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In my work as a psychologist, most lawyers and law students who talk to me about their attention-deficit disorder or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder are typically under a fair amount of stress due to their symptoms. Most people see ADD/ADHD as an obstacle to overcome. Those with ADD/ADHD often struggle with organization, sustained focus, procrastination and completing tasks on time.
For lawyers, there can be real consequences for missing important legal details, letting a statute of limitations run out or missing a court date. So, viewing ADD/ADHD as an advantage is not how most lawyers usually experience it.
Then again, there are many with ADD/ADHD who do see it as an advantage. In fact, some experience the flip side of inattention, namely, the ability to hyper-focus on something that grabs their attention. This can be a great strength if that hyper-focus in directed at important work-related tasks.
Whether you are struggling with managing ADD/ADHD symptoms or wearing them as a badge of honor, here are helpful strategies to keep in mind.
First, it’s important to recognize that every human ability is either a strength or a weakness depending on the demands of the situation. The same ability can be a strength in one situation and a weakness in another. So stop viewing a given ability, or lack thereof, as either an absolute advantage or disadvantage. Is it essential to be tall to play in the NBA? Muggsy Bogues was 5-foot-3 and played there for 14 seasons.
The key is to be aware of which situations and tasks are best matched with your abilities. Then, when your professional (or personal) life includes situations or demands that are mismatched with your strengths, you can compensate by learning some strategies to improve your performance in those areas.
When it comes to ADD/ADHD, it is important to know what you are dealing with. If you have never been formally assessed and diagnosed with it but suspect that you would qualify, go get formally assessed. Self-diagnosis is never a good idea. A formal assessment will help identify your relative strengths and weaknesses and rule out other causes of ADD/ADHD-like symptoms (such as trauma or anxiety). The professional working with you will suggest treatment options such as medications, therapy, coaching or support groups.
These techniques can help address some common challenges lawyers with ADD/ADHD face.
Develop routines. Although it sounds boring, a well-practiced routine can help you cut down on needless decisions, reduce wasted time, improve brain functioning and increase productivity.
Reduce distractions. Lawyers with ADD/ADHD are often more sensitive to distractions. You can reduce distractions by closing your door when you need to focus on work, turning off your phone ringer and email notifications, and minimizing unnecessary noise where possible. If there is ambient noise outside of your control (sounds of the city streets, for example), experiment with adding your own ambient noise like a sound machine or very soft, low music.
Use technology. Technology can be a major source of distraction. (Unless you are an ER doctor, those text alerts are probably not true emergencies.) However, skillful use of technology can help with organization; think of appointment and deadline reminders, automatic bill pay options, scheduling emails to arrive at certain intervals and the like. Time-tracking apps let you automatically track how much time you are spending on each task. Setting timers can help you remember to take breaks and prompt you to get back on task. Make electronic lists to track your tasks and progress. You can store them in the cloud to access them from anywhere. Make technology work for you.
Practice meditation. Most people with attention and focus issues find it nearly impossible to calm the mind and meditate. That is in large part due to a misconception of what meditation is about. Meditation is the practice of being aware of the present moment. An easy exercise is to sit still and simply focus on your breathing, taking note of the feelings and sounds associated with it. When your mind wanders off to another thought, notice that wandering and redirect your attention back to your breathing. Success occurs in the attempt and the trying again, not the unrealistic goal of achieving some prolonged period of calm.
De-clutter your space. When your attention is easily redirected toward your physical workspace, a very effective tactic is to clean up that space. Piles of disorganized paperwork will not only distract you, they can also prompt your brain to engage in random evaluations of the importance of such paperwork, leading to a huge mismanagement of your time and energy.
Set good boundaries. Setting and maintaining boundaries can help you stay organized and feel like you have control over your calendar. Saying “no” is something that needs to be practiced every day — from small tasks to large ones. Setting boundaries cuts down on unnecessary tasks and prioritizes what is most important to you.
Prioritize sleep. The side effects of poor sleep include impaired memory and concentration. Prioritize a healthy sleep routine (known as sleep hygiene), ensuring a consistent bedtime, a regular wake-up time and improved quality of sleep.
Exercise and eat healthy. Healthy eating and exercise is good for everyone. However, those with ADD/ADHD might benefit even more from reducing their sugar and caffeine intake. Stimulants, in general, might provide more short-term energy but exacerbate inattention and fidgetiness. Exercise can burn off extra energy and give your body what it needs to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you calm down, digest, rest and build up your immune system.
There are many techniques to try. The best plan is to try some out, pay attention to which ones work best for you, and make a plan to use them consistently.
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