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5 Ways Women Attorneys Try to Reduce Stress…That Actually Increase Stress

As a professional coach to ambitious attorneys, I regularly meet with women lawyers who are beyond stressed out.  And it’s not like these women aren’t trying to dial down stress.  To the contrary, most of them seek me out as a last resort because, despite having applied all sorts of supposed “expert” advice to feel calm and in charge, they are evermore sinking under the weight of these issues:

  • Nearly impossible billable hours quotas
  • Difficult clients
  • Snowballing workload
  • Insufficient personal time
  • Elusive sense of satisfaction

The problem, I’ve come to realize, with successful attorneys who want to lighten their load but can’t seem to do it isn’t that they aren’t trying hard enough; after all, attorneys are pretty determined.   The real reason attorneys can’t get out from under the overwhelm is that they’re using faulty stress-reduction tactics – many of them offered up by media as stress-busting “secrets.”

Here are five common ways that well-intentioned attorneys attempt to reduce stress that actually increase it, and suggestions for strategies more likely to work:

Mistake # 1:  You attempt to manage stress.  There are two major drawbacks to this common method of stress reduction.  First, adding stress management as one more obligation on an already overflowing agenda of work and home responsibilities just exacerbates stress. 

Stress is everywhere in a nation that is moving at an increasingly pressured pace -- and there’s no way to control that. The only real way to minimize the impact of stress on you is to build your own resilience in the face of it.

Just like athletes do at the extraordinarily stressful Olympics, the idea is to put energy into performing well despite the stress.  For you, resilience means zeroing in on what you do best so you can give it your all, eating foods that build energy rather than drain it, and spending time with people who boost rather than deflate your spirits.

Mistake #2:  You attempt to achieve work/life balance.  In a world where technology allows us to be accessible around the clock from anywhere, work/life balance is an unattainable myth.

That once-indelible line between home and work is no longer there, and so trying to divide personal and professional into two distinct compartments is a futile endeavor that brings on anxiety and a sense of ineffectiveness.  

The better way to arrive at equilibrium is to view balance as an internal experience that you can promote by customizing your home and work environments to compose and center you.   This means clearing away desk clutter, for example, or painting your living room a color that soothes you. Inner balance also comes from overseeing technology, turning it on and off to serve you, so that you aren’t constantly pulled away from home or work or whatever setting you’re in by pings and beeps from someplace else.

Mistake #3:  You skimp on down time to catch up at the office.  We have this crazy notion in our production-obsessed country that if we keep banging away at work, without coming up for air, we will get more done, surpass everyone else, and feel more successful.  That approach makes about as much sense as doing the same concentrated, muscle-fatiguing workout seven days a week.  Because just as our muscles grow weaker and become susceptible to injury without recovery time, so does our energy level—and therefore our resilience. 

The truth is that regular breaks from work – throughout the workday, during evenings and weekends, on holidays and vacations – actually improve our productivity in the long-run.  People who sacrifice sleep end up being less attentive and effective, and studies show that professionals who don’t take vacations get sick more and promoted less.    Lesson learned:  if you really want to get ahead at the office, get the rest and relaxation you need to stay refreshed, competitive and sharp.

Mistake #4:  You try to burn through your “to do” list to bring relief.  There was once a time when the expectation that you could crush your entire “to do” list and feel satisfied at the end of a long work day was perfectly reasonable.    But that time is long gone and it’s not coming back.  With information spinning towards us non-stop from every direction, we are constantly thinking of new things we want to do, explore and have, and your “to do” list keeps growing.  

So rather than equate a productive day with checking off every item, try accepting this new normal:  every striving professional has a “to do” list that will never end.  If you practice prioritizing, learn how to finish your day with anything less than the vital few left undone, and let the rest go until tomorrow, you will find yourself feeling steadily more accomplished instead of falling behind.

Mistake #5:  You reward yourself in ways that aren’t really rewarding.  Our culture likes big splashes, and advertisers like big profits, so we’re conditioned to celebrate just as big when we work hard. The snag with this mentality is that we tend to deny ourselves for long stretches and then go all out when we accomplish a goal, which can lead to eating, drinking, or spending too much – all of which increases stress.   Reward binge-ing also runs contrary to the science of good habit formation, which shows that little rewards celebrating small wins are much more powerful reinforcers of positive habits and disciplined effort.

So give yourself smaller, more frequent, easy-to-implement incentives – a tasty healthful snack or a literal breath of fresh air in the middle of your workday,  maybe lunch at the end of the week with someone who really makes you laugh, or a day at the beach with your family on the weekend.  Choose rewards that you know will fuel your momentum, not deplete it, and you will be better prepared for whatever stressful circumstances lie ahead.

About the Blogger:

Psychologist Amy Wood, Psy.D. created Law and the Good Life, a researched-based attorney wellness coaching and training system designed to address the challenges of lawyering.  She is the author of Life Your Way: Refresh Your Approach to Success and Breathe Easier in a Fast-paced World and is often called on for her expert opinion by media ranging from local newspapers to Parade Magazine.  Dr. Wood will be facilitating a Ms. JD webinar, Set Your Mind to Success:  10 Ways of Thinking to Catapult Your Career (and Life), on Thursday, June 13th  at 2:00 pm.  To learn more , email her at amywood@amywoodpsyd.com.

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