Four Principles for Mastering the Demands of Work

Sandra’s office was piled high with files, her work-life was spent putting out fires and her dog was feeling so neglected it had taken to chewing the couch.

Jeremy felt like it had been a long time since he had a life. Days and weekends were spent at the office, he’d gained 20 pounds in a year, and his wife had gone on vacation to Mexico with her best friend Gary the hairdresser – again.

Sandra and Jeremy are not alone. These days it seems like the standard answer to “hi, how are you?” has become “busy, and you?” Having a successful professional life and keeping the plants alive and your partner speaking to you requires a whole new set of disciplines.

The higher we climb in our careers the more projects we juggle. Our work becomes increasingly complex. The deadlines are just as short as ever. We become responsible for managing other staff members, delegating, mentoring and taking part in community activities. Many of us get married and have children or in my case have step-children. The strategy of working long hours to succeed is no longer enough to meet all the demands that life presents us.

To survive and thrive under these conditions it is critical to develop new skills and strategies for mastering the demands. In my work as a professional coach I have come across four simple principles that have made a significant difference for me and for my clients. They aren’t in themselves a recipe for success but rather a rough guide to what has worked for some of us along the way.

Principle One: Good Enough

Not every piece of work requires the same painstaking care and attention. Mastering the ability to recognize when the job is good enough is a vital way to gain back portions of your work day.

Sandra was a perfectionist who was doing multiple drafts of simple letters and memos. The time she was investing in these was taking away from the time she had to spend on more complex work. As a result she was not recording chunks of time and was always fighting deadlines. Since she began integrating a Good Enough strategy into her practice she has caught up on her backlog of files. Now she will do a quick first draft of her letters and her veteran legal secretary polishes the draft and sends it to her for her signature. Her clients appreciate the shorter memos that get straight to the point. And she has more time for the complex legal work she excels at.

The principle of Good Enough is especially valuable for you perfectionists out there – save your painstaking eye for detail for the projects that most deserve it.

Principle Two: Ration Time

Related to the principle of Good Enough, rationing time is a strategy for maximising the ability to plough through a to-do-list in less time. For the smaller and simpler tasks such as reporting letters and memos, assess how much time each project is worth then work to complete the task within the allotted time. 

I have been using this strategy to manage the amount of time I spend preparing for presentations. I used to endlessly revise my presentation slides and speaking notes. The time that went into each presentation was excessive. Now I manage my time carefully and give myself a time budget for investing in the preparation of each presentation. The result is that my work is focused and I often finish ahead of schedule. The overall quality of my presentations has improved.

Principle Three: Slow Down to Speed Up

Our brains don’t work like computers and yet we keep behaving as if they do. Computers can run all day long, take no breaks, and still work at optimum speed. Standard operating procedure at our law firms is when the going gets tough sit at the desk and pound out the work for 10, 12, 14 hours a day.

Is this the most effective and productive way to work? Our computers can handle it. Our brains can’t.

There are three strikes against the work until you drop approach. Stress radically slows down our brains capacity for intellectual reasoning. So does sleep deprivation. So do long periods of work without a break.

In law firms we are in the business of providing intellectual capital to our clients. The better and faster we think the better the quality of the work product. When we are stressed and exhausted our minds cannot perform at optimum levels. Slow down to speed up recognises that breaks and rest are essential to high performance.

For example, I have a book to return to the library but don’t want to leave my desk for the 15 minutes it will take to walk to the library and back. Even though I know as soon as I get home my beloved is going to ask me if I remembered to drop off the book. The chore seems like and interruption to my day. The critical reframe for me to make is that this chore presents a valuable opportunity for taking a short break, stretching my legs, and resting my mind. 

Another application of this principle is to include exercise into the daily routine. I know many lawyers who exercise over the lunch hour. The exercise break is their key strategy for staying both mentally and physically fit.

Slow down to speed up is also about knowing when to say enough is enough and pull away from the desk to go home for some well deserved rest. When working on a project that requires a high capacity performance clocking eight hours of sleep is crucial and will pay significant dividends the next day.

Slow down to speed up is a tough principle to apply at first. In the middle of a transaction it can seem impossible. My recommendation is to try experimenting a little. Take some strategic breaks during the day and observe the results on performance. Give exercise and eight hours of sleep a try and see how it impacts your productivity at work the next day.

Principle Four: One Thing at a Time

I remember back in the 90s when I had “skilled multi-tasker” proudly highlighted in my resume. Now I would have to say that I am a multi-tasker in recovery. I guarantee that this article was written without stopping to check email.

Multi-tasking is over-rated. Once paraded as a virtue, it is now getting known for what it truly is – a time-waster and productivity killer. The human brain can’t multi-task attention. In Brain Rules neurologist John Medina clearly indicates why multi-tasking doesn’t work: “Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50% more mistakes.”

I wonder if law firm clients will catch on to the implications multi-tasking has on the billable hour. While it is great to have a lawyer respond rapidly to client emails, it is not so great if comes at the cost of 50% longer to do the work and a 50% higher bill.

Next time you have a complex problem to tackle try experimenting with creating space in your day for concentrated work. Turn off the email alerts & close your door. Observe how this time for uninterrupted concentration impacts the quality of your work.

Bonus: The Domino Effect

I have found over the years that when I take control of one area of my life it leads to positives shifts in many other areas.

Jessica, on a mission to “get her life back”, committed to carrying out a regular yoga practice. The result was she was able to get greater control of her schedule. She started leaving the office at night to attend yoga instead of working late. She would arrive at work the next morning refreshed and would accomplish twice as much as she used to. She is in better spirits and is able to show up at work and home as the person she wants to be, not the tired and stressed-out grouch she sometimes could become.

One shift leads to another. Most often the first step is to carve just a little time out of the week for doing some quality thinking. Consider the four principles. Experiment with what is possible and notice what happens.


  1. Sonia Gallagher, JD


    Thank you for this post! I definitely agree with having to slow down to speed up. I am a walking example of it. When I ran my law firm in South Florida, I was pulled in a hundred ways at once. I had to have all the right answers at all times, make the deadlines, fit in time to eat and sleep, and look completely composed during it all! This is the life of too many lawyers.

    What worked for me was starting a practice of meditation. I began meditating for five minutes in the morning as a relaxation exercise. It became a much deeper experience for me leading me into the path I am walking now as a lawyer coach. I strongly recommend meditation for anyone who needs to re-balance, re-connect, and just take a moment to breathe. 5 minutes can make all the difference!

    Take care and thanks again!

    Sonia Gallagher, JD
    Helping you control the direction of your legal career, get more clients, more profits, more free time, and… be a Happier lawyer!

  2. Love these principles. Thank you for confirming what I think I already knew but needed to confirm. It’s funny how I knew but insisted on doing things the hard way – the perfectionist in me. I will implement these principles asap. I am not in law – just Googled my struggles and found your blog. Thank you for taking the time to help others. All the best in 2011.