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Melissa Shanahan

#251: Peak Performance Under Pressure: Strategies for Success When It Counts

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As a law firm owner, you will inevitably experience periods of high stakes and high pressure where you need to be on your A-game. It is imperative that you support yourself to get through these times with as much ease, flow, and productivity as possible, but the reality is that most owners are not planning ahead.

Whether or not you've started to feel the effects of high-pressure cycles in your firm, neglecting yourself inevitably shows. Even if you’re getting away with it now, the clock is ticking, your time will be up, and the results won't be pretty.

Join Melissa this week as she shows you why supporting yourself and your health is of utmost importance during phases of high pressure. You’ll learn how owners tend to sabotage themselves when the stakes are high, why problems occur when you don’t factor stress in ahead of time, and Melissa’s top tips for proactively supporting yourself during these periods in your firm. 

If you’re a law firm owner, Mastery Group is the way for you to work with Melissa. This program consists of quarterly strategic planning facilitated with guidance and community every step of the way. Join the waitlist right now to grab one of the limited seats when enrollment opens again!

Show Notes:

What You’ll Discover:

• Why taking care of yourself during high-stakes periods is of utmost importance.

• How you might be unwittingly sabotaging your progress during phases of high pressure.

• The importance of sufficient sleep.

• How to support yourself in a way that doesn’t require additional discipline.

• The value of getting buy-in and support from the people closest to you.

• Why you must minimize decision-making during these periods.

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Full Episode Transcript:

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I’m Melissa Shanahan, and this is The Law Firm Owner Podcast Episode #251.

Welcome to The Law Firm Owner Podcast, powered by Velocity Work, for owners who want to grow a firm that gives them the life they want. Get crystal clear on where you're going, take planning seriously, and honor your plan like a pro. This is the work that creates Velocity.

Everyone, welcome to this week's episode. I am so glad you're here. I am recording this early in the morning. I'm getting ready to head to our workspace where we host clients. We have a private client retreat today, we had one yesterday, and we have one this Thursday. It's that time of year where they're ramping up. So, I'm waking up early to record this podcast episode.

There's something that keeps coming up. And so, I want to talk about it today, on this episode, and use this as an opportunity to dig into it. As owners, as law firm owners, you will have periods where things are ramped. The stakes are high, the pressure is up, and there's a lot to do.

I know we all have a lot to do at any given point, but sometimes it's more of a pressure cooker than other times. When you are approaching those phases it is imperative that you do certain things to support yourself, so that you can get through that phase with as much flow and ease and productivity as possible.

The reason I'm saying this is, because when the stakes are high we do things naturally to sabotage it, and we can justify it all day long. Staying up way too late to work on something. Or staying up too late because it's our only time to breathe. And so, we're just relaxing in front of the TV, and we just end up staying up too late eating really crappy, on the go, and fast.

That's another thing that we do, not taking care of ourselves physically. So, if we typically exercise, we do no exercise in these periods because it just feels like it gets squeezed out. Not being proactive in thinking about how we're going to engage with the people we love the most in our lives; with our families and with our loved ones.

It's like everything goes out the window in these ramped periods. And what happens is the results throughout that phase, where things are hyped, the results are not as good. You are not as whole showing up to them. And thus, your results produced in that window are not as good as they could have been if you were as dialed as you could have been.

Then, on the back end of that phase, when it's passed a bit and there's a little more breathing space, you are a shell of yourself. So, this episode is really to call to light the fact that we all have these phases, we all have these periods. And some of us, depending on where you are with your firm and the evolution of your firm, some of us live in those times more than others.

Our existence is sort of hyped. Our existence is sort of compacted and compressed. The stakes are high with everything, there's no room to breathe all, and no light at the end of the tunnel as to when you're going to get a breather. That's why we work with people. Because you have to shift out of that. And no one's going to hand that to you.

No one is going to say, “Oh, okay, well, let's just give you some breathing space.” No, it is hard work. It is worth it. But it is hard work to actually shift yourself into a different set of circumstances where you don't have to push that hard. You don't have to live in suffocating circumstances. That is true.

Working with us, that is something that we do. Operationally, we get things shifted in terms of delegation, replacing portions of your role, making sure the quality stays really high in the firm as you do so, being very clear about what you're aiming for, and what the plan is to get there.

And so, all of this becomes a lot clearer, and it is very easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But the work to get there, to the light, it's not easy. It's simple, but it's not easy. And so, that's where we come in and we facilitate the clarity on it all, but then also supporting through the execution of it all.

Now, whether you live in this existence, or whether you have periods of this existence, it is of utmost importance that you take care of yourself. And what happens is, when we are in this phase, it is very easy for us to indulge in things like the quick wins, the quick hits, that give dopamine and offer some bit of relief from what we're feeling; that don't serve us in the long game.

By the long game, I just mean getting through this whole two-week period. For example, if you have two weeks that that are super compressed. This happens to me cyclically, because of the nature of the company and the work that we do. So, we host strategic planning retreats, and when there are a bunch back-to-back, make no mistake, that is not just me showing up in a room, or my team showing up in a room to facilitate.

There is so much behind that. There's so much preparation on our end. There is a lot of thought and presence and being tuned in to the client that has to happen prior to walking in. And then, walking in, we leave it all on the field. We give it our all for clients on those days.

And then, if there's another day right after that, you can imagine this stuff starts to stack. When that happens… This is, for many of you, like being in court. This is your day where the real work comes to light. But you know how much work is behind that. How much work it takes to do a good job in that courtroom.

It's the same for my company. And it's the same for many businesses out there. You have these periods where things are compressed, there's a lot on the line, and you have to be on. You cannot be flaking out on things, you cannot be late, you cannot be not prepared; the stakes are high.

So when this happens, it is so important to think, before you enter that phase, how you are going to make sure that you can show up the best. Most of the time, when we are planning for things like this, we plan for the work, we do not plan for ourselves as the human. And, that is where problems will happen.

Even if… I've been in this phase before, and I've watched clients do this too… you're used to operating under such pressure that you don't take yourself into consideration, you just wear yourself out, and you've gotten away with that. That is not sustainable.

I have worked with way too many business owners, and you can see it over time, oftentimes by the time I'm working with someone, they don't have it in them like they used to. They can't just crank in the same ways that they used to. Because it is at the sacrifice, or at the cost, of really important things that they value in their life.

That could be relationships with loved ones. It could be their health, because they aren't sleeping enough, or because they're eating really crappy, or because they're just not taking care of themselves. And, this all comes to a head for people.

So, maybe you're the kind of person where you have to go through that pain, where it's all coming to a head, in order to shift. Maybe, if you're listening to that, you are there. Or you know exactly what I'm talking about. Maybe, just maybe, you are still in this era where you can get away with all of that, and you can not take care of yourself, and you can show up a little less than prepared and not rested, all of these things.

And relationships, they survive. Even when you're in it, you’re like, “They'll be fine. I'm not giving them the attention. And it's okay, it'll all be fine. Because this will be over soon.” Maybe you're in that phase where you're just getting away with all of this.

Let me tell you, the clock is ticking. Your time is going to be up. And the best thing that you can do for yourself is to hear what I'm saying… I know that you feel a sense of truth in it… hear what I'm saying and make some shifts now.

So, no matter where you are, whether you get away with it now, whether you are feeling the effects of these hyped phases or cycles of work, the neglect that's happening is really shining through and causing some issues. And/or maybe you are just burnt and you are at that end of the spectrum.

No matter where you are, let's just cover a few things that you can proactively think about as you enter into these cycles, or these phases, where there's more pressure involved and you have to be on your A-game.

The first, as I've alluded to, you need to sleep. Sleep is a superpower. I fight this so hard in my life. It's so tough for me, for some reason, to just go to bed. I'm not even a night owl, I just don't want the day to end, or something. I don't know. It's like I just still see opportunity to get some things done. Whether that's around my house, or whether that is hanging out with my husband, or whether it's work, I see opportunity. There's still hours in the day, and I push that to its limit.

So, if you're anything like that, I do understand. But when I am in a high stakes cycle and the pressure is on, I am pretty good about being disciplined and just going to bed. I need to get sleep.

I take magnesium at night to help me sleep more deeply. I keep my phone plugged in in the kitchen so I can sleep more deeply. I'm not tempted to look at my phone or scroll, either at night or in the morning. Or shoot, if I wake up in the middle of night, sometimes I can't go back to sleep and I'll grab my phone. So, I put it in another room so that I'm able to maximize my sleep and optimize for sleep.

When I do that consistently, I feel like a different person. And if I don't do that consistently, if I don't take care of my sleep, or have good sleep hygiene as they say, then I will suffer. I will not be as on as I should be. My patience will be more limited than it would be otherwise. It's not my best thinking. You could see it in my face, where I look tired; it's just not a good look, you know.

All of this to say, when you have a high-pressure window that you need to be on for, really on for, it is important to get enough sleep. And for those of you out there that brag you only need four hours, or four and a half hours, I hear that consistently, do not kid yourself. Give yourself an opportunity to sleep more than that. Just give yourself the opportunity.

If you don't sleep more than that, that's fine, but do you know it is such a tiny percentage of the population that that's actually true for, that you need four to six hours instead of more than that? So, don't kid yourself, you probably are not one of those people. You might be, but you're probably not. So, take good care of your sleep so that you are rested and you are running on all cylinders during your waking hours.

Okay, after sleep, let's talk about eating. Eating is the next thing. Whatever your version of healthy looks like, can you tee yourself up to live in that realm, in terms of eating? Can you look ahead at what needs to be prepped? What needs to be planned? What needs to be predecided, so that you don't have to spend very few decisions around what you're going to eat and when you're going to eat? Can you predecide that stuff?

If you have client dinners, you know where you're going, can you just make a decision beforehand of what you're going to eat, that fits in line with what you think is appropriate to honor you? You don't have to talk about this with anybody, just decide ahead of time what you're going to order. Because when you're exhausted, and you get to that dinner, that's when you just order whatever you want.

Maybe you over drink, maybe you order foods that you know are not going to be giving you energy, they're going to be dragging you down, and how can you be thoughtful about that prior? So, eating is another thing.

Lunches, is there any prep you can do at home, or decisions you can make if you're going to order lunch in, that you already know what you're going to get so you don't need to think about it at lunchtime, you already know? And so, at lunchtime you could order, or you place the lunch order early, something like that.

These are the kinds of things that if you do that, it doesn't take much time to do. It's so easy. It's so freakin’ easy. We just don't do it. And what that sets us up for is reacting within this window of time, where the pressure is on, we are reacting to things that we could have been proactive around. We are reacting to things.

And when you react you never make as great of decisions as you could have when you were thinking of it ahead of time, you were pre-deciding. Pre-deciding is using your prefrontal cortex, the front of your brain, which is reserved and used for executive functioning. And when we are in moments where we're reacting to the world around us, and to what we feel like doing in the moment, that is not using your prefrontal cortex.

It's so hard to use your prefrontal cortex, or the executive functioning part of the brain that really makes plans and can execute on plans, that is not the part of the brain that’s being used in a moment where you're flying through time. That part of your brain is used when you sit down and deliberately think forward and make some decisions ahead of time.

And so, that's an important thing to think through ahead of time. It’s not just how much sleep you need, when you're going to bed, and what time you're going to get up in the mornings, and also how you're going to make sure that you're eating what you should be eating that's going to give you energy, not drag you down.

The other thing is movement. What is your version of movement? If you do no movement, I'm not telling you to start an exercise regimen in these windows. That is not what I'm saying. Is there something that you know would serve you and your energy, because you’ve experienced it, then do it. This is your chance to preserve your energy, to make sure that you are at the top of your game.

So, sleep, what you eat, and how you move, is all a part of this. And if that means a 10-minute walk at lunch just to get some fresh air, and that for you is what is important, then that, that's what you need to do. If it's in the morning to stretch for seven minutes before you actually get ready for the day. If it is meditation; which that's not really movement, but that's another form of self-care.

What is it for you? Everybody's different. And everybody's in a different phase of life. So, if you're not doing any sort of form of exercise now, again, I'm going to say it, I'm not saying that you should wake up and do exercise every morning before you start your day. I don't think that that's smart, to add in extra things you don't normally do into a window like this. But I do think you should optimize the way that you currently roll.

And so, what does that look like for you? How can you just give yourself a bit of an edge? The wee things matter with this; it's the small things. It's the tiny little things that stack to set you up for success.

Another thing I'll offer here, earlier in this episode, I use the word “indulgence”. And truly, when we react we tend to indulge in things that are not the best for us but in the moment, it feels good. This whole episode is about how to just be proactive and prevent a lot of that.

Now, I am not saying that you shouldn't have any joy. I think pre-deciding what you're going to do, in order to have those moments of joy that you know are great and comforting and feel really good, I think that's important too.

So, I don't know what that looks like for you. It could be some chocolate in the evening. It could be sitting in a hot tub, or a sauna. It could be going to get a massage; scheduling those maybe once a week or twice a week for this high-pressure period. And finding the space to do that, maybe it's on a weekend.

But I do think it is important to plan how you are thinking about the stuff that's going to take care of you that doesn't require discipline. It's just a chance for you to let go and relax and experience a bit of joy and rejuvenation.

Recently, I asked a client… Actually, it's the director of operations of a private client… who did such a good job of staying so focused in the last quarter when some unexpected things happened. Someone put in their notice that they weren't expecting. And then, they had to make a hire; it was an important role in their firm. And they did that.

They got all their stuff done, in terms of the other Rocks that they said they were going to get done, the other quarterly priorities that they said they were going to get done. And, I was really impressed. I asked about it, because I wanted to hear for them what their answer would be. I said, “How did you hold your focus? Get everything done, and do everything so well, high quality? How did you do that? What do you attribute to that?”

And they said, “It was planning out, every day, what I was going to get done, and then just doing it.” And so, he would plan out ahead of time for his week, he knew what needed to get done. But then, every morning he would sit down before the day, review the day, review the things he said he was going to get done, and see a path to it, and then get going.

He said that that one thing kept him on track in a way that delivered the results he wanted to get delivered. It's just intentionality, right? It's him choosing his focus. It's him being proactive before hitting the day. It was a good conversation. I love talking to people about what works for them, and doing a bit of a debrief on what went well and why? What do they attribute to it? Because those are the things that they can carry forward.

Those are the lessons learned, that they can state, so that they can use that in the future, again and again and again, when it's needed. They can call on it when it's needed because they've identified it. And so, it was a great conversation.

I thought I would offer that up here, because talk about high pressure, it was a very high-pressure quarter for this individual. They rose to the occasion, and handled everything so well.

Actually, the reason I asked him is because he said, “There were so many things going on in my personal life and in work, and I honored them all. I did a good job handling all of it.” That's when I said, “What do you attribute that to?” And that was his response.

One more thing I'll offer here. After you have looked at this window of time proactively, you've thought through what's going to be important; going to bed every night by 9:30, or having breakfast every morning, or doing a certain kind of movement. You've mapped out how you're going to make sure that you are taking care of your energy, so you can be on when it's important and you can deliver and be at your best.

The last thing you want to do, after you look at all that, is talk to the people around you, that are the closest to you, and set expectations. If you're not going to be as responsive in the moment, just because of the nature of what you'll be in for a couple of weeks, let those people know.

If you are going to need support in order to stay on track with the things you've identified, it will really help you be on your game, let the people know that are around you.

I mean, when I have these phases with clients that it's really about to be ramped, and I've identified what's going to be really important to keep me dialed, then I talked to my husband.

I say, “Okay, these next two weeks, this is what it looks like. I need to be in bed by nine o'clock every night. I'm going to be waking up earlier than normal to get my workouts in. Can we ensure that we have really healthy dinners over this period?”

I get buy-in and support from the person that's closest to me, and that helps me sustain it. He knows how to support me in these periods where… I mean, there's even been times that I'm saying I'm going to be bed by 9:00, and it's 910, and he's like, “What are you doing? Get in bed.” I’m like, “Yep, shutting down, and going.”

So, it's nice to have that support. Also, my husband is an amazing cook and so for that period he knows that I'll probably want to eat earlier… that's something we talk about… and just healthy; really take it up a notch in terms of healthy. So, little things like that are really supportive. He knows I'm getting up earlier.

And then we talked about logistical stuff. Normally, I would take my kid to school on some days, or pick up on some days, and I'm not going to be able to do that because of the client retreats I'm leading. So, we talk through logistics, and make sure that he can handle the things that I can't. And then maybe we switch, and I can handle certain days I don't normally do, but I can now. And so, all of that, it's all taken care of before I hit the phase.

I see clients who are good at this, they do the same thing. They set themselves up for success by pre-deciding a bunch of crap that they're going to have to decide in the moment or deal with in the moment or react to in the moment. They try to minimize, and so do I, what you're going to have to react to. How can you make as few decisions as possible in this window of time?

If you can think ahead enough to reduce decisions, then it does give you more mental bandwidth to be present and stay focused and stay in flow, because things have been decided. And you aren't deciding in the moment what feels good, what feels right.

And so, then you have less indulgences, which is great. Which means your energy can be higher, you'll be more focused, and you'll deliver in the ways that you want to. You will show up in the ways that you want to.

Okay, everybody. Have a wonderful week. I will see you here next Tuesday.

Hey, you may not know this, but there's a free guide for a process I teach called Monday Map/Friday Wrap. If you go to, it's all yours. It's about how to plan your time and honor your plans. So, that week over week, more work that moves the needle is getting done in less time. Go to to get your free copy.

Thank you for listening to The Law Firm Owner Podcast. If you're ready to get clearer on your vision, data, and mindset, then head over to where you can plug in to Quarterly Strategic Planning, with accountability and coaching in between. This is the work that creates Velocity.

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