August 2015

The Fatal Flaw

By Lisa Boero

Lisa BoeroMy day started out fine and then I hit the fatal flaw. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about—that part of your job you would pay someone to take away. That part that you dread deep in the pit of your stomach. That part that makes—no compels—you to procrastinate until the absolute last second. It is the fatal flaw in an otherwise perfectly acceptable work day.

Public speaking is traditionally considered a fatal flaw because it produces anxiety in just about everyone. Fortunately, most of us don’t encounter public speaking in our day-to-day jobs and suffer that gut-wrenching fear once in every so often. So, while I would like to say that my only fatal flaw is public speaking, my most difficult task actually pops up on a more frequent basis—meeting minutes.

What could possibly be so bad about meeting minutes? You attend the meeting, you take notes and then you type the notes up, end of story. Right? Right. I can’t exactly explain why I dread them so much, except that there is something excruciating about preparing minutes for a meeting that you have attended, participated in, taken notes for and now have to summarize for posterity. It seems like overkill. Necessary overkill, but overkill nonetheless.

My dislike of meeting minutes came as something of a surprise to me. As I finished law school and started work at a big firm, I realized that a lot of my success resulted from a high tolerance for boredom. Do not be fooled by how glamorous the law seems on television. Most lawyers spend a lot of time on things the average person would find mind numbing. We are the people that not only write, but also have to read the fine print. It is part of the job description.

When I first started going to meetings requiring minutes, I thought it would be a piece of cake—just another mildly tedious part of my lawyer duties. But as time went on, the cancer grew. I stopped doing them the same day. Then, I pushed them off for a week, or two, or three. I began to wait until the very last moment—doing everything and anything before I sat down to write them. When I put cleaning my desk before preparing meeting minutes, I knew I had a problem.

I decided to take action. At first, I thought I could just muscle through the problem. As I have mentioned, one of the most striking features of lawyers is our ability to focus when others would fall asleep. Unfortunately, when you really dislike a task, telling yourself to “get in there and do it” only goes so far. The tactic lasted long enough for one round of meetings, and then I was back to my bad old ways.

Then, I thought I would reward myself. If I got the meeting minutes done, I would get an extra cup of coffee and load it up with cream. However, when you are a lawyer, used to persuading other people to do what you want, you can very easily persuade yourself to do what you shouldn’t be doing. In my case, it was a simple step from the creamy coffee for minutes completion, to part of the cup for doing part of the minutes, to the coffee was indispensable to start the minutes because it would get me in the right frame of mind to prepare the best minutes anyone had ever seen. Needless to say, I got the coffee but didn’t do the minutes.

The next tactic I decided to try was distraction. If I could allow part of my brain to wander into more interesting territory, maybe I could get the rest of my head to focus long enough to get the minutes done. I tried streaming NPR (at a low volume of course) on my phone while I worked on the minutes. However, I soon found myself listening to even the most esoteric topic rather than putting pen to paper. Rice shortages in Bangladesh—how interesting. Interview with a 90-year-old jazz pianist whose responses to questions were barely audible—fascinating. In-depth analysis of the latest Chinese economic statistics—couldn’t break away.

The same was true with any selection of songs I brought up on Pandora or shuffled through my iTunes account. It wouldn’t matter how many times I had heard the particular tune, I always found myself paying attention to the song rather than my work. The opposite was true with classical music. It was so far into the background that it seemed to have no effect at all.

And that is when I turned to neuroscience. I had read somewhere that when you learn a new language as an adult, the language center for that language is on the opposite side of your brain as the language center for whatever languages you learned as a child. I learned Spanish in school and then I did my junior year of college at the University of Salamanca in Spain. So I wondered what would happen if I played Spanish music in the background while I composed my minutes in English?

Eureka! Problem solved. The music in Spanish was just distracting enough to cut through the boredom of the minutes, but not so distracting that I couldn’t concentrate. It turns out that the solution to my fatal flaw was merely a willingness to try different approaches and a healthy dose of Latin music.

As my fatal flaw wasn’t quite so bad after all, I started looking at other flaws to tackle. Several flaws and 20 tactics later, I can safely say that I am happier and more productive when I deal with my work struggles than I ever was procrastinating.

So, next time you encounter your fatal flaw, don’t put it off for another day. Attack the problem head on. You might just find a creative solution—even one involving neuroscience or Latin music—waiting right around the corner. Your days at work don’t have to be fatal or flawed anymore.

Lisa Boero is the Chief Legal Officer at Security Health Plan in Marshfield, Wisconsin and the author of two books, Murderers and Nerdy Girls Work Late and Bombers and Nerdy Girls Do Brunch. She is hard at work on a third Nerdy Girls book and will be bringing out the first book in a new series about lawyers, misplaced souls and tricky contracts with the devil, called Hell Made Easy, later this year.