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Make your work/life balance a matter of choice

Workday breakNo one ever said on their deathbed, “I wish I spent more time at the office.”

We’ve all heard, and surely believe, those words of wisdom, yet we still spend more time working than we would like — and we think and worry about it when we’re not.

If you’re a new associate, work often means late hours at the office, followed by more work at home and on the weekends. It can make young lawyers feel like their entire existence is consumed by their jobs.

Most new associates do not participate in those extended days and weeks out of a desire to keep the fun going long into the night; rather, they feel they simply don’t have a choice: “If I don’t, the partners will find someone else who will”; “This is how the firm has always done it”; “I must meet my billable hour requirement, I need to prove my worth to the firm or I’ll get fired”; etc.

And let’s acknowledge that, at some firms, and for some partners, these are real consequences of not being consumed by work. But let’s focus on where one can assert control and have a choice. Not the choice whether to work or not, but how to make real, meaningful choices in how to work, and how to live.

First, let’s discuss why it is important to have choice. When you feel like you don’t have a choice in such a major area of your life, stress goes up — a lot. That can lead to a myriad of problems: more anxiety, less sleep, more moodiness, less overall enjoyment in life. When that occurs, we look for ways to exert control in our lives.

Unfortunately, the “solution” or means of control often becomes to work even more in an attempt to reduce the stress. The thinking often goes, “If I can impress the partners, I’ll be less likely to be criticized or fired, hence less stress.” Unfortunately, that approach only feeds into the problem. The sequence can go like this:

“I feel stressed at work. I fear making a mistake, not meeting my hours, not being perceived as providing quality work, and then a bad consequence occurs. I exert control by working longer hours. I sleep less. I work when tired and over-caffeinated. My quality of work suffers. I feel more stress at work” … the cycle continues.

The trap is seductive because we know how to work hard; we’ve been trained to do so. We are comfortable with solving problems with hard work. It’s the American way. But that familiar solution only leads to trouble. The best solution is sometimes counterintuitive.

The good news — and one more firms need to appreciate — is that having a better balance in life actually makes you more productive at work. A simple example is the fact that a person is more productive in an eight-hour work day after getting regular adequate sleep than in a 12-hour work day after routinely getting only a few hours.

The better you get at having a healthy work/life balance, the better your work and personal life will be. The idea is to have fulfillment in both areas and not to sacrifice one area for the other.

There are a few good places to start making changes. Start with the easiest or most convenient. If you establish a track record of success, you will keep yourself motivated to make more significant changes. So start small and build from there:

Choose to set boundaries. Set and maintain boundaries at work and with work, like saying “no” to certain requests, eliminating over-booking, scheduling in breaks, and not trying to be everything to everyone.

Choose to identify and target good supervisors. Make a conscious choice to work with supervisors who have a reputation for respecting an associate’s time and for planning projects that do not constantly ring the fire alarms.

Choose to respect non-work time. When your body isn’t at work, make sure your mind isn’t either. You’ll find that can be a surprisingly challenging, even uncomfortable change. Start small by simply not checking your work email, answering work calls, or doing that bit of extra work during dinner or bedtime.

Choose to take control of your budget. Be mindful of how and why you spend money and develop a plan to pay off debt so you don’t feel trapped. Financial freedom allows you a broader choice of work environments.

Choose to take workday breaks and time off. Even during the busiest of days, scheduling short breaks is not only enjoyable, but necessary for productivity. Our brains can only take so much work at a time. After a while, they’ll shut down and take a break anyway, so you might as well plan ahead. It could mean taking the long way to get that glass of water, getting lost in a non-work website, or just zoning out for a bit. By scheduling regular breaks, you’ll get a feel of just how long you need to work before the respite, which will make your work time more productive and your break more rejuvenating.

Finally, scheduling vacation time is important — and that doesn’t mean visiting a destination where your main leisure activity is to stay caught up with work by checking email.

Moreover, be intentional about creating positive memories. Research has shown that weekends feel like they last longer if you’re making memories of events during the time off. If you spend it just “relaxing and doing nothing,” chances are that, afterward, you feel like the time was short. However, when you can recall multiple, enjoyable events that made up that time, it feels like the stretch was longer and more meaningful. So develop hobbies, share experiences with friends and loved ones, and make memories.

For associates, finding a work/life balance can be as challenging as any legal hurdle. So start small and establish a track record of success — and don’t put it off. Your personal life and your work life will thank you.

– By Dr. Shawn Healy, a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts.

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