Putting Out Fires

How’s your day going? Are you doing one million different things at the same time, answering phone calls, responding to emails, getting yelled at, blurting directives in the hallway, yelling at someone else, and juggling flaming torches, while running a marathon and planning a birthday party for your spouse all before 10am?

Just a regular Tuesday, eh?

Oh the panicked frenzy of practicing law! On those days, your brain is laser focused and you can feel the adrenaline coursing through your body as you move from one thing to the next with effortless precision. For many of us, we get addicted to this frenzy. We develop a strange love affair with the pressure and intensity of those days. We feel alive! Connected to the work! Like a boss. If only we could feel like this all the time!

While these bursts of energy and manic productivity can be incredibly addictive and create tremendous surges of satisfaction, working from this state is problematic for two reasons.

First, it is not sustainable. During these moments of manic productivity and putting out fires we are actually operating from a primitive state. Our body has infused our system with tremendous amounts of adrenaline because the pressure and stress that we have put on ourselves and created in our minds has led our primitive brains to believe that we are on the verge of being murdered by carnivorous clients. We switch into survival mode operating on adrenaline; our hearts race and our brains become laser focused on the task in front of us because it suddenly equates the task with survival.

Our primitive brain and the survival mechanisms that kick in are powerful and addictive in many ways but we must recognize that living day-in and day-out being driven by adrenaline and our primitive brains is not sustainable. Our bodies were not designed to flourish under those amounts of adrenaline, which is a finite resource. It’s simply not possible to maintain that high and that level of focus and productivity long-term. We are literally living everyday in fight or flight, frenzied panic. Our bodies are preparing for battle. Productive? Yes. Sustainable? Sadly, no.

Sound familiar? Most of my clients reach out to me from that state of panicked frenzy or shortly after the inevitable crash. Stop the madness (literally). Work with me and let’s develop some tools to turn down the noise and put your logical brain back in charge.

Add to this madness, the physical and emotional toll of living on adrenaline for too long — persistent surges of adrenaline can damage your blood vessels, increase your blood pressure, and elevate your risk of heart attacks or stroke. It can also result in anxiety, weight gain, headaches, and insomnia. I’m not that kind of doctor but the Google box and real doctors will back me up on this if you need more convincing.

When we operate from that space of fight or flight and let our primitive brain drive our actions and our responses, we also lose the ability to think rationally with our prefrontal cortex. This brings me to reason number two as to why this is not the best mode of operation.

We do not make good decisions with our primitive brains.

Our primitive brains were designed to keep us safe, seek pleasure, and be efficient. Our primitive brain is the fast acting part of our brain; it is not designed to move slowly, analyze facts, and make well-reasoned decisions. That part of our brain is designed simply to react: everything presented to your primitive brain will be perceived as an emergency, a matter of life-or-death. That means that every email that comes across your desk, every person that darkens your doorway, every phone call that comes in, your brain is going to interpret as an emergency that must be attended to immediately. Simply put, we are not biologically capable of making the best decisions when we are operating from fight or flight and letting our primitive brain drive the boat.

It’s like letting a toddler make decisions about your finances. They are going to spend all of your money going to the amusement park, eating cotton candy and raw cookie dough, and ordering all of the things from the late night shopping channel. They are not going to tell you to eat the damn salad, go to the gym, and “no, that designer purse is not the solution to your tale of woes.” The primitive part of our brain will seek the pleasure that comes from responding to that email immediately and from trying to please the client/partner rather than focusing on the project that you told the client you would get done today.

So what does all this mean?

When you find yourself in that panicked mode of productivity, recognize that your primitive brain has taken over and is clouding your judgment. You need to disconnect and reengage your logical brain. That might mean getting up and walking away from your computer and going outside for 5 minutes. Connect with nature. Take some deep breaths. Spend 5 minutes in meditation. Ground yourself and connect with a mantra–

This is not my life, this is not who I am, I am more than this job, I am more than this day.

By doing these practices we allow our primitive brain to disengage and we put the adult back in the driver’s seat so that we can start making better decisions for the long-term. We make decisions taking into account our priorities and the facts regarding what needs to be done and what does not need to be done in that moment. Save your primitive brain for real emergencies. Do not let your primitive brain drive the bus in your career. From that space you will only create burnout and block yourself from that conscious focus that will take your career to the next level.

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