8 Signs You’re in Survival Mode (and How to Escape)

When you’re in survival mode, you’re just trying to get through the day.

Survival mode means there’s no long-term or medium-term plan. It’s all about getting through the next 24 hours. The end of the week feels like a long way off.

When you’re stuck in survival mode, you feel like you’ll never dig yourself out of the hole.

You barely have the resources to answer the phone, return calls, and meet urgent deadlines. In fact, you spend a lot of your time trying to extend those deadlines or coming up with bullshit excuses for having missed them.

How to Determine Whether You're in Survival Mode

Here are the eight signs of survival mode:

  1. Everything is urgent. The deadline is now. Your back is up against the wall.
  2. Meetings, calls, and other appointments are constantly canceled and rescheduled.
  3. Your team can’t help. You can’t allow them a reasonable amount of time to get work done, but even if you could, they wouldn't be able to get it done anyway because they’re in crisis mode too.
  4. The stress is overwhelming. Your sleep is disrupted, your breathing feels odd, your heart beats erratically, and you can’t think straight. You will yourself to calm down, but it doesn’t work.
  5. There’s no joy. Your goal is to avoid having a terrible day. Having a great day isn’t an option.
  6. Everything is a reaction. You’re never proactive. You react to clients, opposing counsel, and the court. You’re never one step ahead. You bounce from response to response.
  7. It’s all risky. You can’t get the document filed a day early. You’ve got to collect this fee or miss payroll. You have to to win this case. Everything matters way too much. There’s no margin for error.
  8. You can’t take the time for excellence. All work is “good enough.” There’s little going out the door of which you can be proud. This isn’t what you wanted for your career or your reputation.

How to Regain Control

You’re on the verge of a massive disaster. What’s happening now is not sustainable. Without a significant course correction, this gets worse – much worse.

It’s only a short jump from survival mode to splattering into an irreparable mess. Take an honest look at your situation right now.

Lawyers who end up in survival mode either (1) correctly assess the situation and change course, or (2) convince themselves this will pass as they slip deeper into chaos.

Those who believe their situation is temporary are lulled into the cycles of up and down. They imagine that everything is going to be okay when they get some momentary relief. They don’t realize that the low moments are getting lower.

This problem does not fix itself. This problem does not get better when the trial is over, or when the big case settles, or when the new associate starts. When you’re in survival mode, you’re always on the brink of failure.

It’s time to change things. It’s time to regain control.

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Acknowledge it

Denial isn’t acceptable. The first step toward exiting survival mode is acknowledging that it’s happening. Tell yourself: This is not normal. This is not sustainable. This makes everything worse.

If you’re in survival mode, recognize it, own it, and pay attention to the damage it’s doing to your long-term growth. Things won't magically get managed. You have to dig yourself out.

Given that it took a while to dig yourself into this hole, it’s going to take some time to dig out. The situation won’t resolve overnight. It takes radical action over time to get yourself back on track. There is no quick fix.

2. Stop whining

Stop whining. That sort of talk slows you down. It invites others to complain, which will slow you down further. Stop consoling yourself with “I tried my best.” Trying doesn’t matter. There will be no A for effort.

Something is broken in your firm. Odds are it’s rooted in the triad of (1) too little time to do too much, (2) prices which are too low, (3) a lack of quality clients who can afford sustainable pricing.

Those flaws in your business model will only get fixed through better planning and action. Complaining won’t help.

You’ve been through tougher times. This struggle will be resolved, but the resolution only comes from effort, not whining. Complaining is the first piece of your old way of thinking and it needs to go.

Stop complaining and move forward. Less talk. More action. Stay positive.

3. Bring mistakes to the surface

Survival mode is a breeding ground for mistakes, missed deadlines, and lost progress. You need to properly assess the situation before you can fix it. After all, there’s no way to fix the problem if you don’t understand its scope.

Determine what needs to be addressed now or down the road. Assess the client list. Where do you stand on all these projects, matters, and cases? Don’t hide anything (and don’t let anyone else hide it either). Force everyone to reveal their hidden problems, even the stuff buried in the associate's drawer or computer.

(Survival mode invariably leads to employee cover-ups. There’s always something. Offer amnesty if necessary.)

4. Forgive yourself

Survival mode is the result of both system and personal failure. It didn't happen by accident. You had a (seemingly) good plan in the beginning, but it didn’t work. Shit happens. Accept that, forgive yourself for your mistakes, and move forward.

To err may be human, but that doesn’t make it any easier to realize that it’s our fault. We must accept our mistakes – at least to ourselves – or we can’t grow. Use this situation as a wake-up call, because your future depends on how you respond.

Everyone fails, but not everyone is resilient. Your resilience is why you’re reading this article right now. You’re looking for a solution, which is smart. Hold on to that resilience.

Forgive yourself, but don’t forget the mistakes that put you into survival mode. That’s how you learn, and learning is critical if you want to move forward on a better path.

5. Ask for help

We’re proud of our strengths and our self-sufficiency. We’re embarrassed when things break down. We’re hypersensitive when we fail.

Ask for help. Ask your insurance carrier or your licensing agency. Find local resources. Take advantage of whatever is available. Then dig deeper. Ask nearby lawyers for help. You’ll be surprised at the generosity of others in the legal community. Be open, tell the truth, and accept what’s offered.

Quick story: I once created a mess for myself during a trial. I had no idea how to fix the problem because I assumed, incorrectly, that I was so smart that I had evaluated and exhausted all the possible solutions. Then I asked for help and the experts working for my malpractice carrier fixed it. I was embarrassed, but also relieved.

Our fear of embarrassment leads us to hide our problems. That puts us right back where we started – in survival mode.

But we already know that survival mode isn’t sustainable. Reach out for the help you need. Don’t let your pride get in the way, because that’s partly how you got into this mess in the first place.

Remind yourself that your peers aren’t looking at you or thinking about you. They are too busy thinking about themselves. Get the help you need.

6. Start talking to the clients

When we’re in survival mode, we have a tendency to withdraw into our shell. We go silent. We disappear.

Call your upset clients, your clients on the verge of upset, as well as your clients who aren’t upset at all. Talking to clients always makes things better. Avoiding client communication always makes things worse, so get back into communication mode.

The first client you call should be the one you dread the most. Put it behind you ASAP.

Apologize to your clients where necessary. Update them even if it’s merely to acknowledge the delay. You don’t need to broadcast your messy situation, but you should speak to those impacted. Take responsibility.

7. Learn the lessons

You’re in survival mode because your business is broken. You can’t fix your business unless you see it objectively.

Step back and look at your business as if it were a stranger’s. What went wrong? What can you see from a distance? What can you learn?

How did you get here? Which events caused problems? What could have been done differently? Which pieces of the machine are broken?

Don’t let your analysis become personal. Be distant and objective. Don’t get bogged down in what happened to you or who said what or who broke which promise.

Look at the big picture. Look at the marketing, the management, the technology and the finances. Learn from what happened so you don’t repeat the same mistakes.

8. Make a new plan

It took hard work to get to where you are, even if your situation is a mess. Believe it or not, just being able to create your situation takes talent and skill. You need those qualities to create and implement a new, sustainable plan.

The new plan shouldn’t look like the old plan because the old plan didn’t work. You need a new approach that gets you out of the slow, painful death of survival mode and keeps you free. Only then can you direct your energy toward digging.

Your new plan may require releasing some staff, terminating some clients, or running up some debt. The first step, however, is to break the cycle.

Don't act without a plan that's carefully structured and vetted. Seat-of-the-pants, fast-action decision-making only perpetuates survival mode. Don't borrow cash or fire clients or staff until the plan is ready.

Use the lessons you learned when you analyzed your business objectively to address the failings of the old model. Were you undercharging? Did that create time pressure because you were forced to take more work than you could handle to pay the bills? Do you suffer from a lack of new business willing to pay an appropriate fee?

Clearly, a model based on taking too much work from clients who can’t afford to pay and then not getting the work finished because of the time crunch is not worth repeating. You need a plan that addresses the failings of the old plan.

The only way to move forward is to think long-term and execute deliberately. You’ve got to see the future, determine what you need to build it, and then commit to making it happen.

9. Reality check the plan

It’s easy to get a distorted view of your situation when you’re mired in the muck. Get some external feedback to be sure what you see is what’s actually happening. Get feedback from others who aren’t emotionally invested in your situation.

Whom should you talk to? Other lawyers who have built successful practices are one option, but lawyers tend to see the business through their own limited filter. Another option is to speak with a small business consultant. Personally, I’ve used retired business executives through SCORE.

Professionals looking at both your old model and your new model will see things more clearly than you can. It's markedly easier to critique someone else's plan than to see the same flaws in our own plan. Use their view to confirm and correct your plan. Get input that includes a harsh, objective opinion about how this looks to someone who’s not living in your head.

10. Replenish your personal resources

Mind your emotions as you move forward. Every business is impacted by the emotional health of the leader. That’s as true in a solo firm as it is in a large practice. You have to take care of you.

Do something unrelated to your business to recharge yourself. For some, that means seeing a therapist. For others, it’s exercise or meditation. Do what works for you. Keep your emotional fuel tank full.

Revive your self-worth. Do whatever you do well. For instance, I’m reasonably good at public speaking. At one low point, I jumped back into a Toastmasters public speaking class. They applaud a lot, which is nice. I always left those meetings on an emotional high.

Take time with family, friends and your therapist. Get plenty of sleep, enjoy your hobby, and take medication if that’s what you need. Treat your emotional health like it’s important, because – well, it’s important.

11. Take action

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where the “I don’t have time to keep up” bumps up against the “I have to regain control.”

Now is the time to apply all of your resources. You have time, energy, and some money. Spend them in a surge of deliberate action.

Executing the plan is a sprint to break out of survival mode, clean up the mess, and reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

Go full power here. You don’t have extra resources to expend, so you have to create them. Stay up later, get up earlier, recruit friends and family, spend whatever’s necessary, and borrow and beg some more.

Push hard through the backlog and into clear territory where you can build a comfortable lead over the chaos. Only then – once the chaos is far behind – can you level out, slow down, breathe deeper, and slide into the new long-term peace.

12. Take stock

When you implement your new plan, survival mode will eventually subside. That moment of rest is coming. But while you’re resting, it’s valuable to spend some time thinking.

You’ve dug out of the hole. You’re clear of the overwhelming obligations. Your head is above water and your bank account balance is back above zero. Now it’s time to assess. Is this what you really want? Why do you do what you do? Is this a path you still want to follow?

Have an honest conversation with yourself. Do you love your work?

If not, it’s better to focus on what you really want. Struggling at something you love leaves you with enough energy to learn your lessons and try again. Failing at something you don’t like is different.

What's your energy level now? Where do you stand? Are you excited about cranking back up? Or would you rather consider alternatives?

This will soon pass

It's time to get busy.

Worrying won’t fix the problem. In fact, worry makes it worse. When anxiety courses through our veins, action becomes less likely. Instead we become paralyzed.

The cure for the anxiety, in this instance, is action. It’s imperative that you start moving. Thinking won’t fix it. Only doing will fix it. Follow the steps detailed above and get going.

Appreciate that as you dig your way out from this situation, you’re growing as a lawyer and as a business owner. Getting into a mess is normal. It’s more than normal – it’s useful, it’s valuable, it’s important, and it’s expected. Mistakes are our greatest teachers.

Life is filled with detours, setbacks, and upsets. The only way to avoid all problems is to avoid all action. Moving forward means we sometimes make mistakes.

Ultimately, getting off track enables us get on track. It’s the drifting from one side of our ideal course to the other that enables us to be certain that we’re firmly on the path. Think of what’s happening as the rumble strips of life. Adjust, correct, and keep moving forward.

Survival mode will soon be in your past. Before you know it, you'll be in a better place, seeing things differently, and feeling better about your business. Instead of trying to get through the day, you'll be planning out the course of your year, measuring your progress, and recording your results. Survival mode is almost over.

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