.  When you have more email than you can handle, an out-of-control task list, and phone calls that just won’t stop, it’s almost impossible to operate effectively.  Even if you manage to limp along, you may find that you’re distracted and that things are falling through the cracks.  Over the years, I’ve honed 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 paralysis, and the fastest fix is a quick burst of 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 brings a heavy energy.  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 of two perks me up almost instantly.
  3. Focus intently for a short time.  After my computer a telephone, my most-used piece of office equipment is a digital timer.  When I feel stuck, I’ll set the timer for 45 minutes and power through that time, knowing that I can take a break as soon as the timer beeps.  I also compete against myself using the timer to see how quickly I can sort through papers or complete other dreaded tasks.  The timer gets me going, and I usually keep going (thanks to momentum) after it sounds.  Here’s the one I use.
  4. Clean it up.  Clutter reduces productivity and creates overwhelm.  If your desk is messy, 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?  Help is coming soon.)
  5. Call in the reinforcements.  Find the right help for the source of your overwhelm.  Perhaps your assistant can help your clear your desk, or a colleague may be able to give you feedback to help cut through 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 away from productive activity to simple memory maintenance.  Do a brain dump and get the tasks on paper and 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 trial.  Art allows him to pull back from the logical, analytical side of his brain and bring forward the emotional and creative parts.  What can you do to bring balance?
  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.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed in your practice and uncertain about how to turn things around, perhaps we should talk.  Whether you’re trapped in the day-to-day minutiae of a subprime practice management approach or looking to improve your practice as a whole, click here to arrange your complimentary 30-minute consultation.

Is It Too Late?

I gave a 1-hour presentation about rainmaking in the Chicago office of a large law firm, and following the presentation, a lawyer approached with a question: Is it ever too late to rebuild professional relationships that have languished?

The short answer is that it depends on the relationship.  The deeper the relationship, the more likely it can be resurrected.  If, however, you meet once and fail to follow up, or if you follow up only once or twice, the relationship will lack the firm footing necessary to allow it to flourish following a period of silence.  That said, it never hurts to try to rebuild a relationship, particularly if your sole reason for reconnecting is to re-establish communication and not to seek a favor.

So, what can you do to rebuild a connection that has faded?  The simplest, and often the most effective, approach is to do precisely what you would do with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time: pick up the phone and say, “I realized it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and you’ve been on my mind.  Is this a good time to talk for a few minutes? How are things with you?  What’s new?”  If several months have passed since you were in touch with this contact, you may even begin the conversation by re-introducing yourself.  (This is where my recommendation to maintain a database of contacts proves especially helpful: you don’t have to try to remember when and where you met.)  You may experience a few awkward moments as your contact gets back into the connection, but most people will pick up relatively quickly.

If, like many lawyers, you’d rather do nine hours of painstaking document review without a coffee break than pick up with phone, you do have other options.  For example, you might consider the following:

  • Send an email to reconnect.  You might suggest talking by telephone and either arrange a time or let your contact know you’ll be calling.  While you’ll still have to pick up the phone, you’ve created an expectation that you will call, and chances are good that you’ll avoid an awkward beginning.  If you suggest that you’ll call, though, you absolutely must do so – or run the risk of looking like a flake.
  • Send an article or other resource that will interest your contact.  The resource may address a legal or non-legal issue, but it must be tied in some way to a conversation you’ve had with the contact.  Attach a note that says, “I remember talking with you about [topic of resource] at [wherever you had the conversation] and thought of you when I saw this [resource].  Hope it’s useful!”  By doing so, you not only reconnect by offering assistance, but you do so in a way that will bring your conversation back to your contact’s mind and refresh the relationship.
  • Issue an invitation.  You might invite your contact to an open house or to attend a CLE or other seminar of interest with you.  Be sure to attach a note, if you deliver an invitation by mail or email, saying that you look forward to reconnecting; this personal touch will indicate to your contact that your interest is genuine.
  • Seek out news about your contact.  This may be a more challenging approach if you’re seeking to reconnect than to maintain a relationship, but it’s worth a quick search to see whether your contact has been in the news recently.  You may find news of a professional event (an honor awarded, a trial won, a leadership position attained) or a personal event (a new marriage, a new baby, a recreational or community activity).  Such news offers an ideal reason to get in touch again.

Take a few minutes this week to review your list of contacts.  With whom should you reconnect?  Choose three to five people and reach out to them.  Building and maintaining your network is always a valuable activity, and keeping relationships alive will often pay off (often in unexpected ways) over time.

Profitable Networking

Having a robust and well-tended network of contacts is a professional necessity. Whether you’re looking to grow your practice, to find a new position, to join a club (literally, or a “club” of highly-regarded writers, speakers, etc.), or just about anything else, you may find that your success depends on knowing people who can facilitate the process of helping you get what you want.
 
Having a strong network requires, of course, the act of networking. But networking is somewhat unappealing to many peoplenot least because if not done well, it’s nothing but a massive waste of time.
What’s a would-be networker to do?

Start by reading this Q&A recently published in the Washington Post. Although it’s directed to an established attorney who’s fielding networking requests from people who seem to want something, it by implication carries good points for the person making contact with someone he or she would like to get to know.

Need more pointers? The Reluctant Rainmaker includes a chapter on networking, you can find more suggestions on the Fleming Strategic blog, or if you’d like to design a strategic networking plan and hone your skill, schedule a complimentary consultation with me here.

Beyond Strengths and Weaknesses

Last week I spoke with a client who was struggling with his business development activity.  Nate (as usual, the name and identifying details have been changed to protect his privacy) had experienced great success in converting acquaintances who heard him talk about the kind of matters he handles into clients, and he decided that if speaking casually to small groups works well, speaking formally to large groups would deliver even better results.

As it turns out, though Nate is a spellbinding speaker in small, informal groups, something happens when he steps onto a stage.  Nate transforms from an assured, confident, knowledgeable lawyer who can chat at length about his clients’ legal issues and possible solutions into a stiff academician who says “therefore” and “whereof” entirely too much.  He becomes (I hate to say it, but I’ve seen it firsthand) dull.  When he speaks to large groups, nothing good comes of it.  The audience gets restless, and no one calls Nate for help afterward.

This isn’t news to Nate.  I gently broached the subject after I saw him speak, and before I got very far, he beat me to the punch – sort of: “I know, I know, I was a terrible speaker last time.  But I’ve figured it out, and the crowd next week is a new group of people, and this time, I’m going to impress them!”  Nate recognizes that speaking to large groups is not his strength, and yet he continues to use that approach, thinking each time that he’ll finally nail the presentation.

The problem is that we tend to talk about strengths and weaknesses as if a weakness is just an undeveloped strength.  Not so.  Sometimes, a weakness is an inability, pure and simple, that can be corrected only by bringing in assistance from another resource.  Here’s what I explained to Nate (with thanks to Don Blohowiak, a coaching colleague who shared this useful framework):

Potential refers to your native capabilities than can be (but have not yet been) developed.

Strengths refer to the capabilities that you execute competently to masterfully.

Limitations refer to the capabilities that you have in short supply.  Some limitations can be developed, and others will require replacement from another source.

Absences refer to the capabilities that you simply don’t have.  There is no shame in lacking capabilities.  No one has all of the capabilities possible.  Instead, the task is to find someone whose capabilities are complementary to your absences.  (If, for instance, you are leading a client service team and complex accounting is an important part of the matter, if you lack masterful accounting skills, you must find someone who can bring that competency to the team.)

Weaknesses refer to the capabilities that you pretend to have but cannot actually execute.

Using this model, Nate’s speaking to a large audience is a weakness (as he recognized) but because he pretended that he could correct it, the weakness could not be eliminated.  Nate was failing at business development because he was leading from a weakness and pretending it was a strength.

Review your business development plan, your professional development plan, your career strategy plan – any plan at all that reflects your goals – and ask these questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How are my strengths reflected in my plan?
  • How can I develop my potential so I can deploy those capabilities in my plan?
  • What weaknesses am I denying?
  • Do my priorities coincide with my strengths?

If, like Nate, you lead from weakness, you will produce only frustration.  Spend some time in honest self-reflection and look for opportunities to shift what you’re doing based on your natural and developed capabilities.  And, if (like Nate) you find that you’ve been pretending that you are developing your weaknesses, stop pretending.  Shift your approach.