At the same time the winter holidays come into full swing, many law firms and legal departments are rushing to wrap up matters and finalize projects before the new year dawns. The resulting intensity and the added pressure of tighter deadlines can cause stress levels to increase as well.
With so much to do and time running short, it’s easy to fall behind. This in turn compounds anxiety and can lead to decreased efficiency and more errors and oversights. Fortunately, it’s possible to turn such a situation around. Instead of being a drag on productivity, stress can have positive effect – if you know how to channel and direct the adrenalin rush it generates. To survive the hectic year-end period, try these stress-management tips.
Stop and assess. When there’s a lot to do, our solution is often to simply work harder. We tend to slip into a reactive mode and feel like we don’t dare stop. But this is counterproductive, because in reactive mode, we lose the ability to anticipate and plan ahead. We become less effective at managing our schedule.
Rather than racing at breakneck speed from one assignment to the next, pause for ten or fifteen minutes and assess your to-do list. What were you working on before this break? Were you doing a particular task because you had deliberately chosen to, or were you just handling things as they came at you? Looking beyond the current moment, what do you hope to accomplish by day’s end? Are you on track to achieve that goal, or is there likely to be some carry-over to tomorrow?
These questions are important because they will enable you to refocus on what is most essential and important. You may find that you’ve been diverted onto a sidetrack or that you’ve spent the past hour on a relatively low-priority item to “get it out of the way.” By stopping completely and re-evaluating, you can regain control of your time and decide how to best handle the responsibilities of the day or week ahead.
Know your triggers. Maybe you’re the type of person who does fine with a heavy workload as long as you can concentrate without interruptions. For you, unscheduled phone calls, emails or visitors may be enough to trigger a fresh wave of stress and anxiety. If that’s the case, you need to set clear limits about when you can and cannot be interrupted.
Perhaps your stress trigger is not a time-related issue, but one of clashing work styles. For example, you may have a client who waits until the last minute to pull together information you’ve requested. Such situations are challenging because you can’t change or influence another person’s work habits – and you certainly can’t tell a paying client to hurry it up. Your best strategy in such a case is to build extra time into the schedule to accommodate such delays. Another option is to request material well before you’ll actually need it.
Get some support. Are you spending too much time on necessary but less important tasks, such as reviewing or drafting routine contracts, at the expense of more pressing work? If so, take advantage of all available resources and delegate whenever possible and appropriate. If you don’t have someone to delegate to, speak to your supervising attorney or manager. They will appreciate the fact that you’re raising a red flag now, rather than waiting until you’re overwhelmed and impossibly behind schedule.
On the flip side, if you supervise or manage a team of legal professionals, make it a point to check in regularly with them about whether their workloads are still manageable. If there are problems, you might decide to reallocate duties or bring in project legal professionals on an interim basis to relieve some of the pressure on staff.
Seek balance. When you’re unusually busy, it’s tempting to forego “extras” like exercise, regular meals and rest. This is a serious mistake. No one is effective when they’re running on empty. No matter how busy it gets at the office, strive to find time for activities that relax and refresh you. Working non-stop usually leads to diminishing returns. Breaks are essential for relieving tension and renewing your energy reserves.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.