Strategies to Prevent Burnout and Prioritize your Well-Being
“I don’t have time.” This is a constant refrain I hear from attorneys when it comes to prioritizing their health and well-being. But I can assure you from personal experience, if you don’t make time to take care of your basic needs, you will be forced to make time for the inevitable fallout. As a fledging attorney, I prioritized my work life above all else—my physical and mental health, my relationships—and within two years of entering private practice I found myself completely consumed by burnout.
It took years to get my mind, body, and spirit back in working order. My journey involved therapy, implementing regular mindfulness meditation, and consciously re-tooling how I approach my professional life. Gone are the days of instantly hopping onto my computer before even getting out of bed, not moving from my desk for 8+ straight hours, and instantaneously answering e-mails no matter the time of day. Boundaries have literally saved my life. Below are a few of the general frameworks that I’ve found most helpful on my journey to restore and preserve my well-being as a legal professional.
1. Prioritize self-care no matter what. “Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda. There will always be another “fire drill” that requires your attention—another deadline, another filing, another client to attend to. But you can’t pour from an empty cup. Putting yourself first is essential to your short and long-term success as a lawyer and a human being. Schedule in time for yourself no matter how brief—even just a minute or two!—and keep that appointment. Reframe this time for self-care as an appointment with your most important client—YOU! You are truly the most important relationship in your life. So set aside the excuses, set aside the guilt, and put your oxygen mask on first.
2. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. Doing “your best” won’t look the same every day. Some days I’ll meditate and workout and stretch and go for a walk and read for leisure. And other days my best may simply be taking a shower! Begin by setting small SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based)—e.g. be active for 30 minutes 3x/week—and build slowly from there. Check in with your goals regularly to see how you’re doing and if you need to adjust. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself no matter your starting point or how slow your progress.
3. Be grateful. Even if you “don’t have time” for a formal meditation practice, a simple way to live more mindfully is by practicing gratitude. So busy that there never seem to be enough hours in the day? Instead of framing this circumstance in the negative, be grateful for such a thriving practice and the number of clients you get to assist. Try taking a few moments when you wake up or before you go to bed to reflect on three things you are thankful for. A little gratitude goes a long way.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is your well-being. Frame your healthy lifestyle choices as part of a continuing endeavor to achieve and maintain your health and well-being over a lifetime. One step at a time. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu.
Rebecca Howlett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an attorney, legal educator, and certified meditation instructor. In spring 2020, she co-founded legalburnout.com with the mission of empowering others to effectively manage their stress by promoting holistic health and mindfulness practices in the legal field.
© 2021. Originally published in ABA GPSolo Magazine, Sept/Oct Issue (Vol. 38, Issue 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.