If you’re having trouble writing a brief or coming up with a winning strategy for a difficult case, you probably won’t be able to think your way out of the thicket.
In fact, overthinking will only ratchet up the pressure.
A better way to break the cycle is through a technique psychologists call brain-dumping, which is a structured type of free association.
Another technique: be mindful of your sensory perceptions.
“Begin to notice what you can hear, see, smell, taste, and feel,” writes Thomas Oppong for Kaizen Habits. “The idea is to reconnect with your immediate world and everything around you. When you begin to notice, you spend less time in your head. Becoming self-aware can help you take control.”
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Time to Unload Your Brain?
Lawyers, who are trained to analyze and intellectualize, are especially susceptible to overthinking. If the clock is ticking on a deadline, the pressure rises – and the situation grows worse.
“Overthinking is destructive and mentally draining,” says Oppong. “It can make you feel like you’re stuck in one place, and if you don’t act, it can greatly impact your day-to-day life [and] put your health and well-being at risk.”
The solution might be as simple as brain-dumping. Here’s how it works:
- Take five minutes and write down all your thoughts about the situation – positive or negative, constructive or random. Whatever. Don’t censor yourself, just put it all down. If your dominant thought is “I have no idea what to do in this case,” write that.
- Put the paper away and go for walk. Or take a nap, eat lunch, or do anything except think about the problem. Take at least 25 minutes off. The 25-minute period is significant, based on the Pomodoro Technique.
- When you return to the list, draw a circle around the first few word or phrases that jump out at you. No analyzing – just go with your initial reactions.
- Now look at what you’ve circled. Spot any keywords? See any patterns? Don’t force it, but there’s a good chance your brain has already started making connections that could lead to a creative solution.
Five Other Brain-Freeing Techniques
- Get a good night’s sleep. Yeah, we know. Mom told you this a million times. But just because Mom said it doesn’t mean it’s not good advice. Ruminating and worrying can keep you awake at night, meaning you’ll begin the next day unrested and unprepared for creative thinking.
- Replace the thought. Think of anything other than the problem at hand. Ever told yourself not to think of a red Corvette? Right, you end up thinking of nothing else.
- Do some cognitive restructuring. “You can tame your overthinking habit if you can start taking a grip on your self-talk — that inner voice that provides a running monologue throughout the day and even into the night,” writes Oppong. “’Cultivate a little psychological distance by generating other interpretations of the situation, which makes your negative thoughts less believable,’ says Bruce Hubbard of Columbia University.”
- Notice what you’re noticing. “Recognize your brain is in overdrive or ruminating mode, and then try to snap out of it immediately. Or better still, distract yourself and redirect your attention to something else that requires focus.”
- Ask for help. A fresh pair of eyes might see new solutions.
Overthinking is a habit – and like all habits, it can be changed with time, patience and intentionality.
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Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. Today he helps lawyers and firms succeed through marketing, work-life balance and reclaiming passion for what they do. He is available for consultations, retreats and presentations (www.yourlawlife.com). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-619-2441 to learn how Jay can help your practice.