The key to sustaining high levels of performance does not lie in a to do list full of tips and strategies. It comes from an understanding of how our minds work. Once we understand the way something works, it is much easier to navigate.
As lawyers, we experience heavy workloads, tight deadlines and long, unpredictable hours, all of which can increase stress levels and negatively impact performance. And so we believe that it is only when we have more control over these external factors that we can operate to the best of our ability.
But what if that wasn’t true?
What if, instead of trying to change factors that are out of our control, we could tap into our top levels of performance at will, regardless of the external pressures we face?
State of mind
Accessing our full potential requires us to uncover a vastly under appreciated variable to performance: our state of mind.
When our state of mind is at its optimum, we function with acute clarity and focus, remain calm in previously stressful environments and our inbuilt resilience comes alive.
Productivity, performance and peace of mind increase; stress, anxiety and overwhelm dissipate.
A misunderstanding about how the mind really works
So much of what we read and what we are told validates the misunderstanding that our wellbeing and level of performance is affected by external factors out of our control.
Similarly, we believe that stress is caused by external circumstances such as our heavy workloads or difficult managers.
In addition, our mind is deceptive and plays tricks on us, so it really looks like a heavy workload is the source of stress. However, this is an innocent misunderstanding as to how the mind works.
How do our minds work?
Our circumstances in and of themselves cannot make us feel stressed. It is our state of mind that determines our experience of something. By ’state of mind’, I am referring to the quality of our thinking.
Our experience, and how we feel about something, is created 100% by our thinking in the moment.
Because our thoughts are invisible, we are often hoodwinked by the impact they have on our experience. However, our experience of our external circumstances only ever works in one direction - inside out and not outside in, as we believe it to be.
There is no circumstance that has the inherent power to create a thought or feeling in us. We all have freedom of mind. If we choose not to let someone or something affect us, we are not affected. That includes a high workload or difficult clients. You can choose to let them impact you or not.
One client, Emma, was in a good mood at work until her work was criticised by a colleague. She experienced a downward spiral of agitated thoughts and felt upset and unable to concentrate. As soon as she remembered her freedom of mind and that she was able to choose the thoughts she gave attention to, she chose not to let what was said impact her, focused on what she was doing and got on with the rest of her day in a good mood.
Have you noticed how your state of mind fluctuates throughout the day?
In a higher quality state of mind, we experience more clarity and perspective irrespective of external pressures. We operate more fluidly in a flow-like state and can make decisions easily and perform at our best.
In a lower quality state of mind, the noise of our thinking takes over and we can’t see the wood from the trees. Our communication suffers, and we react in a knee-jerk or defensive way, which negatively impacts our performance. It can be difficult to complete even the most straightforward tasks or find solutions.
This is why the same heavy workload in one moment may not faze us at all but in another moment overwhelms us and we react with more stressful and agitated thinking. This also explains why we can each have a different experience of the same circumstance – eg one person thrives under a tight deadline while another crumbles.
What does a higher quality state of mind give us?
The mind has an in-built design for success, so when we access a higher quality state of mind (or a quiet mind), we access our innate wellbeing, resilience, clarity, high performance and perspective in any situation without our circumstances changing. We operate with clarity of mind, bring our ’A’ game, are in our ’zone’ and produce our best work.
In a high quality state of mind, we can readily access our ever-present intuition to make decisions. Many of us do not use or trust our intuitive mind as much as we could and yet, high performers routinely listen to their intuition (what some people call a gut feeling or a ’hunch’). Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Richard Branson have all talked about the importance of listening to their intuition for finding creative innovative solutions or when making big decisions.
When I first heard this, I remember saying ’…as a lawyer, my ability to problem solve is my greatest asset. I cannot stop using my intellectual mind!’ What I now know is that our intellectual mind is less powerful than our intuitive mind, which is more expansive than the intellectual mind.
Why do we not experience more of it?
A high quality state of mind is actually our default setting, but for the extent to which we engage with unhelpful thinking.
As lawyers, we can spend hours overanalysing things or worrying. When faced with a problem, we tend to assume that the harder we think about it, the closer we will get to a solution. We are, after all, trained problem solvers.
However, this approach not only limits us from accessing our potential, it actually takes us further away from finding a solution and makes our minds even noisier resulting in higher levels of stress, worry or frustration.
It is an undoing rather than a doing that enables us to perform at our optimum level without the risk of burnout.
Case study: John
John, a partner at a medium sized firm, was performing well at work but paid the price for it with high levels of stress and limited time for his family and friends. He had strained relationships in his team and was no longer enjoying work but did not feel like he had the clarity of mind to know what to do next with his career.
John had important realisations with this understanding, which enabled him to relate to stress differently such that when it arose, it no longer had the same hold on him. He felt able to produce his best work without compromising his wellbeing. John’s realisations, which may be helpful to you, include the following:
- He acknowledged that when he felt stressed he was in a low quality state of mind and therefore not able to see things as clearly and not as capable as he could be. He knew that in this state, it is not the right time to send that important email or make major career decisions. For instance, when John received an email that irritated him, he stopped himself typing an angry reply and would perhaps sleep on it, knowing he would see it afresh in the morning.
- He realised what stress really is - a product of our thinking in the moment - and waited for it to pass all on its own. Previously, he spent days analysing, overthinking and trying to fix the way he felt, but he saw how counterintuitive this was in further agitating his already busy mind and increasing his stress levels. He also took comfort in understanding that it is part of the human condition to experience overwhelming or stressful periods and began to trust that it would pass if he did not do anything to resist it.
- He saw how in a low quality state of mind, he gave even more meaning to everything and created his own narratives, adding facts to these narratives and believing them as if they were true. When he caught himself doing this, he remembered not to get too lost in it. For example, he could think ’why is it only me that has such a heavy workload?’ knowing that this was not logical or true but getting lost in the narrative, which felt very real to him and caused unease. John likened his negative self-talk to the most critical, opinionated and annoying person on the radio that talked at him all day long. It helped him to see that although he could not turn the radio off, it had nothing useful to say to him and he could choose to ignore it and when he stopped engaging with it, it was like he had turned down the volume on it and the critical voice automatically quietened.
- He saw that all thoughts are temporary and transient by nature and so when he did not engage with his unhelpful thinking, his noisy mind naturally quietened, and a state of clarity emerged. Our minds naturally recalibrate.
- John was relieved to understand that our minds have a natural in-built design for success and that he had an inner GPS that he could reply upon. He saw how in a high quality state of mind, he had clarity of mind and in this state of mind; it was obvious to him what to say or do in order to successfully address any challenges.
John’s realisations gave him the clarity of mind he was seeking and he started to enjoy work again. His stress levels dissipated, and he was able to work with more ease and effortlessness. He led his team more effectively and they were more engaged. His relationships with colleagues and clients improved. Not only did his wellbeing, performance and leadership at work improve, but he made time for, and enjoyed, life outside of work too.
Please note, different names have been used where clients have been referred to in order to protect their confidentiality.
About Being Lawyers
Being Lawyers provide coaching and training to lawyers and other high achieving professionals to achieve clarity of mind so they are able achieve better results in their wellbeing, performance and leadership. With clarity of mind, they are able to perform more effectively at the high standards expected of them without the risk of burnout. Founded by qualified certified executive coaches and qualified solicitors, Chetna and Lauren, Being Lawyers understand the demands in law and meet the need for lawyers to realise their potential with less stress and more resilience. They support law firms and individual lawyers, through workshops, online courses and small group and one to one coaching.
About the author
Chetna is both a qualified executive coach and an in-house part time employment lawyer, having qualified into private practice in 2005. Passionate about human potential, Chetna is trained in a new understanding of the mind which enables us to access our full potential and experience less stress and greater resilience. Having herself recovered fully from a chronic illness with this understanding, she is committed to transforming the wellbeing of the legal profession. She has, since 2013, been helping clients based in the UK and abroad into Europe, the USA and Canada, Africa and the Middle East, access elevated levels of wellbeing, performance and leadership.