Many lawyers don’t have a productivity problem, they have a discipline problem. Here’s how to overcome it.
Ancient Greek philosophers focussed on understanding how the mind and body works developed special words to describe unique human states. For example, the word “Akrasia” refers to the state of knowingly acting against one’s best interests. It’s that TV show your teenager watches instead of studying for a test. It’s the donut you eat when you’re on a diet. It’s sleeping in on a work-out morning. It’s finding any excuse not to do marketing. Akrasia is letting go of your self-control and doing actions in the moment that work against your best interests in the long run.
Why are we so comfortable practising Akrasia? Because it is very human to value immediate rewards more than future rewards. There very actions we most avoid tend to be those required for the purpose of achieving something in the longer-term. The distance between action and achievement causes us to give that action less weight than the immediate gratification of – for example – checking our email right now. Some of us then promise ourselves that we’ll make it up at a later date. I’ll start my diet tomorrow. I’ll work on the weekend. I’ll call that referral source next week. And perhaps two out of ten times we follow through, which allows us to fool ourselves into the bargain 100% of the time.
If you’re still reading, this must sound familiar to you. So how does one overcome Akrasia?
Do Better Planning: Ensure that the end goal you select for yourself is something you really want. Then tie back all actions required to that goal. Make the lines direct and clear – no fuzziness allowed. “If I want to make Partner within a certain time period, I have to accomplish these things in the following time frame. If I stray from this schedule or list of action items, or do some action items half-heartedly, it will affect my ability to become Partner in this time period”. Remove any ambiguities. Ensure the actions you select directly related to your goal – that you will not question those actions or their time lines. Own the goal, and the actions to get there.
Keep to the Schedule: Do not allow yourself to deviate from your plan. When I’m coaching, my clients spend a long time carefully selecting action items that will lead to the accomplishment of their goal. At that point in time they are absolutely committed to their plan and see the direct connections between action items and their goal. But as time goes by, that clearness of sight can wane. It’s critical that they trust their original work by delivering on the plan as developed by their earlier self. To help with this there are some tricks you can engage as follows:
- Renew that commitment monthly: Every month, I ask my clients to re-read their entire plan to remind them of their commitment, and the connection between each action item and the intended results. This ensures they keep the big picture in mind so that when more difficult action items come up, they remember why they had to do those actions.
- Create a commitment device: This is a strategy to keep you on-target by creating obstacles to bad behaviour, or minimizing the challenge to demonstrating good behaviour. Give the TV remote to a neighbour for the weekend or have someone change your internet password if you want to ensure you won’t get distracted. Force savings by creating automatic monthly transfers from your checking account to a savings account or RRSP. Find ways to force yourself to do the right thing.
- Make it easier to start an action: I’ve seen many intelligent, capable people paralyzed from not knowing how to begin a project. When you feel that way, change your focus.
- Try breaking down a larger project into logical, clear steps. Then focus on just doing one step at a time. That way it isn’t overwhelming…it’s just one action at a time.
- Alternatively, stop fussing and just start doing. Sit down and start drafting, then worry about editing and clean-up afterwards. Most people find that when they actually start a task, their brains will warm to the project and start providing instructions. “Ah, we’re going to run. OK, start breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Last time you went three miles: this time let’s aim for four. Knees up on the hill coming up.” Like Nike says, just do it! Your mind and body will catch up and get on-board.
- Consider using implementation suggestions. These are declared promises to yourself. In their plans, my clients identify specific actions and due dates to ensure they clearly know when they have met or failed on these items. Why? Because countless research has proven that when we are specific with an action item and due date, we are far more likely to follow through.
Recognize Success and Reward Good Behaviours: The fuel for our future accomplishments is recognition of our past ones. When completion of a plan results in accomplishment of a goal that is more public in nature, the recognition occurs naturally. You made Partner – here’s a party, new business cards and a new office to celebrate! But when working on a personal plan, there isn’t always that extrinsic recognition for your efforts, so it’s important to take the time to recognize yourself for your achievements.
I encourage my clients to reward themselves in two ways. First, we take time in each meeting to recognize their accomplishments since the last meeting. I encourage them to pat themselves on the back whenever it’s due. Next. I may encourage my clients to give themselves a further reward when their plan is fully implemented. Often, achievement of their goal is its own reward. The client may be far more productive at work, in a happier relationship, have lost an amount of weight, have switched to a much better job, have developed a large portion of new business, etc. Still, I will sometimes encourage clients to treat themselves to an additional reward – a spa weekend, a golf trip with friends, whatever works. I do this for myself as well: at the end of each successful year of my consulting practice, I buy myself a ring. My first year was sapphire; my second was ruby; my third ring choice is still under debate : )
Ultimately, we are our own worst enemy, and our own saving grace. Most of my coaching is about helping people to overcome self-sabotage. Great accomplishments are usually the result of self-discipline and determination. Akrasia is our mind’s way of testing our resolve. If we refuse to give in, we’ve earned the prize of our goal.