By Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis

Originally published in The Florida Bar News

Are you addicted to your own adrenaline? Consider the following questions:

  • When you do not have a deadline, is it difficult to get any work done?
  • Are you constantly over-promising to clients and then having to push yourself and your staff to the limits to get the work done on time?
  • Are you unable to concentrate on any one task for very long?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions — you may be addicted to adrenaline.
Clearly, when prehistoric man was fleeing from a woolly mammoth the burst of energy provided by the fight-or-flight response was important. In fact, for 50,000 generations, humans have relied upon the adrenaline hormone to provide us with short-term bursts of energy. But this chemical support system was not intended to be depleted every day to help us cope with life. Unfortunately, many attorneys live a life fueled by pure adrenaline and end up suffering a host of consequences ranging from heart disease to high blood pressure.

But what triggers the adrenaline response? Very simply put, it is fear. For attorneys, whether they are sole practitioners or partners, it is fear that the practice will not survive. Just as the woolly mammoth represented a threat to early man’s survival, fear that your practice will not survive is interpreted on a visceral level as a threat to your personal survival. And when you believe your personal survival is at stake, the adrenaline response kicks in.

What researchers have discovered, however, is that it is possible to put a more specific face on this fear. The trigger points can be identified as the fear of not having enough time, money or energy to invest in the practice.

Think about it. A law practice cannot survive without these three resources. When you sense that one of these three resources is threatened or in short supply, the panicky messages that scroll through your brain sound something like, “I will never get through all of this work in time! I promised the client I would have this completed a week ago. I am going to get a reputation for being unreliable and I will never get another new client again.”

For many attorneys, life is lived on the ragged edge of panic. There is never enough time, money or energy. So the adrenaline is always pumping and you become dependent on it. In fact, one very telling symptom of this syndrome is that when there is no deadline looming, you have no motivation to work on anything at all.

To counter your adrenaline drive, start by noticing why you get stressed. For example, are you always pressed for time? Do you typically run a half-hour or an hour behind? Do you have many more tasks, appointments and meetings scheduled than you can possibly handle? If so, the fear of a lack of time might be the culprit.

Or maybe the fear is lack of money. There are innumerable ways in which a lack of money or the ever-present fear of financial failure will feed an adrenaline addiction. Do you lower your standards to take in high-risk clients because you need the income? Are you practicing a particular area of law just because it pays well?

A lack of energy, which can also be understood as a lack of capacity, is the final resource that rounds out the essential three. On a personal level, you may be somewhat burned out and unable to function as well as you could earlier in your career. Do you ask yourself how much longer you can keep up the pace? Do you wake up dreading an action-packed day and drag yourself home exhausted at night? Or, viewed as a lack of capacity, you may be a sole practitioner who has no one to delegate to — no capacity outside of yourself to get the work done. Do you feel the pressure mounting as you get farther and farther behind?

Breaking the Cycle

Whether the fear of not having enough time, money or energy is your trigger point, there is a solution. Create a reserve of these three resources and set boundaries around them. Here are some examples:

Time Boundaries

  • Do not work after 6:00 p.m., or on weekends.
  • Stop over-promising to clients; force yourself to give realistic deadlines.
  • Create a list of tasks in order of importance. This categorizing may seem tedious, but it relieves you of having to wrestle with what you should be doing. You should always be doing your highest priority tasks, and only those.
  • Institute daily production standards for yourself and your staff. Do not accept interruptions during this time.
  • Begin showing up 10 minutes early to meetings.
  • Do not schedule every second of your day — leave a few open spots for the unexpected.

Money Boundaries

  • Work only with clients who meet your selection criteria.
  • Focus on matters that can be closed out and collected upon immediately.
  • Send out detailed, easy to understand invoices and send them promptly.
  • Designate someone to handle the accounts receivable. Give that person a bonus for speedy results.
  • Collect your retainer up-front (when appropriate).
  • Monitor your trust account closely and ask for replenishments as appropriate.

Energy Boundaries

  • Arrange a vacation, or start an exercise program, to restore your energy.
  • Arrive at the office early and work “undertime” instead of overtime.
  • Write down everything that is swirling around in your mind: The case file that you mislaid; the employee situation that you have been putting off; the commitment that you made to the new client that you don’t know if you can keep; etc. Once the issues are on paper they can be prioritized and scheduled.
  • Hire a part-time or full-time person and delegate all projects that do not need to be handled by you.
  • Institute case status review meetings to follow up and check the work of your support staff.
  • Find a legal temp agency in your area and bring in temporary help. Or, sign-up for an intern or clerk.

Given the negative consequences that accompany a constant adrenaline drain – heart disease and high blood pressure among them – you pay a high long-term price for the short-term bursts of energy that you may have come to depend on. It is an expensive way to spend your life.

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