Are you out of control?

Lawyers can be control freaks.  I know – that’s a bit of a surprise, right?

What we have been taught, inadvertently, is that we can somehow control all the variables in our lives by working hard, reading lots, and being confident.  Anyone who has children (or watches the weather report) knows that this, alas, is untrue.

Unfortunately this over-developed belief of our abilities to control the world around us leads to a fairly significant amount of stress.  We stress about clients, judges, other lawyers, staff, public transport, families, and practically everything else in our lives.  This stress can be debilitating, and is fairly readily minimised through a bit more understanding of just what is going on.

In particular in our careers, however, a feeling that we are in control, of have some influence over our destinies, has been found to be critical to our overall performance and success in the workplace.

So what can we do?  Well, we need to regain a deliberate understanding of what we can and cannot control, and then focus our endeavours on the things that we have influence over.  That way, we will begin to tick off our achievements one by one, which in turn develop confidence and ability and knowledge that is required to expand our sphere of influence.

Today we’re going to look at:

  1. Understanding that you can’t control everything
  2. Rebuilding and improving your sense of what you can control.

You Can’t Control Everything

The importance of realising that life, the universe and everything are not under your direct influence is significant.  It is only from this point that we can sharpen and focus our efforts onto discernible, definite and achievable goals where we WILL be able to retain the feeling of control.

That is: you must first limit your efforts, see how those have the intended effect, and then gradually begin to expand your endeavours as your knowledge, skill and confidence increase.  Tackling everything at once is a recipe for failure, which in turn will decrease your confidence, minimise your feeling of control and ultimately impact negatively on your work.

From little things, Big things grow…

Let’s start with making a list.  Take a minute now to think about what causes you stress at work.  Then dissect from that list those things over which you have control, and those things about which you feel helpless.

Next, identify one small goal that you can achieve in short order (like after you finish this article, or today).  Not some mindblowing significant thing, but just something you can and need to get done.

Why are you doing this?  Because it is teaching you to focus on the controllable, achievable problem at hand.  You are focusing your efforts on the accomplishment of an individual task which you can excel at.  This way all of your efforts are put into the task, you will do it better, faster and with greater satisfaction.

Reaching for the stars is stupid

I’m all for setting grand goals.  But you need to plan the achievement of those goals into achievable chunks.  Rather than “I’m going to be the president of the USA” perhaps you will step out a series of accomplishments designed to get you there:  complete school, get to know 2 local politicians, become involved in a political party etc.  Sticking just with the “president” goal is a great way of ensuring that you never, ever, get there.

I have seen it put this way:  don’t write a book, write a page.

Incremental, controllable outcomes are what can lead to wide spread significant change.  It’s not that your goals are different – it’s that your strategy is.

Start to expand

So let’s take a common example:  overwhelming emails.  You’ve got 1200 unanswered emails and you are staggering from urgent to urgent.  You are overwhelmed.

Here is one strategy.  Start with a controllable outcome: answer all new emails, and ignore the old (for the moment).

Over the next few days and weeks, get in the habit of answering new emails.  As you do that, you’ll find that with focused effort on that task, without worrying about the old ones, you’ll regain that control you need.

Then, once you’ve done that, you might decide to deal with 5 additional old emails each day, from oldest to newest.  Again – you’ve got new emails under control, and you can now incorporate 5 more old ones into your routine.  Once you’ve done that, you might increase it to 10 and so on.

Lawyers are confronted frequently with complex tasks.  This system works there too – just break them down into achievable, incremental tasks.  The overall task may seem too much, but each step (research, articulate, outline, facts, law, application – whatever discrete, achievable things you need to get to X) is perfectly achievable and will allow you a little pat on the back as each one is ticked off the list.

There is no recipe – but there is a formula.  You need to be honest enough to identify what you can do, diligent enough to get in and do it, and then self-aware enough to know when you’ve got that nailed and can start expanding your list or move on to the next thing.

The trick is this:  you must be in control of your tasks, rather than them being on control of you.  Take on what you can do and focus on it.  Then as you do, you’ll find that you are more productive and generally more satisfied.  Over time you will increase your ability to control more, and more complex, tasks.

More Reading

If you want to read more (this is just a primer, really) about control then I recommend:

The above are affiliate links – I’ll get a small commission if you buy through them

What are you going to do?

For me, as someone with a lot of words to put on paper, I’m going to bring that under control.  I’m going to develop a strategy for producing these articles, writing guest articles for other blogs, working on my new book (one page at a time!), and producing podcasts (the next Tips for Lawyers addition – stay tuned!).  However I’m going to do so incrementally, having a system for each component rather than a random approach.  Obviously I have a job to do which I can’t neglect, but for me it is the added extras that sometimes spiral out of control.

So – what about you?  What things do you struggle with, and how are you going to get them under control?

Happy lawyering!