This pandemic has highlighted what many of us already suspected: that we aren’t very good at fully utilizing the down-times at work. While we can’t make work fall out of thin air, we can certainly make this time more productive…perhaps even leading to more work in future. Here’s how…
No career will be going 110 mph at all times. There will always be times when we’re at more of an idle than a rev. That’s when some of the worst personal management styles emerge. See if you recognize any of these:
- The engager: When faced with inactive time, some individuals will keep busy by engaging heavily with those around them. This could be work-related (finally getting to something they hate doing, so they bring those around them to help so they aren’t the only ones in misery), or killing time by amusing themselves through others (comer here and see this on my computer, it’s hilarious!) The social butterfly-engagers look for any way to interact with others to avoid sitting at their desk with nothing to do. It could be by phone, in person, they might even walk around the office looking for opportunities to be social.
- The elongator: This individual takes whatever work they have and stretches it out to the nth degree. Need to do a report? Let’s spend six hours fussing with formatting or technical issues such as animation. Let’s spend an entire day looking at clip art, or testing out various fonts.
- The busy bee: The most important thing to this individual is that they appear to be busy, so they’ll fuss around, get up and down, walk around the office, get on and off the phone, look things up on the internet, just to give the appearance that they are much busier than they are.
- Eeyore: This individual hates not being busy, and wants everyone to know it. They drag their heels, repeatedly interrupt their assistant for updates they know aren’t there yet, complain to anyone who visits their office or calls, and generally acts like our favorite donkey from Winnie the Pooh.
Of course, all of these are simply sub-sets of the apex personality style in slow times: the avoider. This begs the question: what are we avoiding? More on that in a minute.
We’ve all probably been one or more of these characters from time to time, because most people who opt to work in law like to be busy. We tend to have strong work-ethics, we like to be of value, and we’re motivated by external recognition. Under normal circumstances, these tendencies serve us well. But when legal work gets thin, our attributes can work against us. The key to getting beyond these challenges we need to switch to internal motivation.
Set and Control the End-Game
The most effective way I’ve found for helping lawyers switch from an over-dependence on external motivators to more internal motivators is to create an external measure for those internal motivators: specifically, a plan. Think about success with a longer view: what would success look like one year from now? Make sure the answer is both positive and realistic. Now construct that image of success from backwards perspective. What did it take to get there? What are the steps that will lead up to that secondary achievement point? Keep working backwards until you’ve created a pathway to that success.
The very act of projecting into the future and developing an end game is a critical component in moving to internal motivation. By declaring a desire future outcome, and then creating a pathway to get there, you are truly understanding the degree to which you can potentially control your future.
Maintain Your Discipline
The next step is to implement on your plan, and hold yourself accountable for each and every action. This will require that you consistently and purposefully relate each action to the desired outcome. Doing so will make it much easier to maintain the discipline needed to do the task. For example, if you’ve recently been told by your doctor that you are at risk for a heart attack, your longer-term goal would obviously be to get and stay healthy to avoid a heart attack. The pathway might include better diet, more exercise, and more stress-reducing habits. Every day you exercise, remind yourself that your end-goal is to avoid a heart attack. Every time you pick up a cookie or a fatty snack, remind yourself that your end-goal is to avoid a heart attack.
When we create a meaningful goal and then use reminders of that goal to keep us disciplined in the implementation of our plan, we create a powerful internal or intrinsic motivation system. This is particularly important in a world where there are few or no extrinsic motivators…such as when there is a lull in work.
There are many things you could be doing that would likely benefit your practice as a whole and fit in with your plan. Here are just a few examples, by category:
- Strategizing: Creating your plan is a classic example of strategizing. You may also decide to create several options around how to achieve those goals. The act of creating these options is also strategizing. Yesterday, I heard a podcast with a University Dean who had 40 different optional opening scenarios for his University in the fall, depending on what happens with Covid. That’s a bit much for most legal careers but a few options dependent on different scenarios might be of value to your plan.
- Relationship building: this might be a good time to improve existing relationships or build your referral network by reaching out and connecting (by email, phone or video). I’m actually shocked at how little basic relationship building is going on right now. Call up your clients to simply check in, let them know you’re thinking of them and ready to help them in any way you can.
- Marketing: This isn’t the time to do heavy marketing, but you can certainly use this time to work on building your marketing tools. Improve your bio. Write a bunch of blog postings to be posted in the future. Write an article or two. Use this time to do those things you should always be doing, but often don’t have the time to do.
- Learning: Your plan should identify areas of growth you want to pursue. Much of this will have marketing implications but there may also be learning implications. You can read case law and legislation. You can speak with seasoned experts within your firm. You can read books, look at on-line resources, even take an on-line course. In reality, the vast majority of learning most lawyers do is not face to face with another human being, so inability to attend a lecture, conference or course is not a valid excuse for avoiding learning.
- Systems/Process Establishment: We all talk about the desire to be more efficient but we seldom do anything about it. I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted looking for documents before I created a more disciplined colour-coding filing approached. It changed my life, and not just because I could find everything immediately. I learned that improved efficiency results from action, not wish lists.
- Clean-Up: Related to the point above. I’ll admit I kept moving this item lower on the list but it’s still a valid activity, and can lead toward a desire to create more systems and processes which might make cleaning up less necessary in future…always a good thing.
Circling back to the question I posed earlier, what are avoiders trying to avoid? Usually, non-billable work. Notice I still used the term “work” in there, because the items above are legitimate, beneficial activities that play a role in your career. I get that they might not be your favorite part of the job, but they have value and this is the perfect time to get to many of them.
I can’t guarantee that spending your available time doing these things will immediately result in more legal work. But I promise you this: the energy produced from these activities – especially when you can draw a line between their accomplishment and your end-goals – will change your mindset about what is possible during this lull, and that may in-turn result in increased opportunities. I’ve seen this repeatedly with my coaching clients. I can’t explain it. I can only say that when we focus our energies into positive, purposeful action, the world around us tends to respond positively right back at us.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it…what do you have to lose?
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org