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Just Say "No" When You're Feeling Overwhelmed

By Irene Leonard, Lawyer Coach

To avoid being overwhelmed in your law practice, you need to set limits and say no so that you don't fill your plate with so much work that you can't possibly manage your workload in appropriate time frames.

Saying no doesn't mean:

If you said no randomly or coldly, your practice would fall apart. Saying no to reduce an overwhelming workload means coming up with a plan to reduce the amount of email you receive, your client responsibilities and the matters that require your attention, and to work differently with your boss.

You need to say no at the source before the work is too great to control.

You need to know yourself and what's important for what you want to achieve in your practice and life. Your life has to be a part of the equation, otherwise you might not say no to enough of the work that overflows in your practice.

Rather than saying no to more work, the first thing many lawyers do so they are not overwhelmed is to take time away from their non-working life. Rather than fall back on that approach, you must think strategically about what you should say yes and no to.

When you say no to something, you are saying yes to something else. When you say no to taking on a new client, you say yes to reducing your workload.

Gerry (not his real name) worked with me to take control of his practice. His workload was overwhelming him. He had way more work than he wanted.

Because he was in so much discomfort, he begrudgingly agreed to say no to being retained by any new client until he felt more in control of his practice. Within about four months, he was feeling relief and delighted surprise — surprise because it was much easier to say no to new work than he thought.

He was in control of his practice and he was giving the kind of attention he liked giving to his clients and their work. He no longer felt overwhelmed.

How do you determine what to say no to? The 80/20 rule, or Pareto principle, states that the relationship between input and output is not balanced. When applied to work, it means that approximately 20% of your efforts produce 80% of your results. Learn to say no to the 80% that only gives you 20% of your results and focus on doing the important 20% that gives you 80% of your results.

You can determine the important 20% when you take into account your goals and values. Ask yourself, “Does doing this move me toward my goals or away?” If you can reduce your efforts to just the important 20% by saying no — think about it — that will free up so much of your time and stem the flood.

Failure to master the fine art of saying no can lead to long-term, unfortunate consequences beyond the unsettled feeling of being overwhelmed. When Gerry hired me, he also knew that if he didn't do something to control his practice, his reputation would suffer. That reputation was the mainstay of his full practice and was the motivation to take the difficult step of saying no.

You might also find that you succumb to burnout or worse if you don't reduce your workload. Decide that you will say no, and then come up with how and in what ways you will do so.

Be prepared to feel uncomfortable when you first start saying no, but do start. The quality of your practice and life depend on it. You won't regret your decision to manage your time by doing the No. 1 thing that will give you more control — just say no.