Overcoming Stress By Gaining Control

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High blood pressure is called a "silent killer," and one of its major causes is stress. Many lawyers tell me about the stress under which they labor. What I try to do as a coach is advise on improving the lawyer's operations, which often helps reduce stress levels.

Changes that address revenue and efficiency can reduce stress in both the professional and personal life of an attorney. Stress can come from having not enough work or too much — either way, better management and planning can bring holistic solutions.

But is stress always bad? A recent Los Angeles Times article featured an attorney who regularly works up to 80 hours a week as managing partner of her firm, a role that entails overseeing the other lawyers, ensuring all work product quality, vetting business operations and managing her own cases.

But she had a marvelous and somewhat unusual perspective on her workload.

"There is an excitement about what is around the corner," she said, calling her enthusiasm "a fire that fuels itself."

As the story emphasized, stress can hinge on attitudes about work. In other words, if you love what you're doing, it's not work. And if it's not work, you may be exhausted at the end of the day, but you won't be stressed out or feel no sense of control over your environment.

For the lawyer profiled, and others with that same perspective, the article used an unusual term: "engaged workaholic." Said differently, if you are engaged in what you are doing, the task is not a chore; it generates enthusiasm and passion.

What often stifles those positive emotions for lawyers is a sense that their practice seems to be spinning out of control. They can't decide which areas to focus on, how to focus on them, and whether the area they choose will provide enough income to support their family and practice.

Attorneys facing such an impasse should pause and take a deep breath. The mental equivalent is to take the time to think things through and restore perspective.

The solution does not have to involve huge steps or major changes. A good start is daily prioritizing. Break down your overall goal into smaller tasks that are performable and achievable within smaller timeframes.

Create a list of priorities for tomorrow. When you come in the next morning, address the number one thing for the day, then two, then three. At the end of the day, assess the priorities that were left undone and reprioritize them for tomorrow.

By doing that you are always at least accomplishing the first priority, moving the ball forward and creating a sense of achievement that can relieve the stress of uncertainty. Sometimes this process is described as seeking balance. But there really is no such thing as balance day to day; there is a series of tasks in which the lawyer engages.

The real issue is how much cumulative time you devote to each task, and what you value more. Get past the distractions and define what you want from your practice so you can enjoy it — not stress over it.

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