What To Do When You're So Busy You Can't Breathe
A few weeks ago, I had one of those spiral moments. You know, when you start thinking about everything you have to do and after a while, you start feeling like you literally can’t breathe. On this particular day, my swirling thoughts about various meetings, unread emails, and looming deadlines snowballed and culminated in a slightly hysterical phone call to my husband about needing to cancel all our weekend plans because, well, my hair was on fire.
Unfortunately, it’s the honest-to-goodness-truth that sometimes, we walk through seasons where BUSY is just unavoidable. And as lawyers, we tend to have more of those seasons than other professionals. Our jobs are uniquely demanding and we face constant pressure from clients, colleagues, and frankly, ourselves. Sometimes, slowing down and seeking “margin” in our days just isn’t possible - at least not when we’re in the thick of a two-week trial or trying to close a critical deal for a client.
Nonetheless, there are ways to manage these seasons, even if we can’t stave them off altogether. Maybe you wont have heaps of extra time to pour a glass of wine and watch Netflix, but you can talk yourself off a ledge if you are feeling so overwhelmed you can’t breathe.
Here is a simple exercise I used as a practicing lawyer, and now as a small business owner, to manage these hair-on-fire seasons, to calm down, and to methodically and intentionally work through my task-list while maintaining my sanity.
1. Sit down and make a list of everything that is currently on your plate. Think broadly about these things as “categories.” For instance, your categories might include work, a second job or pro bono project, and family obligations. Don’t forget to include essential self-care practices like exercising.
2. Take out a fresh piece of paper and draw a large circle. Inside of it, draw a small, concentric circle.
3. Take a look at the list you just made, and in the small circle, write down the items that you deem essential - that is, those you 1) refuse to give up, or 2) simply cannot give up. Some of these things might be necessary, like your job. But some might be merely life giving, like spending time with your family, exercising, or working on a pro bono project with your local bar association.
4. In the outer circle, write down everything else on your list. These are the “fringe” items - the unimportant, nonessential ones.
5. Review the items in the outer circle. Should you ever become totally overwhelmed, which items could you !) defer, 2) delegate, or 3) omit?
6. Highlight your “inner circle” items, then post your completed paper in a prominent place in your office. When additional obligations or opportunities cross your desk, look up at your inner circle and remind yourself of what matters most to you. Is the new opportunity inner circle-worthy? Or is it fringe material? Is it necessary and/or life-giving, or is it excess?
Please note that by no means am I saying you should shut down every new opportunity or stonewall family or friends who need help. Rather, I am encouraging you to avoid doing what I, and so many others, have done: over-committing and having to start hitting the brakes. Don’t commit to something if you are concerned you may not have the capacity to handle it. Instead, reserve your energy for what matters most in your practice and in your personal life.
What is in your “inner circle?” What fringe activities are you going to shave off in favor of those that mean more to you? How are you planning to navigate your busy season? Share with us in the comments!