Near the end of my first year of law school I unfortunately witnessed one of my classmates having what appeared to be a nervous breakdown during a class after a confrontation with a professor. Although that incident occurred over twenty years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday and it was my first exposure to the significant challenges associated with wellness in the legal profession.
Last year the American Bar Association (ABA) issued its first ABA Profile of the Legal Profession report and it contained this quote in its “Lawyer Well-Being” chapter: “In September 2018, the American Bar Association launched a campaign to address the troubling rates of alcohol use, substance use and mental health issues among lawyers. Recent studies show that lawyers struggle with these problems at levels substantially higher than the general population and other highly educated professionals.” These unfortunate facts were also backed up by a wealth of supporting data that was referenced in the report.
Several years ago when my son was just a few months old we took our first flight with him to visit our family in New York for Thanksgiving – and please see a picture below of my son and I waiting for our flight at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Right before takeoff the flight attendant specifically reminded my wife and I that in the unlikely event the cabin losses air pressure and the oxygen masks drop that we should be sure to put the oxygen masks on ourselves first before doing the same with our son. While of course I have heard this similar announcement countless times prior to takeoff on planes, listening to this advice as a new dad was a bit unnerving. However, I think this episode serves as a great lesson for all of us. After all, you can’t be any good to yourself, your family, your friends, your employer and your clients/customers unless you first take great care of yourself.
Like all of you I have experienced challenges both in my personal life and during my legal career. Here are a compilation of my own wellness best practices that may be helpful to you both during your own wellness journey and as you promote stronger wellness practices as leaders for your legal organizations.
- Embracing Mindfulness: Mindfulness and meditation are becoming hot topics in Corporate America as employers seek to provide employees with more tools to better manage stress in the workplace. One of my favorite mindfulness “gurus” is Dr. Michael Gervais – who serves as the sports pyschologist for the Seattle Seahawks professional football team and I have had the good fortune to participate in his mindfulness trainings a few years ago. Dr. Gervais often talks about the importance of embracing mindfulness so that we can do a better job at “being present” in life. While I will confess that I don’t fully use mindfulness techniques in my life, I do embrace what I call “mini mindfulness” as I use mindfulness practices such as deep breathing exercises with my eyes closed for a few minutes immediately before work situations that may cause stress for me – such as when I lead an important conferences call, prior to delivering presentations, etc…
- Get Proper Sleep: A lot has been written about how our society is getting less sleep – which of course negatively impacts our productivity and wellness. Over the years I have struggled with getting a good night’s sleep and here’s a few of my lessons learned with smart sleep hygiene:
- Be Device Free: Don’t check out any of your devices for a few hours prior to going to bed to avoid stimulating your mind and eyes.
- Avoid Fluids Before Bed: In my view the less we need to wake up during the night to go to the bathroom, the better.
- Be Careful with Sleep Medications: Nowadays there are plenty of over-the-counter and prescription sleep medications available to those who have difficulty sleeping. While of course you should consult with your doctor regarding such medications, please be careful of their potential negative side effects.
- Take a Bath/Shower Before Bed: Anything you can do to calm yourself down and relax prior to bedtime is a good thing.
- Avoid Intense Conversations Prior to Sleep: I also try to avoid any serious or challenging discussions with my family or others as I want to peacefully ease into my sleep.
- Go To Bed Earlier Versus Later: I used to be a night owl but nowadays I have been going to bed earlier and waking up earlier.
- Balance Your Digital and Real Worlds: As technology is playing a bigger role in all of our lives with something known as “tech intensity,” I feel like we live in two worlds nowadays – the so-called “real” world and the “digital” world – where I spend way too much time on my devices and on social media. In my view as technology advances, it’s becoming more important for us to spend more 1:1 and in-person time with each other and to make sure that we put the appropriate boundaries in using technology in our lives – and especially as it relates to investing in more high-quality personal interactions with family, friends and co-workers.
- Delete Work Email from Phones: About two years ago I made the decision to delete my work email from my phone. Like many of us I spend way too much time on my phone and I could not resist the temptation to constantly check my work emails outside of core work hours. As a result, work and work emails would constantly be at the forefront of my mind and since I had difficulty resisting checking my work emails on my phone at nights and on the weekends, I simply deleted the Outlook app on my phone. While I no longer have work emails on my phone, I still continue to be very responsive to my team and clients in answering email via my outstanding Surface Laptop and my teammates and business clients also know they can always reach me on my proverbial “Bat Phone” via text or calling my cell phone as needed.
- Take “Real” Vacations: Several years ago a very senior Microsoft lawyer reminded me that it is important to take “real” vacations since they are necessary to “vacate” your mind and come back to the workplace refreshed – and she was absolutely right. However, as we know, many of us in Corporate America still take “fake” vacations – including myself. In this LinkedIn article from a few years ago I provided some best practices to help enable you to take a “real” vacation. While I have slipped in not taking some “real” vacations over the past few years due to the demands of my job, I’m starting to do a better job practicing what I preach and I also recognize that if my team sees me taking “fake” vacations and answering emails/taking conference calls during my vacations, they may feel compelled to do the same.
- Know When to Say No: As lawyers and legal professionals, most of us are very busy and there seems to be a never ending amount of work to do. However, we also do not want to be overwhelmed with our work and jobs so that we can bring our best every day to the workplace and feel good. Leaders should create a safe environment with their teams to let them know that it’s OK for them to say they are at capacity with their workload so that work can be redistributed to other teammates as needed.
- Avoid Negativity: As I have become older and more experienced I have learned to do a better job trying to stay away from negative thoughts and/or negative people as they are roadblocks to moving forward and being hopeful. While I also tend to be a realist, filling my brain with more positivity and filtering out the negative “noise” out there continues to serve me well.
- Listen to Music: One of my favorite pastimes nowadays is listening to music. I listen to music whenever I’m “in motion” in my car, jogging, walking, in an Uber, on the train, on a plane, in Starbucks, etc…While my playlist is largely filled with my favorite songs that I grew up to during the 1970s and 1980s – and my family, my friends, my co-workers and the public would probably make fun of my playlist – I find that listening to music is a great escape from the everyday stress in my life. One of my favorite bands is ABBA and there’s nothing like listening to “Dancing Queen,” Voulez Vous” or “Lay All Your Love On Me” to put me in a great mood – regardless of how my day is going.
- Promote Remote Work: In my opinion, the current and future of the workplace is remote work powered by leading cloud computing technology tools like Microsoft Office 365. While some legal organizations may frown on a remote work environment, I do believe that such arrangements helps to improve work life balance/integration for lawyers and legal professionals – including their levels of wellness.
- Keep Perspective: Many years ago when I was frustrated at work my dad reminded me to keep my job in perspective. He told me that as a “deal lawyer” my employer pays me a lot of money for basically putting words on a piece of paper. The point being was that I needed to stay well-grounded in reality and while of course my job is very important to me – my vocation does not involve saving lives like a fireman or a doctor. While our jobs are important, as lawyers we can probably do a better job at keeping our jobs in perspective.
- Take it Easy: As a lifelong Eagles fan – NOT the Philadelphia Eagles football team but the music group Eagles – one of my favorite songs is “Take It Easy.” Those three words are a simple reminder for all of to relax more, be less stressed out and to not take ourselves too seriously.
Physical Wellness: While you need to take great care of your mind, you also need to take great care of your body. Here are my learnings:
- Eating Right: It’s taken me a long time to realize that physically you pretty much are what you eat. For years I have always had great discipline in working out, going to the gym, etc….but I really never had the same discipline with my diet. Being smart about what I eat and managing my weight continues to be a daily struggle for me. Here are some of the eating habits that I try to embrace:
- Drink Lots of Water: When you are hungry try to fill yourself up with water.
- No Sodas: I used to be the king of drinking diet sodas but nowadays I avoid them.
- Avoid Alcohol: Basically I don’t need the extra calories of alcohol or to waste any money on it.
- No Late Night Eating: For years I would wake up in the middle of the night, go to the kitchen, eat another meal and then go back to bed. Nowadays I’ve been embracing a modified version of intermittent fasting where I stop eating by 8pm at night and don’t eat anything again until at least 8am the following day. Fasting for 12 hours is something that I can do while a typical intermittent fasting practice of 16 hours is a big stretch for me.
- Eat More When Your Burn More: On the days that I go jogging and burn more calories I’m OK with increasing my calorie intake and “cheating” on foods that I really want to eat. On the days I don’t go running I stay away from foods like breads, pasta, anything fried and sugar.
- Use Your Calories Wisely: Don’t waste the limited number of calories that should eat per day on something that you don’t like.
- Jogging: Over the last several years I have taken up jogging as a way to try to stay fit and to do a better job with managing my weight. When I moved to Chicago in 1996 I was an avid jogger, then stopped for a while and I started up again in 2012 after I lost my aunt to breast cancer. At that time I was also a new dad and I realized that I needed to be in better physical shape so that I could be around for as long as possible for my family. My regimen is that I go jogging three days a week – on Wednesday (5-6 miles), Friday (5-6 miles) and Sunday (8-9 miles). While I run like a clydesdale, I try to run faster during my Friday runs. The beauty about jogging is that you can do it virtually anywhere and I also make sure to go jogging when traveling for work, on vacation, etc….I also find jogging to put my mind at ease and it enables me to think very clearly.
- Walking: While jogging is not for everyone and some folks may not be able to physically jog, a great alternative is to take long walks. On the days I don’t go jogging I still try to get outside and walk as much as I can.
- Do Some Aerobic Activity: Even if jogging/walking does not appeal to you there are so many other physical activity options that you can choose from to improve your physical well-being. Just try something.
- Do Some Resistance Training: When I was younger I used to go to the gym a lot of and did a fair amount of resistance training with free weights. While I don’t belong to the gym anymore, I try to get my main form of resistance training via doing elevated pushups everyday – which you can pretty much do anywhere and at anytime.
- Just Keep Moving: My Grandma will be turning 100 years old in May and she seems like she has not changed that much since I was a young boy. One of her keys to such longevity is that she is always moving and she seems to be in constant motion. She inspires be to not be a “couch potato.”
- The Earlier the Better: Whatever exercise workout/routine you decide to pursue try to get it done earlier in the day versus later in the day – even if it means waking up earlier in the day. We all lead busy lives and putting off any physical activity until later in the day increases the likelihood that you’ll find excuses not to do it. The runs that I go on in the early mornings always makes the rest of my day much better.
- Be Smart: Also be careful not to over-extend yourself during any physical activity and be sure to hydrate and take breaks as needed. For the past several years people have suggested that I should train and run for a marathon. While that sounds great, I’m not interested in subjecting my body to the intense training associated with a marathon and I’ve been fortunate to be largely injury-free as an adult.
- Periodic Medical Check-ups: Be sure to have an annual medical physical with your primary care physician and complete required tests/procedures that are recommended by your physician due to your age, family history or otherwise. A sixty-something year old friend of mine – who happens to be a leading lawyer – never had a colonoscopy performed and his physician recently discovered a cancerous growth in his colon. While it was successfully removed and his medical prognosis is very positive, he should have had a colonoscopy performed when he was 50 years old.
- If You See Something, Say Something and See your Doctor. No one else knows our bodies as well as we do. If you see/feel something wrong with your body or any unusual pain be sure to see your physician immediately – and don’t let work, work travel, meetings, conference calls, etc….get in the way of scheduling and showing up at those medical appointments. Also if a spouse, partner, family member or friend shares something about their body that does not seem right, please insist that she/he see their physician immediately.
Achieving mental and physical wellness is a lifelong journey. Of course there’s no one roadmap and there’s plenty of roadblocks along the way. Don’t be discouraged by obstacles, keep driving forward and don’t be shy in seeking help when needed.