The Olympics are coming this summer. Imagine the marathoners winding their way through the city of London. As the camera zooms in on the winner crossing the finish line what do you expect to see? Will he be taking a swig of water and saying “I have to run my second marathon now, where’s the starting line for the next event?” Absurd – right? And yet, when it comes to the gruelling demands of intellectual work it is so easy to forget our physical needs and limitations and expect the equivalent of an endless marathon.
Tony Schwartz has founded a successful consulting company working with the business world teaching the fundamentals of optimizing performance. In his book Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live he summarises the challenge:
Our most fundamental need is to spend and renew energy. Most of us spend more energy than we adequately renew. All systems in our body pulse rhythmically when we are healthy – heartbeat, brain waves, body temperature, blood pressure, and hormone levels. Even in sedentary jobs, physical energy is the foundation on which high performance rests. Failing to take care of ourselves physically ensures that we’ll ultimately be suboptimal at whatever we do.
As a coach one of the frequent comments I hear from lawyers is: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I am finding is so hard to concentrate and get down to work.” This comment is accompanied by feelings of guilt for not working hard enough or being productive enough when the contrary is true. In many instances it is because the lawyer has been working so hard for such a long period of time they have run out of energy. Their body and mind are saying: “I’ve had enough; I’m not doing any more.”
Legal practice is at times like a sprint and at others a marathon. To enjoy a rewarding personal and professional life it is essential to develop your own approach for balancing energy exertion and renewal during these times. To help you get started here are the two approaches to try out. They are from the book Coming Up for Air: How to Build a Balanced Life in a Workaholic World by Beth Sawi.
Pulsing is about getting creative with your schedule. This approach combines working long hours a few days a week with leaving work earlier on other days. You exert yourself intensely, and then recuperate with a shorter day.
Here’s how it looks in practice: Patrick was feeling like he wasn’t getting enough quality time with his children. He had a high pressure legal practice and the long days meant that most nights he returned home with just a few minutes to spend with his kids before their bedtime, or missed seeing them entirely. Patrick was feeling like an absentee father. He decided to try a pulsing strategy. He worked very late on Tuesday nights and on Thursdays he left the office early to pick his children from daycare and spend the late afternoon with them. This extra time with them mid-week helped Patrick to feel like he was getting his “father time in.” Patrick found that this practice worked best when it was on a regular schedule. And in cases where work demands required it, he would change the night or nights he worked late but he always made sure to get in his special afternoon time with his kids. Patrick’s children loved their special time with heir father and Patrick felt like he was achieving a better balance between his parenting and work priorities.
This kind of a pulsing strategy can work well with a busy solicitors practice. Working long hours every day will lead to exhaustion and a significant reduction in performance. Instead, mixing it up with some shorter work days gives time for personal priorities and recuperation.
Phasing is for those times when a project requires an extended period of intense work. This might be triggered by a large transaction, or a court case. With phasing it is crucial to take action to ensure you can sustain the marathon activity over a period of weeks or months.
- Don’t abandon your personal priorities. Find small ways of investing in these even when you are in a heavy work phase. For example, if family is your priority, take a few minutes for a Skype video call with your kids. Or leave behind a personal note that can be read to them at bedtime.
- Plan your food strategy. Eat several small healthy meals at your desk. Keep a supply of fresh fruit, nuts, and other nutritious foods that you can graze on during the day. This will help you to avoid the temptation of unhealthy fast food.
- Take short breaks every hour to give your brain an opportunity to recharge. Get up and get a glass of water. Close your eyes and slowly breathe in and out for one or two minutes. Take a quick walk around the office or around the block.
- Don’t stop exercising. Find a gym close to the office and get out several times a week, even if only for twenty-minutes.
- Establish a regular sleep schedule. The best approach is to try and stick to a set sleep schedule to ensure you get as much rest and recuperation each night as possible.
It is important to know and plan for when regular work hours will resume. Work must not be an endless phase of early mornings and late nights. Many lawyers have reported that after completing a transaction they procrastinate and are completely ineffective at work. This type of a physical and mental reaction is natural and it is most effective to plan for it and take a break instead of trying to work through it. Schedule in a period of recovery after you are through the phase of intense work. Accountants go through these phases every year during tax season. Many follow this with vacations and/or reduced hours in order to recuperate and catch-up on their personal priorities.
A word about personal priorities: It can be helpful to take the time to think through what these are for you. When we aren’t clear on our priorities, or have not taken steps to emphasise these in our life, the default becomes work. I have posted a simple priority setting exercise here for you to try. Once you have your list of five top personal priorities write them down and keep the list in a place where you can review it on a regular basis. Plan what small actions you will take each day or each week to invest in those priorities. How much energy and attention we have for the various competing priorities in our lives will always be in flux. This practice of identifying personal priorities and investing in them even in the busy periods is a crucial source of satisfaction and stress release.