Don’t Let the “When/Then” Trap Hold You Back

One the most effective ways we keep from taking action that would otherwise be good for us is by succumbing to the trap of “when/then” thinking. It’s rooted in our emotions (often the emotion of fear), but we experience it in our heads through the internal dialog we have when confronted with an opportunity to take a positive (though uncomfortable) action.

Here are a few examples from our practice management consulting with lawyers that might sound familiar:

    • “When I have sufficient technical knowledge of these kinds of matters, THEN I’ll ask my network to refer more sophisticated cases to me.”
    • “When I have some time over the summer, THEN I’ll talk with my associate about his mildly problematic attitude.”
    • “When I have enough money in the bank, THEN I’ll invest in the tech training the staff has been asking for.”

“When/then” thinking is particularly pernicious because there’s often a plausible intellectual rationale for our inaction. For example, after rigorous analysis, it might, in fact, be wise to wait on going after those more complex cases. But if you don’t take concrete action to acquire the requisite technical knowledge, time will pass indefinitely and you’ll stay stuck in that when/then illusion. Likewise, it might be strategically appropriate to hold off on the employee conversation or the tech training, but . . . it probably isn’t. It’s probably the fear of confrontation or the fear of financial lack that’s holding you back, despite the likelihood that acting on both would improve your business condition, not worsen it.

So, when you notice yourself thinking or saying any of the following:

    • “When I . . . / then I . . .”
    • “When we . . . / then we . . .”
    • “Once I . . . / then I . . .”
    • “Once we . . . / then we . . .“

Stop and play devil’s advocate with yourself. Challenge yourself to assess whether it’s essentially fear or true business acumen at work. If it’s the latter, great. Now you’re certain and you can focus on what you have to do to make the “when” a reality. If it’s the former, take the action anyway. As is often observed, courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the ability to take action in spite of it.

About the Author

Bill Jawitz, Law Firm Coach and Consultant

Bill Jawitz has been coaching lawyers to become more profitable and enjoy a higher quality of life since 2002.

He can be reached at or at 203.806.1300.

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