You’re probably not surprised to hear that getting clear on your priorities is the first key to becoming an unfrazzled lawyer. “Priorities” mean your needs, your wants, what makes you happy and fulfilled, what’s important to you personally, and where you want to intentionally direct your career and life.
Even when you’re unclear on your priorities, you can still feel when you’re out of alignment with them, though the feeling may be vague and difficult to identify concretely. This may present as a nagging feeling of unmet needs, burnout, “overwhelm,” a haunting feeling of untapped potential, an unshakable feeling that you’re capable of more, a desperate need to free up more time, or a drive to live differently.
Many lawyers feel constantly busy with practice and life, yet unfulfilled and never able to get quite enough done. Getting clear on your priorities is the antidote. When you know your priorities, they serve as a filter for how you spend your time and where you put your attention. You’ll have a north star to guide your decisions, and the more you follow it, the happier you’ll be.
Consider: Do you feel clear on your priorities? Could you state concretely what your priorities are, or do you need to spend more time examining them?
Time management skills
Time management skills are essential for your well-being, because time management is the mechanism for living in line with your priorities.
Unfortunately, lawyers do not learn the foundational time management skills crucial to surviving in practice today, let alone to living a fulfilling life outside the law. As a result, we are facing a time management crisis in our profession, fueling staggering overwhelm and burnout.
Lawyers reaching out to me typically spend their days putting out fires and plowing through to-do lists (and your inbox, phone calls, sticky notes, pop-up reminders, text messages to yourself, emails marked unread, etc.). You power through, desperate to be more focused, efficient and productive, feeling convinced that mustering just a little more willpower or discipline will be the magic fix.
Perhaps you plan out everything you need to get done in a desperate attempt to feel in control but still find it impossible to keep up with the plans and lists filling your beautiful paper planner pages. None of this reflects an effective time management strategy, but some lawyers don’t know what to do instead.
To escape this situation, you need to learn effective time management skills that are a good fit for you and that connect your priorities to the way you spend your time each day. Without this connection to your priorities, any attempt at time management will only serve to burn you out faster and more efficiently.
For example, when I build time management skills trainings for law firms, I teach those skills in the context of their connection to priorities, because attendees will not be successful otherwise.
Consider: Do you have effective time management skills, or do you need a plan to learn those skills? Does your time management strategy support your priorities?
Protection from your frazzle factors
Even if you have reliable time management skills, you likely find your day still veers off course, and it feels tough to follow through on your own plan. Everyone has a collection of “frazzle factors.” These challenges prevent you from aligning your time with your priorities.
For some lawyers, procrastination or distraction are a constant issue. For others, perfectionism gets in the way, making everything take longer than planned. Women lawyers I work with regularly face gender-bias-fueled issues, like guilt about other things you “should” be doing. You may struggle to say “no,” feeling pressured to say “yes” to every ask and task like a reflex.
Imposter syndrome occupies a significant amount of time and energy as well. You may also struggle with the mental load of the constant, exhausting running commentary of things you need to get done (“I really need to get to that contract now … oh, wait, let me just book my doctor’s appointment first … OK, little bit of the contract done … wait, the email on the closing finally came in … back to the contract … oops, almost forgot, better set a reminder to pick up more bread on the way home ….”)
In the moment, you may not see these issues as the distracting frazzle factors they are, or they may seem compelling and controlling, pulling you away from your priorities. You may wonder why you didn’t get more important stuff done by the end of the day, where the time went, or why everything takes so long. As weeks and years go by, you may even feel haunted or defeated by all the things you still haven’t accomplished.
Consider: What are your frazzle factors? What strategy or tool will you use to interrupt them moment to moment during your day?
After you make progress on each of the above, you’ll need a reliable, easy method for regularly revisiting them. Living an unfrazzled life requires experimenting and evolving as you see what works for you, as well as adjusting as your life and career change.
Overwhelm, burnout and living out of alignment with your priorities is an ongoing problem, so we can’t expect to fix it in one go. When I build programs to support lawyers, for example, I include a concrete, guided method for regularly revisiting, because the keys above require consistent support and attention.
Consider: What is your plan for regularly revisiting your priorities, time management approach and frazzle factor strategy, so you can stay unfrazzled for life?
Kate Ahern of Unfrazzled, LLC guides lawyers on time management, priorities management, burnout and the related impact of gender bias and other external pressures. She also helps law firms support associate development and retention. Ahern is a law professor, former AmLaw200 attorney, and transactional lawyer. She can be contacted at [email protected].
The Unfrazzled Lawyer is a column aimed at helping attorneys take back control of their time and focus on what’s most important to them, so they can build the career and life they want, without guilt or burnout.