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How’s that to do list coming? This is a question that gets lawyers glaring at me at the best of times, but at this time of year in particular it is a dangerous question!
The life of a lawyer is never slow or lacking in to do lists hastily scrawled in counsel’s notebooks and post it notes and in the run up to Christmas it becomes absolutely and entirely ridiculous.
A few years back I was booked into no less than four works Christmas parties in the space of 3 weeks, on top of regular 50 and 60 hour work weeks, an over-abundance of client and business development work, the odd day of annual leave booked in for Christmas shopping, with all the extra hours even those short breaks would entail. I spent years working in personal injury and mental capacity law, so silly season only increased the interfamily disputes, the requests for interim payments and settlements and the uncomfortable conversations about my outstanding bills.
It is not an easy time of year for any of us and that is why it is so incredibly important to pay attention to this tiny little word that will change your life.
(And now you really want to throttle me).
I have yet to meet a lawyer who isn’t, at least a little bit, a people pleaser. You don’t get into this business without wanting to make other people’s lives easier or to help resolve problems. Saying no to other people in order to say yes to ourselves doesn’t come easily.
Don’t believe me? Be honest; how many days last week did you work late or through lunch, start early? How many days did you log into your emails when the kids were down? How often have thoughts of work intruded on your home life? Those are the habits of the self-sacrificer, giving up their time, energy and peace of mind to help others.
Learning to say no to other people in order to preserve your health, energy, self and sanity is a process. I don’t think that I need to tell you why you need to learn to say no to other people; you have already tried everything else, and by this point of the year, you may well be running on empty.
Why is saying ‘no’ the answer?
It is because it is the only answer, if you want to be around to still be a functioning lawyer and person five years from now. Which, unless you have the winning lottery ticket or a one-way ticket to Bali, you presumably want to be.
We are in the middle of an over-working epidemic and learning to say no, to your clients, to your boss, to your team, can be scary. It can be terrifying, particularly when you work in an environment that isn’t geared to complete honesty and transparency about how we think and feel.
Here is the process I use with clients when they desperately want to say no, but are too scared of what it means to ask.
What is it that is holding you back?
Most of us have an emotional attachment to saying no. Maybe for you it means that you are not good enough. Maybe you are worried that people will no longer like or trust you or that it isn’t ‘professional’ enough. Get clear on the fear underlying your behaviour and then bring it out into the light. Apply the little sister test to it; if your little sister (or someone else you love, adore and only want the best for) came to you with this situation and this fear, what would you say to them? Now apply that to yourself.
How can you say no without saying no?
This is not an exercise in weaselling out of things or making poor excuses (no judgment, we have all done it!). This is about finding other ways through. My favourite tools include delegating tasks appropriately instead of holding on so tightly, deleting tasks from your to do list that are way below (or above!) your paygrade, diarising appropriately and asking for assistance with high value tasks.
Before you can start saying no, you need to stop saying yes to the wrong things! Office ‘housework’ tasks, that friend who leaves you feeling bad about yourself and that client drinks event that needs a few more bodies. Let someone else pick up the slack, you have enough on your plate.
Finally, employ the no. No can be charming if done in the right way. Be gracious, be kind, and start employing the no long before you lose your temper; we have all been witness to someone losing their cool in the run up to Christmas or telling it like it is after the third gin and tonic. This year, let’s make sure it isn’t you!
Formerly a stressed and exhausted solicitor, Leah Steele is the founder of Searching for Serenity, the international mentoring and training practice for professional women. Leah's mission is to open the conversation around perfectionism, worthiness and mental health and to provide guidance, training and support for women who are ready to shake off the do-it-all mentality in favour of a career they crave and a life they love.
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