Have you ever felt like there just wasn’t enough time to get everything done?
Well this May found me in a panic about a presentation I was giving with a fellow coach for a large group of women lawyers. At the heart of my panic was the thought “there isn’t enough time to prepare” followed by a second thought “and so I am not going to be good enough”.
That thought “there’s not enough time” raises much anxiety and stress in the legal profession and is the root cause of a lot of inefficiency, procrastination and wine guzzling.
The culprit for all this stress is a little almond shaped part of the brain known as the amygdala. It is the “fight or flight” centre of the brain. It is also known as our reptile brain or my particular favorite expression used by brain researchers – the neural back alley.
As my mentor Martha Beck says, the amygdala is all about lack and attack. All your scarcity thoughts come from the amygdala.
Here’s the challenge: The amygdala isn’t your smart brain. The smart brain is the prefrontal cortex located in your forehead. When we are down the back alley we are no longer thinking straight. We are reacting rather than responding. This stress propels some people, like me into panicked action. Others freeze.
When was the last time you had the thought “there’s not enough time”? When you think the thought “there’s not enough time”, how do you react?
When I recently asked a group of women lawyers that question they quickly answered:
“I feel stressed.”
When I asked them how they behave when they are stressed because of the thought “there’s not enough time” they responded:
“I am short.”
“I bark out orders.”
“I lose my patience.”
When you think and believe the thought “there isn’t enough time” your amygdala fires up, you experience a flight or fight reaction, the sympathetic nervous system responds, and stress hormones are released into your system. You will no longer be doing your best thinking and you won’t even know it.
The stressful thought “there’s not enough time” might make you jittery, on edge, irritable, frenzied or frozen. It might also cause you to cut corners in a false effort to “save time”. Does any of this sound familiar?
My friend Jessica works in a firm with a paperless system. The established procedure is to save all client emails to their corresponding file. Jessica has an inbox filled with hundreds of emails that need to be saved to file because she never feels like she has the time to do it in the moment. She is always rushing.
Do you try to jump ahead and leave an untidy mess and a mass of little problems behind in your wake when you are thinking and feeling “there’s not enough time”?
Back at my “not enough time” stress attack in May, three days out from my presentation you can be sure that my desk was covered with papers, and a whole lot of short little tasks like Jessica’s e-filing were undone. My stomach was clenched. My neck muscles tight. My wife kindly let me know I was being irritable. And deep down I knew that if I didn’t change my mindset I was on the way to a self-fulfilling prophecy: I would not be prepared. I would be stressed and I wouldn’t perform at my best. I bet you can relate to this!
So I got coached. (Yes, coaches have coaches.) Through a quick 15 minute coaching process I shifted my thinking to allow that there was enough time. With that shift I got out of the back alley and into my prefrontal cortex. I felt calm and focused. Over the next couple of days I found lots of little snippets of time for preparing. The morning of the presentation I was in high spirits and it was a success.
How would you be without the thought “there’s not enough time”?
- Would you be clear and focused?
- Maybe you would be thinking about how you could use your time the most effectively.
- Perhaps you would be more communicative and efficient.
- You might take the time to save the email to file, record your time, keep your to do lists up to date, and maybe even set daily priorities.
What can you do to escape this thinking trap?
First, it is important to understand that the circumstances don’t cause the stress. How you think about the circumstances causes the stress. You have things to do, many with deadlines. That is a fact. You have a certain number of hours to give to those tasks every day. That is also a fact. Thinking “there’s not enough time” is not a fact. It is how you are thinking about those facts. It is a mental conclusion you are drawing about those facts. If this thought causes you stress and makes things more difficult then it is not helpful.
Yes, for most people in law firms there is usually a lot of work. (And when there isn’t we panic about that too!) There are daily challenges, competing priorities, deadlines, and high expectations. That is why addressing your thinking patterns and stress reactions is critical for boosting your resilience and upping your effectiveness.
The good news is that you can influence your thoughts and even change them outright.
As coach Jill Farmer relates in her book “There’s Not Enough Time… and other lies we tell ourselves” – let’s look at the facts. There are 24 hours in a day. There is no way around this. Getting frustrated and stressed by that fact is pretty counterproductive: “We all have the same 24 hours. If arguing against that reality isn’t working so well, why not try something different?”
Next time you think the thought ‘”there’s not enough time” – and you feel your stress levels rise. Stop and notice.
“I am having that thought – there’s not enough time.”
Then repeat to yourself: “I notice I am having that thought – there’s not enough time.”
How are you physically reacting? Pay attention to how your body is responding.
If you are feeling stress or discomfort that is a sign that you are now in the back alley of the brain.
Next time you notice your stress levels rising try this practice from Farmer’s book to get back into your forehead:
First, pause and take three slow deep breaths.
Next, think of three things that you are grateful for today. These are specific things – not abstract concepts. For example, I am grateful for the nice greeting I received from my assistant this morning. I am grateful for the play session I had this morning with my new puppy. I am grateful that I have a dinner planned at that new restaurant with Christine tonight.”
For those of you who just might be thinking this is all to “woo woo for me”, think again. This is an exercise that doctors prescribe to hijack a stress reaction and get you back into a calm and centered state. The breathing is a hard reboot to your parasympathetic nervous system that signals to the brain that you are relaxing. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems typically work in opposition to each other. When you activate the parasympathetic, your flight-flight sympathetic system shuts down.
The gratitude exercise shifts your mind out of the amygdala and the stressful thought and returns you to your prefrontal cortex. This is how you can begin to work with your thinking rather than have your thinking work on you.
Once you are back in your forehead think the thought “I have enough time” and ask yourself “how can I make the best use of this time I have today?” Take a couple of minutes to plan your next steps.
If you are skipping process steps like Jessica with her e-filing, see how many times you can catch yourself in a day making a choice to skip an important process step. When you notice you are skipping, say in your head “I have enough time” and do the step.
In the past months I have made a conscious effort to recover from my busy and “there’s never enough time” mindset. The results have been a greater sense of well-being even on those days with many competing deadlines and priorities.
In coaching we know that there are circumstances that trigger thoughts, that propel us to actions, which result in outcomes. The most powerful way you can coach yourself to be more effective is by shifting your thoughts. Start today with shifting “there is not enough time” to “there is time, and how do I want to use it?”
For more on this topic do pick up a copy of Jill Farmer’s book. It’s a quick read, aimed at the general population, with lots of good tips and information.