So here is the typical routine: clients that demand not overnight but one-hour turnaround, associates that don’t hand in assignments on time, working into the night to deliver a reasonable product (see the first two), phone conferences scheduled for 6 am, which turn out to be at 3 am in California, where you are that week, except that the number you have is wrong so you are still late to the call after getting up at 2 am, the managing partner on your case repeatedly for missing committee meetings or failing to finish firm administration projects, a significant other who complains about the unfair burden he/she has to carry while you sit in meetings at wee hours, kids or other family members who chide, ok snarl, about how infrequently you make it to family events, no consistent exercise since last year in spite of your second new year’s resolution, drinking a little too much on the late side and getting up a little too early (or too late) on the early side, all of which can coalesce into an angry showdown with any one or more of these players–unless you succeed in your attempts to avoid them all.
Does that sound like your life or someone else’s you know?
The first step in taking control of your life is being able to actually see how your life is currently organized. Can you accurately say when you arrive for work and leave most days and how much time you spend evenings on work? And how much you spend on personal and/or family time? Do you shave off a little time when you tell the family what time to expect you or when you estimate time charges for the client? Are you plagued by back-to-back meetings, half of which seem unnecessary? Do you admit to friends and family what your workweek really looks like or do you downplay the time demands and the stress?
Pretend you are talking about someone else and write down your real schedule for all aspects of your life, your actual conflicts and stresses and, while you’re at it, your free time (short list). Would your colleagues and significant other/s agree?
Once you can honestly see your life, the second step is coming to understand whether your life is the way it is on purpose. Or because you are unconscious of your choices. Do you honestly know which parts of your workday are enjoyable and which are not? Are you always apologizing to others for those early phone calls, swearing under your breath at how exhausting they are? Or is it possible that you actually like how they get you up and off to a good start on a busy day? Make you feel important that others need your input before they can proceed?
So next to your typical day’s activities, write down whether they are enjoyable (possibly another short list) or not, and to what degree for each–neutral, somewhat, very.
Now comes the time to figure out how you can reduce the amount of time spent on the most unpleasant parts of your schedule, and increase the amounts of time spent on the most pleasant ones.
Which is not to say that your choice can be to bypass all the hard personal stuff, lob off on your associates the difficult client stuff or be excused from getting enmeshed in the partnership stuff. But you can make your preferences known as a first step to finding a balance between what we have to do and what we want to do.
You would think that lawyers with their reputations for combativeness would be the first to say what they want and how they want it. But the reality is quite different. Most lawyers loath confrontation, particularly in what they consider to be non-critical areas like scheduling, and thereby deprive the players in their lives of important feedback on what would make their lives better, and therefore their work better. Or, they take it for so long, victims of incompetence that they are, and then lash out in an angry fit.
You don’t have to be the 300 pound gorilla to start putting some order into your life. You simply have to think about possible alternatives, articulate those to the people involved and then take steps to move towards those alternatives that seem workable.
Of course it’s helpful to know the other players’ proclivities–another exercise in awareness. Does your secretary sometimes switch numbers in a date or phone number? Does your associate take long lunches and work later at night? Do your clients prefer face-to-face instead of telephone/email advice? Is the managing partner fond of early morning pow-wows?
Once you have others’ proclivities clear, start informing everyone of your preferences. Have you given your assistant clear guidelines on when you want phone calls, who is to be included, who should proofread the meeting invites, and when to give reminders? Have you explained to your associates that due dates are sacrosanct and while everything can be discussed, something responsive has to be on your desk at a certain time of the day in any event? Do you explore with clients several possible times and dates for meetings or conference calls or do you feel you have to jump on the first suggestion? Have you told the committee chair or managing partner the best dates and times for you to meet? Here’s one: have you worked out with your significant other if there is a day during the week that s/he would prefer that you make it home earlier than midnight?
Then you have to abide by the guidelines and boundaries you yourself have asked for–no approving a late meeting after a day of meetings, no excusing a 3 am phone call, no extension for the associate’s due date, even if you may have to replace him/her. And you can’t hit the reschedule button less than 24 hours before that special home date you’ve set up for the week.
If you don’t affirmatively provide guidelines and boundaries to the players in your life, your staff, colleagues, clients and family will push and push until they meet resistance. It’s like ballroom dancing–a good partner gives some resistance to the other person to lean against–and to know how far to go. If you don’t provide any resistance, you could and probably should get mowed down.
The first part of this endeavor is all in the mind–building an accurate awareness. The second part is in the muscle–keeping promises to yourself and others. While communicating your way through it all.
The key here is to be living on purpose and not by default. Yes, everyone has to make compromises and your life will not suddenly be a bed of roses, but any small improvements in how you feel your life is lived will make you more empowered and productive and the people you deal with more supportive and engaged.