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A Case Study in Overload

Meet Joe, a sole practitioner

Recently I met with Joe. He’s a seasoned attorney who opened his own practice six months ago after many years in a larger practice.  He excels in legal analysis and loves to help his clients solve problems.

But the ins and outs of managing a new business are driving him crazy.  As he puts it, “I’m great at practicing law, but running a business is a total mystery to me.”

Joe’s typical frantic day starts when he arrives at the office around 9am. He starts work by checking his voice messages, email, and snail mail to determine what fires must be put out.

Joe has client appointments scheduled at various points throughout the day, determined largely by when the clients want to meet with him. So he checks email and makes calls in between appointments and court appearances.

Most days are much like that old arcade game “Whack-o-Mole” – with Joe and his part-time assistant scrambling from one fire to the next.

By late afternoon, the phone calls start to die down, and the office gets quieter. Joe can finally sit down to begin to plow through his backlog of research and writing.

His habit of arriving home at 9 pm (or later) after finally finishing for the day is driving his wife crazy, since he’s missing dinner and spending so little time with her.

The next day, he’s back on the hamster wheel all over again.

Needless to say, the frantic pace is taking its toll on Joe’s health and mental well-being.  Most of all, he is frustrated with his own performance.  He is doing what he needs to and getting things done on time, but he constantly feels frazzled and worried he might miss something. Instead, he wishes he could spend more time diving fully into legal analysis and case preparation like he used to – so that he could walk into court feeling really confident.

My observations and suggested solutions

I’m sure most professionals can relate to one or more aspects of Joe’s story.

It is common for knowledge workers to have a high degree of control over what tasks they choose to do and when. And it is typical for solo business owners to have a huge volume of varied types of tasks stacked up and waiting for their attention.  Trying to manage all of these things at once can easily lead to overwhelm.

There are four “red flag” aspects of Joe’s current work habits that merit attention. As a time management coach, I see variations on these themes all the time:

  1.  Joe is devoting little to no time to proactively planning his large volume of work in advance. This means his daily pattern is one of stress and firefighting.

Most people who are already feeling overwhelmed hate to stop and plan – they’d rather just dive in and attack.  This one may feel a little counter-intuitive to start, but I have seen it work as a soothing and reinvigorating balm on overwhelmed souls.

You must plan each work day, no matter what. I recommended to Joe that he spend at least an hour planning each day – ideally the night before.  In the beginning, when one is learning how to plan really well, it takes at least that long.  You must evaluate priorities and deadlines in your pile of work, decide what needs to be done and in what order, and set in motion a workable plan. It’s a leap of faith, but I assure you that hour will save you many, many hours in productivity and prevent heaps of stress, to boot.

2.   Joe’s habit of checking all of his messages before he begins his own work for the day is counterproductive.  It places him in a stance of being reactive instead of proactive – he has already let other people dictate his agenda for the day.

I think Joe’s habit is born out of fear that he might be missing critical information, missing out on new business, or risking disappointing someone.  But a well-formed plan for any work day should include specific times during each day for responding to messages. The truth is, most messages can wait an hour or two for a response.

3. Joe is saving the most complex, thought-intensive work he will do all day (research and drafting) for the late afternoon and evening – when he is already tired from the demands of the day.

This habit is directly related to the habit before – responding to messages from others before beginning one’s own high priority work.  Joe’s new approach now protects that first hour of the day. He uses it instead to further his own highest priorities, which is often the complex legal analysis and drafting.

4. Joe is burning the candle at both ends. He’s wearing himself out, without spending any time on self-care – and it’s clearly taking a toll on his marriage, as well.

I see some version of this with every single client. Knowledge work is tough, and even though we mostly sit in a chair to do it, it still wears us out. To really produce at a high level in the world of knowledge work, we must engage in excellent self-care.

When our minds and bodies are chronically stressed, it makes us less efficient overall. I know you don’t think you have time to exercise, eat well, or have leisurely dinners with your spouse. But you must make time for those activities in some form in order to stay in shape for work. Even small efforts in this area can have great returns.

To sum up

Joe now has a blueprint for his work day. And although each work situation is different, they are elements you can apply:

>Plan each work day, no matter what.

>Set aside specific times during each day for responding to messages.

>Protect that first hour of the day for high priority work.

>To produce at a high level in the world of knowledge work, engage in excellent self-care.

What did you think of Joe’s situation? Could you relate? What about the solutions? More case studies coming your way soon!