When I traveled during college, my European friends used to say they worked to live, while Americans lived to work. Ever since then, I’ve pondered the paradox of the work-life balance discussion. The phrase itself leads one to believe that what is referred to as “work” is not part of what is referred to as “life,” and that life is everything else outside of work. As a culture that spends the majority of the waking day at work, isn’t work a part of life as much as anything else? And if not, what is missing from our work that it is so out of balance with life?
As observed by Anne Brafford, many popular writers paint the notion that work is mostly stressful and bad, and that it is separate from, or interferes with, life.
This compartmentalized view, however, obscures how important work can be to the development of the self or the synchronicity between work and many other spheres of life.
The term “synchronicity” was coined in the 1950s by psychologist Carl Jung to describe “meaningful coincidences” or “the acausal connection of two or more psychic and physical phenomena.” Although Jung’s metaphysical theory of synchronicity has been criticized, perhaps the concept can be explored anew in the work-life balance context. For example, when we become wholly present without judgment, whether it is at home with family, at school with peers, at play with friends, or at work with colleagues, meaningful connections between these spheres may occur.
In the legal profession, it is all too common to get caught up in the work dimension, with high pressures and demands, as well as the competitive and adversarial nature of many interactions. As Jeena Cho, co-author of The Anxious Lawyer, writes, “[o]ne of the challenges of law practice is the endless demands. Often, lawyers struggle to unplug from work, to be present for their loved ones.”
On the other hand, recent surveys conducted by Intapp, Inc. that polled 258 attorneys at firms with more than 50 lawyers, indicate that 78% of U.S. attorneys feel either somewhat or very satisfied with their work-life balance. Intapp attributes this satisfaction to the people they work with, the nature of the work, intellectually stimulating and rewarding work, and other common factors, such as hours, job security, and compensation.
As the wife of a combat-wounded Navy veteran, mother of four children (including twin toddlers) and two step-children, and a full-time IP lawyer, I am no stranger to the constant guilt and straying of the mind—thinking about home and my children’s safety when I’m at work, and worrying that I won’t finish an important work project when I’m at home playing with my children.
Many academics and authors have recognized this dichotomy, advocating mindfulness practices and intentional thinking to return the mind to the present moment and physical space. In The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, Dr. Amit Sood espouses five core principles to alleviate the damage to mental health caused by daily stress and mind-wandering: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning, and forgiveness. He offers what he calls “attention training” as a tool to quiet the storyteller in your head, and become more focused, relaxed, compassionate, and non-judgmental.
Scientists theorize that this focused mode engages a network of neurons in the brain called the “task-positive network.” In this mode, it is possible to work for an indefinite amount of time on a project in which you are highly engaged. Dr. Amit Sood writes, “During these times, you stop worrying about yourself, absorbed in a state of cheerful self-forgetfulness. The brain’s focused mode, with your attention externally directed, helps you perceive the world as novel (interesting) and meaningful…. Your brain can also be in the focused mode when your attention is directed internally rather than toward the outside world. With an internal focus, you think deep, purposeful and adaptive thoughts.”
In his book, Full Catastrophe Living, author Jon Kabat-Zinn posits that, similarly, mindfulness practices encourage individuals to cultivate attitudes of non-judgment, patience, trust, beginner’s mind, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. Along with these attitudes, a particular energy or motivation is required to develop true awareness. To tap into this power, it is important to make a commitment to set aside a time to practice, in a place where you feel comfortable and won’t be interrupted. However, many people, especially busy lawyers, resist the idea of setting aside this kind of time, because they feel guilty over doing something for themselves instead of the greater good. The irony is that the degree to which we can help others depends on how balanced we are.
The benefits of both focused mode and mindfulness practices are applicable and synchronous with all spheres of life, such that the work-life balance discourse may deserve reframing. If I am reading to my child, fully engaged with the words on the page and mindfully aware of my child’s giggles, I am wholeheartedly present in that moment. If I am fully involved in preparing an analysis of the similarity of two brand names, aware of my choice of words and decision-making process, I cannot be afraid or anxious about what my child is doing right then. It is only in these focused moments of full presence that we can truly live without anxiety over the future, depressive thoughts about the past, mindless reactions to a daily routine, or anger and frustration over things out of our control.
In our busy work and home spheres, one obstacle to true focus or awareness is multitasking. While some multitasking may be necessary (such as preparing a family of six for the school day), habitual multitasking can hinder efficiency and even become life-threatening (such as texting while driving). Dr. Amit Sood writes that some studies have shown that habitual multitaskers were more susceptible to distractions than those who stuck to one task at a time, impairing their ability to switch from one task to another.
One conscious tool to counteract busy multitasking includes acknowledging moments of joy in our daily lives, which has been shown to reduce stress and help individuals bounce back from adversity. When we consciously tap into joy from habitual tasks, we boost the chemistry of the brain, which increases analytic ability, attentiveness, and mental productivity.
According to Yoga for Lawyers: Mind-Body Techniques to Feel Better All the Time by Hallie Love and Nathalie Martin, legal employers are beginning to implement mindfulness and well-being programs to address mental health stressors and imbalances in the profession. Because lawyers have powerful voices in society, they can affect the profession and the world in profound ways. By understanding and managing our stress, we can develop more empathy, kindness, and better interpersonal skills. Further, we can use the law as a healing profession in a complex world, which in turn helps us find greater value and purpose in the work sphere while seeing the law as interconnected with other spheres of life.
Mindfulness and focus practices can help attorneys understand the synchronicity between the different spheres of life, whether it’s at work, home, play, school or somewhere else. Work is not to be balanced against life. Rather, it is fundamental to our humanity to integrate and synchronize our occupational, emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual and social dimensions to live meaningful lives as lawyers, parents, spouses, friends, citizens, academics, and any role we might play in life’s beautiful and numerous spheres.
About the Author
Amy Pruett is partner at Williams Mullen in Virginia, where she focuses her practice on intellectual property law. Amy is also a member of the ABA Attorney Well-Being Committee. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.