Is it just me or could you use a refresher on well-being essentials for lawyers too? The colder and darker winter days in the Midwest are never easy. On top of that, this year we’re faced with a surge in COVID-19 cases, an unknown pandemic end date, political and social unrest, family and holiday obligations, and don’t forget high-stress jobs in the legal profession.
So, how can we realistically improve or at least maintain our well-being? I have written before about making sure your well-being toolkit is ready. While exercise and eating well are important right now and often stressed, I want to discuss three well-being essentials for lawyers that we already do and cost nothing. However, the key is maximizing their benefits.
1. Get Enough Sleep
I recently attended the 2020 ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) conference online. The session that had the biggest impact on me was the one on sleep. Yes, I said sleep.
Before this session, I never gave much thought to the science of sleep and the effects of not getting enough. Not surprisingly, the legal profession ranks high for stress and low for quality sleep.
Like you, law school was a time in my life where I got little sleep. Unfortunately, this often continues as we start our legal careers and try to keep up with the demands of being a lawyer. For some of us, a lack of sleep continues throughout our careers.
According to sleep scientist Matthew Walker, “Human beings are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain.” The National Sleep Foundation recommends eight hours of sleep per night for adults, but few are getting this.
A lack of sleep is defined as six hours or fewer a night and it can have serious negative consequences for your concentration, memory, and immune system; it can even shorten your life span. In addition, people who sleep fewer than seven hours a night are at a higher risk for obesity, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, depression, and substance abuse.
Robin M. Wolpert, Chair of the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board, spoke at the CoLAP conference on how a lack of sleep can create ethical issues for lawyers. When we get enough sleep, according to Wolpert, we can increase our ability to learn, retain information, make logical decisions, and navigate social interactions. However, when we don’t get enough sleep, our emotional intelligence is reduced, which can lead to ethical issues when making decisions. Sleep studies show that people who work through the night have the same cognitive impairment as being legally drunk.
So, how can we maximize our sleep? First, Wolpert said that regularity is critical. You need to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. Unfortunately, sleep cannot be made up. If you don’t get enough sleep during the week, you cannot make up for it on the weekend. For the past few days, I’ve been going to bed by 10 p.m. and getting up at 6 a.m. and I must admit that I’m feeling more rested already.
The other change Wolpert emphasized is making sure your bedroom is associated with sleep only. If things like a work desk are in your bedroom, you’re more likely to think about work and all its stressors rather than just sleeping.
Check out Walker’s TED talk “Sleep is Your Superpower” for other useful sleep strategies.
2. Take a Break
Sounds simple, right? But how many of us don’t take breaks when working? As law students, we were trained to take exams that ran 3 hours or longer — and that’s not even including the 2-3-day bar exam.
It’s no surprise then that lawyers are also not skilled in the art of taking a break. While working from home, I often find myself realizing that a few hours have passed and I haven’t gotten up from my desk. If you’re doing this too, you may think you’re maximizing your time and work, but this isn’t true.
Any break is better than no break. A study in Applied Cognitive Psychology found that performance was better in groups that took breaks compared to groups that did not. Breaks provide many benefits such as an energy boost, renewed focus, increased motivation, and more creativity.
There are several strategies for maximizing break time. The employment website Indeed suggests logging off of your computer at these points during the day: when you need to focus, when your eyes are tired, when it’s mealtime, and when it’s beautiful outside.
Robert Pozen, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, suggests that people can maximize learning and focus by taking a 15-minute break every 75 to 90 minutes. This is based on studying the practice times of professional musicians.
Another popular break method is to work for 52 minutes and then take a 17-minute break. For this method to work, you need to work hard for the 52 minutes and then take a real break that doesn’t consist of checking emails, returning phone calls, etc.
3. Don’t Forget to Laugh
Laughter has been one of the saving graces for me in 2020. It’s also a favorite of mine when it comes to well-being essentials for lawyers. There are plenty of lawyer jokes, but the need for laughter in the high-stress legal profession shouldn’t be underestimated.
“It’s a type of mental armor that allows us to manage the unmanageable,” said Sherri Gordon in a recent blog post on the website Verywell Mind. And with a global pandemic, we’re experiencing a lot of things that seem unmanageable.
According to the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor, people experience a 39% reduction in stress just by anticipating humor. Laughter is similar to a vigorous workout because it can boost the immune system, relax muscles, aid in circulation, and protect against heart disease as well as lower anxiety, release tension, improve mood, and foster resilience.
Even though we are in the midst of a terrible global pandemic, psychologists recommend prioritizing laughter because it helps people take back their sense of power in a powerless situation and connect with others.
Tony Pacione, Deputy Director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program, agrees that prioritizing positivity and social connectedness are important in developing the resiliency that will get us through hard times. Pacione encourages lawyers to continue to engage with those who provide comfort and support, even if it‘s virtually, as well as maintain activities that promote positive emotions.
Not sure where to get your laugh on? At the start of the pandemic, USA Today compiled a list of funny bits to watch when you’re stuck inside and need a laugh. Start here.
What other well-being essentials for lawyers would you recommend? Please share in the comments below.
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