From Resolution to Action: How Young Lawyers Can Shift Their Mindsets in Order to Shift Their Careers into Overdrive

We all make resolutions, and not just at the start of the year. Because we’re creatures of habit, we constantly seek to adopt good, new habits, and break bad, old ones. Eat better, write that article, quit smoking, exercise, make those phone calls, stop procrastinating so much, spend more time with family, learn that new skill. But inevitably another year passes without the results we desire and we are back to square one.

This problem is particularly acute for young lawyers, who are adjusting to the rigors of a new career and dealing with daily storms of inputs, demands and stresses. For most the problem is not one of indecision, but rather inaction. The desire for change is strong, but the will to make sustainable change happen is often lacking. For this reason many lawyers spend their careers on autopilot, attending diligently to client needs and priorities, but not their own. Days, weeks and years flash by in a whirlwind of emails, conference calls and court appearances. With demanding clients, bosses and adversaries to deal with on a daily basis, who has time to focus on much else?

That’s not to say that young lawyers are mindless or aimless about their futures. Far from it. Most have broad goals for their careers. But far fewer take the steps necessary to achieve those goals. Changing the direction of one’s career requires more than wishful thinking. It requires intentionality, which brings discipline to decision-making and purpose to action.

When you think and act intentionally, everything you do is geared toward achievement of a specific objective. If you expect change to happen, you can’t just show up to work every day, grind it out, and expect specific results. If your daily routine involves working hard at the task at hand, it will get you results, but perhaps not of the variety you’re looking for. As 19th Century Author Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Routine – unless it’s a thoughtful, purposeful, intentional routine intended to achieve a specific goal – is the enemy of progress. When we let thoughtless routine run our lives and careers, we’re unable to chart a course and make progress. To break an unproductive routine, and establish a productive one, you must commit to small changes that take you in the direction you want to go. Daily intentional action is required.

Making big change happen is a daunting proposition. That’s why I believe young lawyers – and anyone, really – should think small when it comes to behavior change. Indeed, it’s far easier to make radical change happen on a micro-level than it is to make incremental change happen on a macro-level. Constant intentional action can overwhelm inertia, procrastination and trepidation.

How about an example? Picture a young attorney who is struggling with time management. She can’t seem to get out of the office before 9 p.m. every night, is constantly jumping from task to task, and feels perpetually harried and disorganized. She’s had enough and wants to make a change. The wrong approach?: Trying to adopt a new, complex time and project management system that involves new approaches to filing, task list-building and prioritization. Why?: She’s already stressed out, and trying to layer on a big, new initiative such as this is an almost certain recipe for disaster. What should she do instead?: Think small and start by, for example, immediately entering her meetings, calls, court appearances and other tasks into a calendar the minute she learns about them. This is an easy change to implement and can enable her to earn a small win.

In her book, The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile found that companies and managers that focus on achieving small, incremental, daily progress have the most productive and motivated workforces. Small wins, in other words, lead to big successes.

You may find yourself in a rut of routine, and desire to act with intentionality and make meaningful change happen in your career, but not know where to focus your energy. There’s no easy answer to this problem. It requires dogged persistence, and relentless questioning of how your most precious and non-renewable resource – time – is spent.

To take back control you need to first get clear on what you want. Clarity breeds confidence, and confidence begets action. If you can gain clarity on what activities that you engage in create the most results, then you’ll be in a position to focus more of your energy on the most productive tasks.

This is The Pareto Principle, commonly referred to as the “80/20 Rule,” named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. It stands for the proposition that 80% of value comes from 20% of effort. In business terms, it means that, for most businesses, 80% of revenues come from 20% of customers or clients.

If you honestly assess your own activities, it’s likely that the results of your own daily, weekly, monthly and yearly activities roughly equate to the 80/20 Rule. Acting intentionally means doing more of the 20 and less of the 80. It means saying no more often than yes. This is the essence of productivity.

But what does the 20 look like? It’s easy to say that you’re going to organize your day around the most productive activities, but it’s far harder to stay motivated in the long-term if you’re not excited about the work you’re doing. So, for most young lawyers, progress is really a two-step process: determining productive activities, and ensuring that those activities involve work that excites and interests you. You’ll never fully escape the mundane. It’s the law, after all. But you’ll never make progress without intentional focus and action on the big stuff.

Want to learn more about how a young lawyer can get off on the right foot in his or her career? Download my new eBook (it’s free!), How to Start Fast as a Law Firm Associate today.