Target fixation

In World War II, fighter pilots spoke of the danger of target fixation.  During bombing runs, pilots could become so focused on their targets that they’d dive, drop a bomb on the target, and yet remain so intent on hitting the target that they’d fail to pull up in time.  They’d end up hitting their target and killing themselves.  Although they would have achieved their mission, they wouldn’t survive to fly the next one or even to celebrate their accomplishment.

What does this have to do with practice?

Imagine a lawyer — let’s call her Mary — who is so focused on making partner that everything else recedes.  She spends the hours between 7 AM and 7:30 PM in the office on weekdays and at least 6 hours a day there on weekends.  When she isn’t at work, she’s either working at home or thinking about work.  When she meets someone, she immediately thinks about how they might fit into her goal, whether as a potential client, referral source, or otherwise.  Perhaps she’s married, perhaps she has children, and if so, her family is important to her and yet they’re accustomed to her missing dinner or school plays and being busy for “just a few more minutes” when she’s home.  Mary doesn’t go out to lunch unless there’s a reason, and she feels that exercise is just a waste of time that she could use for work or for marketing.  Her office looks like a tornado hit it, but she doesn’t stop to clean up until she starts to lose things on her desk.  She’s generally known as a nice person, but when she gets stressed, she’s liable to snap at her colleagues and the support staff — and she gets stressed rather often.  Vacations are important to her, but all too often she feels that she’s just moved her work from the office to a spot off-site.

And then, Mary makes partner.  Though she may fantasize about cutting back, chances are good that she won’t.  After all, her hard work put her ahead of the pack, and letting up now would knock her off her game.

And then, something happens.  Maybe a parent gets sick, maybe a child, or maybe it’s Mary.  Maybe something goes wrong at the office, or perhaps she just stops one day and thinks wistfully about her life Before, when she used to enjoy talking long walks through the neighborhood at dawn to get her heart pumping.  Perhaps she wonders what happened, when she quit spending time on non-work things.

Mary is a victim of target fixation.

None of us can function well as a single-dimension individual.  We need input on the intellectual level, but we also need to pay attention to our emotions, our body, and our spirit.  Although it’s possible to neglect those domains, their weakness will eventually bleed over and reduce the effectiveness of the intellectual output, simply because there’s nothing to sustain it.  Another word for target fixation is burnout, the moment when we experience having poured an unsustainable amount of energy into one area of life to the detriment of other areas.  It’s crash-and-burn success.

Work/life balance prevents burnout by nourishing all areas of life, though perhaps not in equal proportions.  Some people really love their work and would feel lost if required to cut back (see Stephanie West Allen’s excellent post Hot worms revisited: Extreme lawyers often love their work for an exploration of what work/life balance “really” means and who gets to decide) and others feel pushed to work so much that important areas of their lives are neglected.  Of course, what’s tricky is that the extreme lawyer may feel restless if he “only” works 60 hours in a week, whereas the more traditionally “balanced” lawyer may start to get antsy and worn out if she sees no choice but to work 60 hours.

Bottom line: define your own balance between work and life, or recognize that your work is your life and work/life describes a continuous, integral whole.  Whatever you decide, though, be on the lookout for target fixation — and pull up well before you crash.

4 replies
  1. Stephen Seckler
    Stephen Seckler says:

    Great analogy! There are certainly a lot of lawyers who are at risk. But I do believe that there are some out there for whom target fixation is not necessarily a problem (i.e. individuals who have a strong passion about one particular subject or endeavor.) I don’t happen to be one of them and in my own life, I strive for the balanced approach. But I am also cognizant of the fact that some professionals get a lot of intellectual and spiritual fulfillment simply by being the “best” at something. Sometimes I find myself even being a little jealous of their success (until I remind myself of how great my kids are doing, etc.)

    In other words, having strong career goals is very important to professional fulfillment. The key is to balance these goals with personal goals as well.

  2. Julie Fleming Brown
    Julie Fleming Brown says:

    Yes, I agree that some lawyers have a perspective in which their work and personal lives are more or less contiguous, so that target fixation isn’t a risk for them. One of the interesting challenges in defining work/life balance lies in recognizing that it is not one-size-fits-all. Personally, I would go insane if I spent 80 hours a week on my practice, but some people who do that love it. Currently, I’m spending 80 hours or more on my career in all its aspects (coaching, practice, legal writing, advanced coach training) and I couldn’t be happier; someone else might implode with the same schedule. I think the essential element to work/life balance lies in arranging one’s time in accord with one’s values — whether the emphasis is on work, on personal life, or otherwise.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Debra Bruce
    Debra Bruce says:

    Excellent article. The bomber who fails to pull up, and crashes into his own target is a good metaphor. I’m going to link to this from my own blog. I just published an article with tips on achieving work/life balance.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] think the modern Evangelical Church is in much the same boat. Here’s a great description of target fixation, as you read it try and transfer it from World War 2 fighter pilots to current […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply