By Kate Ahern
BridgeTower Media Newswires
If you feel like there’s never enough time to keep up with everything, no matter how much you plan or power through, you’re reading the right column.
This year is the ideal time to trade daily overwhelm for daily focus on what’s most important to you, to feel confident about how you spend your time, and to have a sense of accomplishment every day.
I call this state “unfrazzled,” and it’s my mission to get you there. In this column, we’ll talk through turning the tough three-year period you just survived into a superpower in 2023 and beyond.
You may be struggling to be a lawyer without burning out, wondering whether your life and legal career can really coexist. Perhaps you’re even questioning if you still like being a lawyer.
Maybe you tried one thing after another to make it all fit but are feeling defeated. After working so hard to get an education and build an amazing life and career, it’s frustrating to feel like it’s costing you your life to keep up with it all.
Fortunately, 2023 is a perfect opportunity for lawyers to get unfrazzled — and for law firms to support their attorneys in doing so — for three reasons.
First, our profession is facing growing crises in time management, burnout, mental health, fulfillment in practice and attorney retention (particularly retention of women and other marginalized lawyers). These issues are strongly linked, and we need to make significant progress on them soon in order for our profession to thrive going forward.
Second, I’m here right now to offer a different approach — based on my combined big firm practice, attorney mentoring, and law professor experience — because our current efforts to solve these crises are insufficient and ineffective. In other words, we need a different way to tackle these crises in our industry, and we need to do it now.
Finally, unique pressures of the past three years drained us as professionals and as humans, giving us unique insight into the “frazzle factors” that keep us overwhelmed, burning out and out of alignment with the life we want. People report feeling exhaustion on a new level, empty, blank, numb, fed up, burned out, destroyed, “tired in my bones” and “beyond done.”
Before 2020, we were already overwhelmed by our industry increasingly demanding constant connection and perfection while leaving very little room for the rest of our lives, our needs, what makes us happy, what’s important to us personally and where we want to intentionally direct our career and life. In other words, there was already not much room for our own priorities.
Pre-pandemic, we were used to putting our own priorities on the back burner, leaving them there until we started to forget about them. The past three years then turned up the dial on that existing pressure, suddenly threatening what’s important to us until it was impossible to ignore those unmet needs.
The overwhelm and burnout we acclimated to grew so strong it pushed our priorities aside even more than before causing a rebound effect, like holding a ball under water until it shifts and buoyantly rockets back into the air. Many suddenly reached a breaking point or had an “enough is enough” reaction.
Giving time, attention and intention to our priorities is key to our happiness as humans and fulfillment as professionals, which means identifying our priorities is a crucial first step to living an unfrazzled life.
The problem is, after ignoring our priorities for so long, it can feel difficult to even identify them. You may feel unclear on what you want, what makes you happy and how to get started in identifying your priorities.
Instead, you may just feel the pull of untapped potential, unmet needs, a haunting feeling you’re capable of more, a desperate need to free up more time or a drive to live differently.
At the same time, you feel the conflicting pressure of what’s “normal” in our profession and the perceived security of practicing law in a certain way. Unless you start with clarity on your priorities, it’s impossible to see how they can align with life as a lawyer.
Let’s take advantage of this moment by pausing to pay attention to the forgotten priorities. Start by capturing observations about priorities from the past three years, before the memory fades.
Take a few minutes to ask yourself these questions, and be sure to write down your answers:
What changed about how you worked/lived over the past few years? What do you like/dislike about each change?
What felt hard as things went back to “normal,” or what do you worry about as things head back to “normal”?
What did you like/dislike about working remotely and why? What did you have more time or flexibility for while working remotely? What did you like about the things you had more room for?
What did you run out of time for, let go of or push aside over the past few years? What effect did that have?
What felt harder than usual and why?
Did anything feel easier than usual and why?
Over the past few years, what did you daydream about doing, not doing, or changing?
For now, just start a note or file, write down anything that comes to mind, and keep adding to it as more observations arise. What you notice now will give you powerful insight going forward. Each month, pull out your notes so that you can keep building on what you learn throughout the year.
Kate Ahern 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. Ahern is a law professor, former AmLaw200 attorney and transactional lawyer. She can be contacted at [email protected].