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5 roadblocks to getting clarity on your priorities

by Kate Ahern

BridgeTower Media Newswires

The Unfrazzled Lawyer is a monthly 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.

Welcome back! In last month’s column, we talked about why 2023 is the ideal time to banish burnout and become an unfrazzled lawyer, focus on what’s most important to you, and be confident about how you spend your time.

Getting clear on priorities is the first step to becoming unfrazzled and is key to our happiness as humans and fulfillment as professionals.

In other words, you need to identify what makes you happy, is most important to you, and makes you feel fulfilled, and decide where you want to intentionally direct your career and life. That way, you can align those priorities with your life as a lawyer.

Last month, I gave you a list of questions to ask yourself about the past three years, as a tool to start uncovering your priorities. If you started a note or file to write down your answers, now is the time to add to your note and keep building on what you learn as you read this column throughout the year. Your continuous observation and effort will fast-track your unfrazzled adventure.

Answering the questions we talked about in last month’s column gave you a head start in getting clear on your priorities. But uncovering your priorities can still be really tough, especially for lawyers. Today, we’ll discuss five big potential roadblocks, so you can identify and start addressing those most relevant to you.

  1. You’ve been ignoring your priorities for a long time.

Lawyers often do well in high school in order to get into college, in college to get into law school, in law school to get into practice — and then they start feeling stuck. As you progress in your legal career, it’s too easy to keep moving to the next level, never pausing to consider what is most important to you, or if you’re building a life and career that aligns with your priorities.

Making matters worse, legal practice can be very demanding, often leaving little space for your own needs or what makes you happy. Lawyers get used to putting their own priorities on the back burner for so long that they can easily lose touch with them.

This may be you if: Trying to figure out what is important to you feels strange, unfamiliar and difficult — or, you have a haunting feeling of unmet needs or untapped potential, you feel intense pressure to find more free time, or you daydream of living life differently.

Try: Build on last month’s questions by continuing to observe what’s important to you, what makes you happy, what doesn’t feel like a good fit, etc.

  1. Everything feels like a priority.

If you’re not clear on your priorities internally, then without realizing it, you’ll look to the outside world to tell you what you should find important. As a result, everything will seem important. Even worse, as a lawyer, you’re likely really good at justifying everything as a priority.

This may be you if: It just doesn’t feel like there’s anything you can put down or leave undone, even if you want to or feel like you should.

Try: Start with what matters to you, not what your environment and the industry tells you is important.

  1. External pressures and biases get in the way of your priorities.

Pressures arising from bias, societal expectations, childhood experiences, and many other sources are often at odds with your priorities.

This may be you if: You feel guilty about how you spend your time, feel exhausted trying to please others, lose time to perfectionism, struggle to say “no” to asks and tasks, put your own needs last, or feel constantly pressured to accomplish “enough” to prove yourself.

Try: After getting clarity on your priorities, examine what factors are most likely to be in conflict with those priorities.

  1. You set goals instead of identifying priorities.

Priorities come first. Goals are a second step, a way to take action that aligns your time and your life with those priorities.

This may be you if: You’re accomplishing goals but don’t feel very fulfilled — or, you don’t feel motivated to move forward on your goals.

Try: Get clear on your priorities first, then make sure your goals are connected to those priorities.

  1. Your priorities are too broad.

Priorities are not things you can check off as accomplished like goals, but they still must be clear and specific. Identifying only broad priorities will make it difficult to use your priorities to guide the way you spend your time, make decisions, and design your life.  For example, defining your entire job as a lawyer as a priority is a recipe for quickly burning out, while defining your priorities in a more tailored, clear way leads to balance and fulfillment.

This may be you if: You identify your priorities in broad or traditional ways and categories like “work,” “career” or “family.”

Try: Identify your priorities in a clear, concrete and specific way so they can serve as a filter for the way you spend your time.

Knowing the challenges you may encounter, as well as pitfalls to avoid, you can now build on your work last month by starting to identify your own priorities. (And, of course, keep track in your ongoing Unfrazzled Lawyer note/file!) Be sure to identify which of the above challenges resonate with you and then try the suggested action step to tackle the challenge as you set your priorities.

Once you’re able to clearly identify your priorities, you can use them as a filter for how you spend your time, make decisions, move your career forward, and build your life.  Clarity around your priorities is a superpower and crucial to becoming an unfrazzled lawyer.

Next time in the Unfrazzled Lawyer column: Now that you have a better sense of how to identify your priorities and the importance of doing so, we’ll look at three other key ingredients to becoming an unfrazzled lawyer.

In the meantime, if you’d like to work with me one-on-one to tackle the above challenges, identify and define your priorities, align your time with your priorities, or manage your time (or if you’d like to provide support in doing so to the lawyers in your firm), you can connect with me at [email protected] to learn more.

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]


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