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Pressure is inevitable in the legal environment we operate in, we cannot avoid it. We need it. Pressure is what gets the job done and facilitates innovation and progress in all our workplaces and is a defining trait of human beings, insulating us against threat. But pressure can also interfere with our ability to concentrate on a process either consciously or subconsciously. This inability to focus causes deterioration in technique and a decrease in performance. Physiologically, pressure can feel like you have a load on your shoulders that you cannot carry, and comes with all the usual physical symptoms akin to stress and anxiety.
Just like anxiety, pressure contracts your muscles, and dilates your veins, the body wanting to huddle in the foetal position bracing itself for the inevitable pain. This may seem like a weak reaction, but is actually an evolutionary gift to protect and maintain the vital organs until whatever danger has passed. This is also the exact mechanism that stops you going under a car every day when you cross the road.
So why do we feel so much pressure in the work environment? One of the reasons is our competitive work culture. We are expected to perform as an efficient, productive legal professional always at the beck and call of your clients, compete with your colleagues for the best work (both those at your level and those approaching your level), and deal with the ongoing obligations in your personal life (pay the bills, be there for the children and/or spouse/partner, dogs/cats and extended family). People are also living longer and working longer. Further, the rise in the ‘wellness’ culture also means that ironically there is a ‘guilt’ trend of signing up to gyms and attending classes which inevitably are missed when other priorities come our way. Finally, technology also plays a role in the pressure cocktail (see my recent article on the mental health cost of the ‘Never off Syndrome’). The pressure to be responsive and turn around replies is something we all feel, lawyer or not.
How to deal with pressure
How can we manage the daily psychological and physiological fallout of pressure? The following tips will provide you with some guidance.
Step 1: Awareness
Awareness or recognition that pressure is a bi-product of our environment is the first step in dealing with pressure given the tasks we are expected to achieve as part of delivering legal services. Personally, I practice this awareness in the morning time after I have read my to-do list. I notice my reaction to the realisation of the tasks I have to complete, and use that reaction to gauge priority. I then spend at least 5 minutes sitting with this reaction and rationalising it. I go through a few scenarios in my head. What is essential today? What must absolutely get done before I leave this office?
Step 2: Essentialism
Another useful tip is to apply the benchmark of ‘essentialism’, a concept coined by Greg McKeown. This concept is described as the ‘disciplined pursuit of less’ which ensures a buffer in your daily routine to pre-empt the possibility that something might ‘crop up’. This wiggle room or the ability to create space is a skill learned over time and is uncomfortable to begin with. A great example is to examine top footballers at play. They look relaxed under pressure because they have learned how to create space or ‘buy time’ on the ball so that they can assess the situation for longer and thereby make better tactical decisions under pressure. This tactic delays sensory shut down which causes tunnel vision. They will not react to the pressure of other players, the crowd, the referee or the score. They will assess the situation on the ball, make space, create time and execute accordingly. There is a distinct discipline in stripping any given situation down to its core essential components, thus giving you breathing space. In providing legal services specifically, I learned this from a great mentor who passed away last year, Paul Robinson (Partner, Arthur Cox Dublin). Paul would always challenge and ask: what are we trying to do here? Asking this simple, but enormous question can quickly make you realise what needs to scale back or ramp up to get the job done. On that note, juniors should always revert to the judgement of seniors when making priority calls around workloads. Seniors will usually have more of a ‘birds-eye’ view of a deal and will be able to identify pressure points in transactions more rapidly when it comes to priority of workloads.
Of course, you need to identify what is essential in your everyday life in any given scenario i.e. the ‘non-negotiables’. For me personally, healthy eating and sport are non-negotiables during the working week to maintain my physical and mental wellness. The benefits of my non-negotiables are obvious, and also provide a secondary benefit to help me manage pressure. Obviously, the fitter someone is, the lower their heart rate is and the longer it takes them to get up to their maximum heart rate. Even when your heart rate goes above 100 beats per minute your motor function slows down, and your decision making processes worsen. Therefore, a secondary benefit to maintaining fitness in the workplace is better decision making. This better decision making also helps create that coveted time and space I spoke about above, which ultimately culminates in less pressure in a work environment.
Step 3 Sequencing
The next step is to maintain a sequence. Just like in a dance, a sequence cultivates harmony and certainty for the participants and ultimately leads to the best result. In the workplace, you can call this a routine or a process of doing business. For example, when drafting a contract, a handy sequence to maintain is plan, draft and hone to a strict deadline. Always working to a deadline means you will be able to plan your day more effectively. As well as that, sequencing allows you to acknowledge that your task will inevitably contain an ‘ugly’ or ‘messy middle’. The ‘messy middle’ is that part of the task where the initial buzz of the start wears off and you can’t quite see the finish line. This realisation may be at odds with your expectation of how the task should go and may put you under pressure. The more you practice this messy middle however, and remind yourself that you are in this profession for the long run, the more the emphasis will be taken off this small part of your working life and your attitude towards your work will change. You therefore have to flip the switch and equate the commitment to this messy middle with success and not the outcome with success. If you are looking for immediate success, you will always be left down. As long as you are improving, you are winning and this will be fuel for motivation. The emphasis is taken off the outcome and the pressure is thereby reduced.
Step 4 Words
The final step is to watch your words. Do not underestimate the power behind the words you tell yourself. Remember, the sub-conscious mind is always listening. Be careful around universal words like 'never' or 'ever' or 'always’, as the brain is negatively biased and will pick these signals up as dead ends, and this may ultimately culminate in pressure. The strongest negative bias is the fear of potential failure and is ultimately the driver of pressure. Remind yourself of the process (see Step 3 Sequencing), and the outcome will look after itself.
Pressure is necessary in certain situations to get the job done. It is not going anywhere, and you can certainly learn to manage it. A friend of mine, Carolyn Hayes, once told me before a race that “pressure is for tyres” and I have to say, with the right tools and mind-set, I have to agree with her.
Jennifer O’Sullivan, Solicitor, Depfa Bank plc
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