You know that decorative sign you see sometimes at home décor stores? It says something like “Life is a journey, not a destination?” With apologies to the pundit who coined that phrase, permit me to offer this variation: well-being is not a destination, it is a journey. Even for those of us who regularly focus our attention on our well-being, both personal and professional, there will never be a time when we can say that we’ve achieved permanent well-being.
Much as life is always changing, and our practices are always changing, our state of well-being is always changing. So, like anything else, well-being requires regular maintenance and effort to become long-lasting. On our journey to maintain well-being, we need supplies – much as a road trip requires (at least in my family) beverages, snacks and a good map app.
So, in no particular order, here are some tips that may help you on your journey.
Take breaks, you deserve them. It is so easy to get wrapped up in a project or an activity and forget to give yourself some downtime. So, what happens? You get tired and your ability to reason, make good decisions, and process information decreases as well. Additionally, there are physical effects if you are parked in front of your computer screen – anything from eye strain to dry eye, to neck, shoulder, or back pain. What’s one possible solution? Take a break. Even a five-minute break can allow you to refresh, ease the physical impact, and get back to work with new vigor. Many apps and physical timers can help you enforce that break – just search for “take a break timers” and an array of choices will appear.
Show compassion to yourself. Yes, you are a learned professional. Yes, people turn to you in times of crisis. And yes, you deserve the same compassion you extend to others under stress, in crisis or who just need a helping hand. This means giving yourself some grace – ease up on yourself! Lawyers tend to be perfectionists and very hard on themselves. Stop beating yourself up. “Forget the mistake, remember the lesson.” Yes, I frequent home décor stores too often. But the point is valid. You can’t undo what you’ve done – but what you can do is learn from it and do better next time.
Set boundaries. This could be a whole article on its own. But for now, we’ll focus on setting boundaries between you and your client. How does this apply to your well-being journey? You don’t have to be always “on” or available to your clients. It’s OK for you to have personal time that is sacrosanct – maybe it’s dinner time with the family; maybe it’s a few hours in the evening or on the weekend when you focus on yourself.But it is not necessary to be available 24/7. No one is – not 911 operators, not heart surgeons, no one. Why? The boundaries you set should be clear to your clients – depending on the nature of your practice you may need to have an emergency plan for your clients, but it’s doable. Take time for yourself.
While they are doing that, lawyers can sometimes absorb the crisis mindset of their clients. Hours of seminars and volumes of books are devoted to the impact of vicarious trauma. It’s typically defined as the mental or emotional trauma we absorb from those who have suffered it directly; sure, that’s a bit of a simplification, but you get the idea. You have to, not should but have to, protect yourself if you are going to do your best work for your clients and maintain well-being in what should be the long and productive practice of law. If you are having trouble creating that healthy emotional distance, there is no shame in seeking professional help to guide you. Your state or local bar likely has a member assistance program that may help or serve as a referral source.
Be kind. You’ve heard it, seen it, been advised about it. In a world where you can be anything, be kind. Kindness in the legal profession may also be translated as being courteous or professional. Is it necessary to be the human equivalent of a pit bull? No. Many courts have adopted professionalism standards into their rules of professional conduct, but even if yours hasn’t, try to extend professional courtesy to opposing counsel. Kindness also has a beneficial effect on your firm culture – personal kindness can go a long way to making your workplace a better place to work. You spend so many of your waking hours there (assuming you are back in the office), isn’t it better for it to be a pleasant, supportive environment?
Practice gratitude. This can take as little as minutes but can reframe your whole day. A gratitude practice is sometimes part of a more comprehensive mindfulness practice, or it can be the first step in creating one. Everyone may do this a little differently – perhaps at the beginning or the end of the day. Even if you are a morning person (and I am definitely not!) – try this: each morning after you fully wake up, think of two or three things you are grateful for. It doesn’t have to be something of great magnitude. Maybe you are grateful that you didn’t sleep through your alarm and woke up on time; sometimes in the middle of the brutally hot Arizona summer I take a moment to be grateful that I am not going to spend my day working outside; or maybe it is that you are physically well. You get the idea. Start doing this every day and you will feel a lift. We all have something to be grateful for, even in what seems to be the depth of a crisis; and thinking of it as you start your day will hopefully start your day out on a positive note.
Get sleep and good nutrition. It is hard to cultivate well-being if you are continually sleep-deprived. Years of research tell us that continual sleep deprivation has physical and mental impacts – anything from autoimmune diseases to serious mental illness. The optimal night sleep is between seven and nine hours a night. You may be saying, I have young kids, I’m lucky to get six. I get it, but do the best you can to get a regular sleep schedule. Your children won’t be young forever. And please, give up the thought that you can catch up on the weekend, or on vacation, etc. Sleep doesn’t work that way. You can’t make up for regularly getting insufficient sleep.
As for nutrition, COVID had a negative impact on all but the most diligent of us in the nutrition area. We were home, we were quarantined, we cooked (or baked) and we ate. But good nutrition is key to well-being – not only physical health, but mental health as well. Try one “healthy eating” day a week to start – it may be for you that it’s the day you eat salad, or go meatless, or cook at home rather than dining out. Take that first small step. Once you see the difference, it will be easier to make longer and lasting change for the better.
Be in the moment. That’s my sneaky way of working in mindfulness. Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean meditating for minutes or hours. Mindfulness is simply focusing your attention on what you are doing. It may be as simple as putting down your phone while you eat – or turning off the TV. Focus on the food, on the taste, on how it smells. There is a great cartoon that encapsulates mindfulness – in it a man is sitting on a bench next to his dog facing some lovely scenery. In the thought balloon over the man’s head, are a plethora of images representing the man’s thoughts at the time; in the thought balloon over the dog’s head, there is only a picture of the man. The caption reads something like “why dogs are happier than people.” Be the dog. Focus on the one thing you are doing and not everything, even if its only for five minutes. There, you’ve just practiced mindfulness. Now, see how easy it is to incorporate that into your daily life? Start small and work up.
Find your people. We all have “our people,” or if we don’t, we can find them with a little effort. These are the people who get you. They understand you, who you really are, and support you. They are the ones you call when things go well, or when they go bad. Find those people – and it might just be one person to start. Where do you find those people if you are a practicing lawyer? Maybe an affinity bar, maybe your state or local bar, maybe a religious organization, a club… And once you find your people, please see the tip about taking time for yourself. Take the time to nurture that relationship. It’ll be good for both of you.
About the Author
Roberta Tepper is the chief member services officer for the State Bar of Arizona and was formerly the director of the state bar’s Lawyer Assistance Programs. She was the co-chair of the 2021 ABA TECHSHOW and is on the Law Practice Division Council. Contact her on Twitter @azpractice2_0.