How to Make Time For Yourself
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
“Those who don’t make time for exercise will eventually have to make time for illness.”
—Edward Stanley, 19th century British statesman
When we talk with attorneys about self-care, the constant refrain we hear is, “I just don’t have time.” Ironically, lawyers who do take time to recharge often fall victim to the phenomenon of “stresslaxing,” where you are so stressed that relaxing makes you more stressed because you’re not working on whatever is causing you stress!
We’ve likely all fallen victim to one or both of these ways of thinking at some point in our professional lives. But this isn’t “just the way it is”—we have a decision to make. By actively reframing our mindset about what we choose to spend our time on, we can realize significant positive benefits for our legal practice and overall well-being.
Foreclosure attorney Sarah Poriss shared her self-care success story of “reprogramming” how she thinks about work hours. By slightly adjusting her work schedule to prioritize her morning workouts, she reports enjoying and staying consistent with exercise, feeling less stress, and maintaining the same level of service to her clients.
Sarah had always felt pressure—both internal and external—to be an “early bird” to work, but this mindset caused her to regularly skip the gym. Recently, she made the conscious decision to get to the office a little later and not to rush her morning workouts. This one small adjustment in Sarah’s thinking created significant change and helped her stay consistent with exercise.
Sarah expressed, “It’s hard! My subconscious tries to beat me up about it! But I’m a solo, so I told my admin not to schedule anything before 9:30. And I push that voice out of my head telling me I’m bad for coming in ‘late.’ Instead, I say to myself: Life is short. I have to take care of myself.”
Consequences of Not Taking Care of Yourself
Especially in the digital age, it’s more important than ever to build in time to rest and refresh. Given our near-constant connectivity, many of us may be tempted to squeeze in work all day, every day. Technology has a lesson to teach us here—even machines need rest! Like our devices, our bodies and minds need daily opportunities to recharge and refresh; otherwise, they start malfunctioning or die.
Attorneys, like all humans and machines, also need rest—perhaps even more so than others. When we are in a constant state of output, our brains and bodies can’t function optimally, which can lead to mental health concerns, physical illness and disease, relationship problems, and more.
Continually giving to others without refilling our own cup is also a recipe for occupational burnout and experiencing the ill effects of secondary traumatization. Indeed, studies show that practicing law can be hazardous to your health, as lawyers are at heightened risk of developing health concerns.
What Holds Lawyers Back
Despite the disproportionately high rates of wellness issues plaguing our profession, the majority of attorneys do not get help. Perceived stigma and judgment from others can hold us back from seeking support and making much-needed changes to maintain our health and ability to practice. By way of example, Sarah Poriss shared that she felt judged by her staff for coming in “late” at 9:30 on days that she exercises. Fortunately, Sarah’s commitment to her healthy lifestyle habits prevailed despite others’ resistance to change.
The time is now to shift the status quo and actively create spaces where legal professionals can flourish because of, rather than in spite of, our work environments. Historically, many attorneys treat overworking as a badge of honor; this has created an environment where lawyers feel shame or imposter syndrome when they implement healthy boundaries and enjoy work-life balance. (Remember, even “billable-hours machines” need rest.)
Take Charge of Your Life: Getting Started
Shifting mindset and changing deeply entrenched habits is simple but not easy. According to a 2020 survey of 2,000 Americans conducted by OnePoll, the average respondent reported sticking to their New Year’s Resolutions for 36 days. More than a third of survey participants cited failure to track progress as an obstacle to forming new habits.
The steps outlined below—Prepare, Prune, Pass it On, and Plan—are designed to help readers both prioritize projects and reinforce new behaviors by mindfully creating and maintaining written records. If you are ready to reclaim time for yourself, why not start implementing the following suggestions today?
Set aside 30 to 60 minutes on your calendar every Friday afternoon to get ready for the upcoming week. By creating space for this process, you have made time to mindfully reflect on how you are going to invest the precious moments of your life.
Begin by making a written list of everything (personal and professional) that you believe needs to be accomplished during the upcoming week. Those who already maintain a to-do list are off to a good start. Be sure to include exercise, massages, and other self-care events.
Through pruning, the to-do list is transformed into a must-do list. Pruning is simply prioritizing so that you can make the most productive use of the finite number of hours you have been granted. Never forget that self-care is always a priority.
Determine first which items can be eliminated forever. For example, it may be time to resign from a long-held volunteer position that no longer brings you joy. Perhaps there is an aggravating and time-consuming case that you should refer out, both for your sake and your client’s.
Next, identify which projects do not need to be completed this week and reassign them to a second list commonly known as the “parking lot.” Regularly refer back to the list and undertake these tasks only after you have accomplished your time-sensitive items.
Pass It On
As you review the pared-down must-do list, consider whether performing a given task is the highest and best use of your valuable time. If not, think about who else can accomplish it under your supervision. You may delegate to an existing team member, hire someone as an addition to your staff, or outsource to gig economy workers. The demands of your personal life (such as chores and errands) can also be outsourced to family members or to paid helpers. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for an exercise that we have developed to assist with delegation entitled “The Responsibility Shift.”
You may also wish to utilize “The Ideal Week,” an activity-management tool that will help you stay the course. Although a number of sophisticated planning tools are on the market, The Ideal Week has served Cindy well for the past 15 years. Complete the following exercise using The Ideal Week template:
Fill in the blocks of time with the “must-dos” of the week. For example, you may block off two hours on Monday for a court appearance, 90 minutes for exercise, one hour to work on a brief due in two weeks, one hour for business development activities, and one hour to watch a virtual CLE. Where there are “open” blocks on a given day, you can either fill in with tasks taken from the “parking lot” or even take some time for yourself to take a walk or go shopping.
Planning in a granular fashion will help you adhere to a regular work schedule and, most importantly, carve out time for self-care. At the end of each day, conduct a review of the progress you have made and scope out the schedule for the following day, which will put you in a position to hit the ground running first thing in the morning.
Your upcoming days, weeks, and months will be defined in part by the decisions you make and the actions you take today. If you commit to small changes now, the positive results will certainly inspire you to continue on a path of continued growth and self-care.
In next month’s column, we will share techniques for making and keeping New Year’s resolutions.
Rebecca Howlett, Esq. and Cynthia Sharp, Esq. are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (legalburnout.com) a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers.
Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, Dec. 2021 Issue (Vol. 11, No. 5) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.