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How Can Lawyers Prioritize Self-Care?

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.

September is Self-Care Awareness Month and here’s your Trivia Question! What do a lot of lawyers have in common with billionaire innovators Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos?

Answer: Their work is impressive, but their priorities are questionable. In similar and different ways. Elon Musk is sleep-deprived and friends are concerned. Jeff Bezos sleeps enough, but he’s making headlines for poor working conditions in his Amazon warehouses. They both seem pretty smart and might prevail against any odds — but in the meantime, we can learn from the mistakes they’re making on their paths to full scale market disruption and domination.

NEWS UPDATE: Elon Musk agreed to pay $20 million and quit as Tesla chairman in a deal with SEC. (See here.) And Jeff Bezos announced Amazon is raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour for all US employees. (See here.)

SELF-CARE: Sleep and Elon Musk.

Human brains need sufficient sleep to sustain peak performance. In his struggles to scale Tesla production, Elon Musk recently publicly admitted to poor sleep hygiene. Highlighting recent scientific findings on the benefits of sleep, Arianna Huffington (founder of Thrive Global) criticized his choices in an Open Letter to Elon Musk. He responded via Twitter claiming his lack of sleep is NOT AN OPTION:

Like all self-care, our sleep needs are undeniable but imprecise. Even when we understand that sleep would help us think more clearly, we can find ourselves with a more urgent need to accomplish a particular task. Burning problems on the Model 3 assembly line in a sensitive market position are a higher priority for Elon Musk than his need to sustain peak performance on future problems. Lawyers routinely face needs perceived to require immediate attention. There is no Letter of the Law to tell us exactly when we are approaching the precise point at which our sleep is insufficient and counterproductive to our work.

Since we can’t quantify the precise balance between sleep hours and work product, we need to practice self-care in The Spirit of the Law. There is no objective, quicker, easier, external answer. If you can’t avoid this deadline, what can you do to minimize sleep tradeoffs in your career future? And what can you do to bounce back quickly?

Proper self-care fuels awareness and enables you to figure out new actionable solutions. Elon Musk is gambling on whether he can get “just enough sleep” to have “clear enough thinking” to respond to production problems. Of course, now that they’ve just resolved major production problems, Tesla now faces delivery problems. He’s in unsustainable cycle with no way to limit or time to recover from sleep loss. And this just in — in response to his recent tweet about a possibility of taking Tesla private, the DOJ just opened an investigation into the company. With late night tweet worthy of an investigation, he’s starting to sound as out of control as — oops, lost my thought.

Conceiving new solutions often involves reevaluating priorities, and meaningful priorities require sacrifice. Management experts know what’s stopping Elon Musk from sleeping: his ongoing failure to delegate. If Elon Musk got more sleep, he could recognize the opportunities that sacrificing control and developing organizational leadership could deliver. (And in case you have the same struggle, learn how to delegate in your law practice.)

PRIORITY: Profit and Jeff Bezos.

In a busy culture, people are primed for convenience. And Amazon makes shopping convenient. As a Prime subscriber myself, Amazon meets needs I didn’t know I had — and there’s a cost. While the richest man in the world sleeps a full eight hours each night, workers in his fulfillment centers operate under conditions many of us consider unacceptable. Amazon insists they provide a positive workplace, and even responded with a PR push on Twitter that has NOT been well-received.

Pursuing profit first creates problems of scale that can only be fixed with better priorities. As Richard Susskind boldly acknowledges in Tomorrow’s Lawyers, traditional big firm law practice profit models aren’t sustainable. It’s a positive sign many of today’s lawyers — 75% of those studied the Thomson Reuters 2017 State of US Small Law Firms — are clear that their primary measure of success is NOT profit. You can determine and achieve a sustainable income to meet your human needs without orienting your work around profitability. And then you have to live the choices.

Reprioritizing your objectives means making sacrifices. You should be able to quantify a sustainable income that can meet your basic needs — and also be able to recognize that you want more than to meet your basic needs. If you isolate what you need to survive from what you want, you can start to explore the source of your desires — a drum major instinct, genuine connection, somewhere in between? Then identify how much more work these desires require in reality so you know what you can actually sustain without burning out.

Making the sacrifices necessary to break away from an unsustainable work volume won’t be easy. You can start with these 5 steps to heal at any point on your burnout journey. Clarifying your priorities in a way that enables you to act on them in daily life is much more challenging in practice than it sounds.

Practicing mindfulness can help you clarify and live your priorities when you’d otherwise be too distracted. Scientists can’t explain why mindfulness is beneficial, but practicing is straightforward enough. When a thought comes, you try to observe it and let it pass, rather than engage processing it. But it’s hard because our brains are creatures of habit that routinely process thoughts. But it gets easier because amazingly, our brains respond to practicing new things. Note that practicing McMindfulness “reinforces one’s egocentric drives”.

It’s important to note that if you’ve experienced trauma, you may want professional help to reexamine your thought patterns before sustaining a practice in which you endure painful thoughts. Lawyers and Law Students in Massachusetts can talk to one of our clinicians confidentially and for free — just call 617 482 9600.

For further guidance with priorities, check out the workbook on Aligning Values in our Career Research & Development Series.

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This post is featured concurrently on the main blog for our organization’s wellness, clinical, and recovery services. Future updates on this post will redirect there, where you can find other helpful resources to sustain your brain as you endure the practice of law!

CATEGORIES: Career Planning & Transition | Lawyer's Quality of Life | Productivity

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