Last week, I talked to a lawyer who shared she was experiencing feelings of exhaustion that she’s never felt before. “It feels like my limbs are too heavy to carry,” she said after a long pause and a deep sigh. “I never have enough time. I am constantly rushing from one thing to the next… from a meeting to a conference call to a deposition. By the time I get home, I’m so exhausted I have nothing left. I feel like such a terrible mother. I’m a failure.”
This feeling of having too much to do, constantly rushing from one thing to the next, feeling tired (or exhausted) is very common for lawyers. A common observation during the short 6-minute guided meditation session I do in just about every talk I give is sleepiness. This is a telltale sign of not getting enough sleep. Most lawyers report eating lunch at their desk every day and being connected to work during all of waking hour.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling as though you should be working around-the-clock. With iPhones and smartphone devices, work travels us, everywhere we go, demanding 24/7 attention. More toxic is the billable hour with the endless pressure to bill more. Rarely, do we think about the quality of the hours, or work culture or sustainability.
This is why I believe practicing mindfulness on a regular basis may be the single most important thing we can do to maintain our own well-being.
Here’s the thing. Your clients and your firm will never tell you — you’ve been working too much. Why don’t you take a day off? It is up to each and every one of us to know ourselves well enough to say, I need a day off. It takes courage to say, my current work hours aren’t sustainable.
Sometimes, lawyers will ask me if they just practice mindfulness, if they’ll be able to meet all the demands of their life. There’s certainly research to suggests that mindfulness practices increase focus and concentration. It will also make you more resilient to stress. However, it is certainly not a cure-all. Mindfulness isn’t going to turn into a robot, never needing rest, relaxation, time for play, or to simply practice being.
What mindfulness will do is increase self-awareness. Rather than simply saying “yes” to everything that’s presented to you, you’ll become more discerning. You’ll gain an understanding of what you truly value and have the space to reflect on how you can honor those values by spending time on the people and things you care about.
Mindfulness also helps us to see that our perceptions or understanding of the way things are (or has to be) is flawed. For example, the feeling that only you can do all the things on your to-do list, that asking for help is a sign of weakness, or that you are a failure — these are simply thoughts which may not actually be true.
We can also learn to take a kinder and friendlier stance towards ourselves. We can begin to recognize that it’s not possible for anyone to put in a 14 hour workday then go home to be the “perfect” parent. We can let go of that inner dialogue which demands perfection at every moment and replace it with a more helpful set of thoughts.
Unfortunately, when we’re experiencing deep exhaustion or burnout, this is perhaps the most difficult time to pause, unplug and take a step back. We’re so caught up in the work that we can’t see anything else. It can feel overwhelming to think about doing anything else, to do anything differently.
It’s a catch-22. You need time to practice mindfulness so you can gain more clarity, but the idea that you don’t have time is so persistent that the thought of sitting down quietly to turn your attention inward can feel terrifying.
Rather than get caught up thinking about how you’re going to fit mindfulness into your schedule, simply choose a very short period of time (2 – 10 minutes works great) and simply breathe. You can use a guided meditation to help you.
You can also check out Mindful Pause, a 31-day program designed for the busy lawyer. It’s just 0.1 hour per day.