Top 10 Tips to Overcome Overwhelm

Overwhelm can tank a day faster than just about anything else.  When you have more email than you can handle, an out-of-control task list, and phone calls that just won’t stop, it’s almost impossible to operate effectively.  Even if you manage to limp along, you may find that you’re distracted and that things are falling through the cracks.  Over the years, I’ve honed in on a variety of methods to beat overwhelm, and these are the top 10, based on my own experience and client feedback:

  1. Move.  Overwhelm tends to cause paralysis, and the fastest fix is a quick burst of activity.  Walk around the block or your office floor, dance for 30 seconds (close the door!), or do 10 jumping jacks.  Get your blood pumping.
  2. Lift your mood.  Overwhelm brings a heavy energy.  Use music, fresh flowers, aromas, or whatever works for you to get a lift.  I keep a bottle of orange essential oil at my desk because I find that a drop of two perks me up almost instantly.
  3. Focus intently for a short time.  After my computer a telephone, my most-used piece of office equipment is a digital timer.  When I feel stuck, I’ll set the timer for 45 minutes and power through that time, knowing that I can take a break as soon as the timer beeps.  I also compete against myself using the timer to see how quickly I can sort through papers or complete other dreaded tasks.  The timer gets me going, and I usually keep going (thanks to momentum) after it sounds.  Here’s the one I use.
  4. Clean it up.  Clutter reduces productivity and creates overwhelm.  If your desk is messy, set aside 15 minutes to clear it off, even if that means stacking papers and moving them to the floor.  If your email in-box is so full that you feel anxious when you open it, set aside an hour to tame it.  (Don’t know how to accomplish that in an hour?  Help is coming soon.)
  5. Call in the reinforcements.  Find the right help for the source of your overwhelm.  Perhaps your assistant can help your clear your desk, or a colleague may be able to give you feedback to help cut through mental clutter.  When you feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to see outside the bubble of stress.  Get some help.
  6. Dump it.  One common source of overwhelm is the mental task list.  When you’re juggling “must do” items in your head, fighting to remember all of them, you’re pulling energy away from productive activity to simple memory maintenance.  Do a brain dump and get the tasks on paper and free up your mind for more useful work.
  7. Get out of the office and do something else.  Admittedly, you can’t always implement this tip, but it can be very effective.  Have you ever noticed how often brilliant ideas strike while you’re in the shower, running, walking the dog, or doing other activities unrelated to work?  When the body is working and the mind is free to wander, creativity flourishes.
  8. Access a different part of your brain.  One litigator I know uses art to focus himself before trial.  Art allows him to pull back from the logical, analytical side of his brain and bring forward the emotional and creative parts.  What can you do to bring balance?
  9. Mind map.  If you’re searching for an elusive link between facts or trying to form a creative argument, try using a mind map.  Get a clean piece of paper, draw a circle in the middle of the page and label it with the problem or circumstance you’re contemplating.  Think about related subjects, actions you could take, and people who might be helpful in addressing the issue, and draw lines and branches to represent the ideas that come up.  If you’re really stuck, you may find a mind map more useful than an ordinary list.  Click here for a video on this technique.
  10. If you’ve tried several of these approaches unsuccessfully, you may be exhausted.  Think of your energy as a pitcher of water.  If you pour and pour and pour without replenishment, the pitcher will empty and nothing you try (except adding more water) will allow it to pour more.  If a quick break or quick spurt of energy doesn’t refresh you, your pitcher may be dangerously close to empty.  Identifying that spot and taking action is a critical professional competency.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed in your practice and uncertain about how to turn things around, perhaps we should talk.  Whether you’re trapped in the day-to-day minutiae of a subprime practice management approach or looking to improve your practice as a whole, click here to arrange your complimentary 30-minute consultation.

Do you need a CRM?

Relationship development is a key part of any business development initiative. That’s why we put so much effort into meeting new people, getting to know them, and following up with them over time. But how do you gather and track the relevant must-know information about your contacts?

Enter the CRM: the Client (or Customer) Relationship Management system.

(One prefatory note for the rest of this conversation: if you’re working in a larger firm, you may have access to the firm’s CRM and consider that sufficient for your purposes. Before you reach that conclusion, find out how easily you will be able to extract your contacts’ information should you leave the firm. If it’s at all difficult, given the reality of today’s professional world, don’t rely exclusively on the firm’s system.)

A CRM is most often software (local or in the cloud) that organizes contacts and information about them, but it need not be highly technology-driven. Some people successfully use spreadsheets, Outlook, Evernote, or even a Word file. CRM software offers functional advantages.

Here’s a list of features and attributes your CRM system should include:

  • The system must be accessible from wherever you are.
  • The system must be secure.
  • The system must be a centralized and easy-to-update repository for contact data, including address, email, and telephone as well as business and personal interests.
  • The data within the system must be sortable (so you can identify people who are located in a city before you visit, for example).
  • The system should include a tickler function to prompt you to follow up with clients and contacts on the schedule you define.
  • The system should track your communications so you can see when you last spoke with a contact and what you discussed.
  • The system should allow for easy import and export of your data.
  • Optionally, the system may save a library of resources you can use for follow-up contacts.
  • Optionally, the system may include some automation to streamline your efforts.

Two of my favorite CRMs for small firms or for individual use are Contactually and Less Annoying CRM.

Why might you not want to use a CRM? If you won’t keep it updated, a CRM may do you more harm than good. Otherwise, a CRM is a good investment to facilitate building your network.

Why be LESS productive?

This weekend, I opened an email and read a list of 10 tested, proven ways to become less productive. Nobody wants to be less productive, but it just happens some days, right?

Problem is, as I read the list I realized that it’s like a checklist of problems that prevent lawyers from succeeding in business development—or really, anything else.  Nobody wants to fail (especially while working to succeed) but these ten behaviors will undermine productivity. Of these ten, the most common that I hear are:

  • Spend more time planning than doing: creating and honing a business development plan can be a great way to avoid ever taking action.
  • Pack your schedule: being busy is an alarmingly easy way to push business development tasks to the back burner.
  • Work on autopilot: reacting to demands rather than setting a plan and sticking to it absent an emergency is a great way to feel needed and productive, but you may be accomplishing the less important things while leaving your true priorities behind.

If you’re feeling less productive than you’d like when it comes to business development (or to any other priority in your life), check this list to identify the likely reasons… And then do the opposite.

Not the same year-end pablum again!

We’re at the tail-end of the year, a busy time whether you’re celebrating with family or pushing to meet a year-end matter deadline. At year’s end, the ‘net is awash in articles about evaluating last year and prepping for the new year that are just warmed over from previous years. Ugh! Who has time? But…

Here are two articles worth making time to read this week because they’ll challenge your way of thinking:

  • Paying the Smart Phone Tax by Seth Godin. I essentially run my business from a smart phone, and I rely on it for critical news about a terminally ill family member. When I saw the title of this post, I immediately worried about a financial tax on my phone, but the post itself points out a much more significant price to pay from overusing it.
  • The Four Hardest Questions to Answer at the End of the Year  by Michael Bungay Stanier. We all reflect on the closing year as a new one approaches, and our questions tend to scratch only the surface. As Stanier argues, asking only “what did you do” and “how did it go” allows you to avoid going deeper into what’s really going on. He recommends four alternate questions:
o    What do I need to kill off?

o    Where have I stayed stuck?

o    How did I let myself down?

o    Where are you really headed?

Read the article for further explanation of these questions, and then answer them honestly to gain deep insight leading into to purposeful action. I particularly like Stanier’s suggestion that you answer the questions out loud with a trusted friend or colleague.
These two articles got me thinking in a fresh and challenging direction. I’ll be working on Stanier’s four questions next week. Will you join me?

Productivity thrives in a clear mind

Have you ever had one of those nights, when you doze off only to be jolted awake with worry about something you need to do? Or caught yourself thinking “as soon as I get back to the office, I’ll send that email to the client,” only to realize hours later that you didn’t do it?

When you have a lot going on, things tend to get dropped or otherwise fouled up. Especially if you’re worried about something or you’re facing a difficult decision, your thoughts may be agitated by the “noise” of life. To-do items blend with ideas and interruptions into one big fog of mental chaos.

One example from 2003: I was preparing for a major client meeting in between meeting with my mother’s doctors and hospice aides. On the way home, I stopped the grocery store.  By some miracle, I had a list of the items I needed to buy.  But I was so distracted that I returned to my car to find the keys in the ignition and the car engine running!  Just today, I passed by an empty car parked in a garage with the engine running, and I wondered what stress caused the driver to make that mistake.

Maybe you’ve never left a car running, but almost everyone has a story of errors, omissions, and just plain dumb moves that come from an overfull brain. An oldie-but-goodie post by Zen Habits titled 15 Can’t-Miss Ways to Declutter Your Mind can help you get clarity and focus so you can get things done.  The tactics (with clarification available in the Zen Habits post):

  1. Breathe.
  2. Write it down.
  3. Identify the essential.
  4. Eliminate.
  5. Journal.
  6. Rethink your sleep.
  7. Take a walk.
  8. Watch less TV.
  9. Get in touch with nature.
  10. Do less.
  11. Go slower.
  12. Let go.
  13. Declutter your surroundings.
  14. Single-task.
  15. Get a load off.  (Vent!)

Does this seem soft? It’s just another step to reach the focused mind described in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. If what you’re doing isn’t working as well as you’d like, maybe it’s time to try another tactic.

Make the Most of Your Summer with These Productivity and Efficiency Tips


Over the years, I’ve put together a lot of tips about how to accomplish more, how to get energized, and how to make the most of time away from the office.
 In honor of the unofficial start of summer in the U.S. (and vacations everywhere!), I’m sharing a potpourri of greatest hits here.  Click on each link to visit the full article.

  1. Increase your efficiency by cutting the time you spend in the office:  This post shares three tips about how you can shift your approach to work so you can get more done and get out the door.
  2. The Reset Button:  Two tips to help you feel less pressured, which in turn will increase your efficiency and effectiveness.
  3. Addressing Burnout:  Your Productivity Depends on It:  How can disconnecting from your work improve your productivity?
  4. Get Out of the Office:  Your best thoughts about work probably won’t happen at work.
  5. The Productive Value of Vacation:  How short bursts of recreation can refresh and reinvigorate you.

On Procrastination

Wednesday’s post Top Ten Tips to Overcome Overwhelm apparently hit a nerve with more than a few readers!  In comments sent directly to me by email, procrastination was identified as the top challenge for many of you.  In response, I’d like to offer you a video — which may be enabling procrastination, but it’s a chuckle and provokes awareness, so I’ll let that slide.

PDA Peace

Pavlov’s dog had nothing on most BlackBerry/iPhone/BlackJack/other PDA users.

All too often, we (and I include myself) hear the “beep” or feel the vibration and pounce immediately, even in the middle of a sentence — our own or someone else’s.  And I’ve seen (and though I’d prefer not to admit it, experienced) the discomfort that can occur when someone knows there’s an email waiting but doesn’t pounce.  The ticks, the nervousness.  It’s almost pathological sometimes.

Recently, I decided to drive for a business trip rather than fly, and for safety’s sake, I didn’t want to be tempted to look at my BlackBerry everytime an email came in.  So I set the profile to ring for phone calls only, and to be silent otherwise.  I drove almost 150 miles before I had to stop for gas, and I checked the BlackBerry then.  I had about 40 messages, none of them urgent.  And I had a strange feeling that I subsequently identified as peace.  Peace!  No irritating noises, no demands, no irrelevant press releases.  It was a good change.

That was a month ago, and I’ve continued to keep my BlackBerry on “phone only.”  If I’m expecting something urgent, I ask for a phone call rather than an email, and it’s been truly instructive to discover how much better conversations are when I’m not wondering about the email I just heard arriving.  And the truth is, I have yet to miss anything important as a result of this practice.

Try it.  Just for today.  You can change back tomorrow if you like.  I predict you won’t want to, and I predict you’ll be more present to your work, the people you’re with, even your own relaxation.  And in turn, you’ll be more productive and more creative.

Not a bad return on eliminating an irritant, is it?

Social networking, yea or nay: Part 2


Just a few months ago, I wrote a blog entry titled, Social networking, yea or nay?, in which I reviewed an issue of Law Practice Management that featured several article advocating the use of social networking.  Since then, I’ve networked on LinkedIn and I even set up a Facebook profile, though I drew the line at Twitter — microblogging is not for me.  Meanwhile, I’m getting pelted with Plaxo requests and trying to figure out how social networking can work for me.  My next step was to listen to a few teleseminars, on how to use Facebook and LinkedIn, and I was aghast at the amount of time people were spending.  An hour or two a day???  Is it just me, or does that sound insane to anyone else?

So I was mightily curious when I saw a recent article by Larry Bodine titled, Is the Party Over for Social Networking?  Larry starts out like this:

What if you gave a party, hundreds of people showed up, but almost nobody talked to each other? That describes the state of social networking for lawyers on sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace and the new Plaxo Pulse. The masses get the idea, but only the evangelists are using it.

Ah, so it isn’t just me.  Citing research by the ABA about the online networking habits of young lawyers, Bodine concludes that few lawyers (only 8% of the young lawyer respondents, who might be presumed to be early adopters of such technology) find social networking important.  LinkedIn seems to be the professional tool of choice for lawyers (at least, “old” lawyers, which I fear means those over 30 or so), and Facebook seems to be preferred for personal use and by younger lawyers.

But here’s my question: other than using these tools to update contact information, employers, and the like, what are lawyers doing with social networking?  As a teen and college student, and even into law school, I used to play online and met some dear friends that way, through forerunners of IM technology, so I’m certainly not opposed to it — and I’d certainly prefer to network online while sipping good coffee than to schlep to another breakfast networking event (usually, it seems, in the rain) in hopes of making a connection.  I just don’t get how it works.

And so, I’m going to try an experiment.  I have one more week of very heavy travel, and then I’ll have a bit of a pause, when I’ll be in my office with computer handy for most days of May.  So, I’m going to give social networking a shot for the month of May and see what happens.

As I prepare, I invite your comments.  Do you use social networking sites?  Do you find them fun and/or professionally useful?  What’s your favorite site?  How much time do you spend on social networking?  I’ll keep you posted on what I learn!

(And, an aside about the blog: one of the kinks yet to be worked out is image-posting.  They will return!)

Clear your mind to increase productivity.

Every office has one: the messy lawyer, whose desk and/or office always looks like a bomb exploded and left behind papers and files and coffee cups and who-knows-what-else scattered everywhere.  It’s a good practice to clear the decks weekly or following the end of a major project, just to keep some level of tidiness.  This time of year is especially auspicious, since you may find a few spare minutes for cleaning, and it’s such a good feeling to return to a clean office on January 2.  Especially if you have the luxury of calling in an assistant to help with filing and organization, 30 minutes to an hour will often prevent an overflow.

What if it’s your mind that needs decluttering?  When your brain is filled with “must do” tasks of both professional and personal origin, when you’re worried about something, when you’re trying to make a difficult decision, and when all of your thoughts are further agitated by the “noise” of life, it’s easy to get lost in mental chaos.  One day when I was preparing for a major client meeting and dealing with my mother’s terminal illness, I stopped by the grocery store on my way home.  I knew I was distracted, so I’d takent he time to write down the items I needed to buy.  But I proved how distracted I was when I returned to my car to find it still running with the keys in the ignition!  I wish I’d had access to the recent terrific post by Zen Habits titled 15 Can’t-Miss Ways to Declutter Your Mind.  The tactics (with clarification available in the Zen Habits post):

1.  Breathe.
2.  Write it down.
3.  Identify the essential.
4.  Eliminate.
5.  Journal.
6.  Rethink your sleep.
7.  Take a walk.
8.  Watch less TV.
9.  Get in touch with nature.
10.  Do less.
11.  Go slower.
12.  Let go.
13.  Declutter your surroundings.
14.  Single-task.
15.  Get a load off.  (Vent!)

And I’d add one more: do something creative that gets you into a state of flow, where time passes without your notice.  Examples might be drawing or playing music.  Time spent in any of these areas is indeed time well spent.