Life as a Lawyer: Slowing Down, Finding Balance….Or Not
It’s been a while since I’ve written on the blog, but today I find myself with both the time and the brainpower, so I’m taking advantage of the stillness to put recent thoughts into words.
June was an unexpectedly slow month for me at work. A couple of deals that I anticipated taking most of my time died down right at the last minute, and it took a few weeks to get ramped back up on new deals. In spite of the fact that I got a normal amount of sleep during those three weeks and was generally a happier human being, I also felt an omnipresent stress that I was getting further and further behind on my hours for the year. Even though this stress was completely self-imposed and there was nothing I could do about the hours, it was a stress that I immediately and intensely resented, the implication being that my life is going to be stressful whether I’m working too much or too little. Gloomily I wondered if that Goldilocks lifestyle is really just a series of Goldilocks moments woven into a never-ending symphony of “too hot” or “too cold”.
There was another side to my slow month, however, that brought me a different kind of realization - the benefit of slowing down. Because I didn’t have a million things on my plate all at once, I was able to step back and take time with each task I performed. The extra time allowed me to think about why I was doing something as opposed to just how to complete it. Thinking about the why allowed me to ask poignant questions, research other precedent, and offer thoughtful suggestions that occasionally turned out to be right. All of this meant that, while the quantity of my work went down, the quality went way up.
The lesson to me in all of this is clear:
Sometimes time is a key ingredient to doing things well.
Ok that may sound super obvious and kind of cliche, but think about it - how much time do we actually take in the day to process the things we’re doing? My typical weekday goes something like this: wake up, exercise while listening to a podcast, get ready while listening to scriptures, read on the train in to work, work like crazy for 10 hours, read on the train home, watch something on Netflix, go to bed. Interspersed through all of that are frequent social media “breaks” or text message conversations with friends and family. Sometimes, if I’m not too worn out from work, I’ll work on my writing or on my upcoming podcast. On Saturdays I’m usually hanging out with friends, running errands, crossing things off my Boston bucket list or entertaining guests from out of town (which I love, so don’t think I don’t want you to come visit!). On Sundays, I occasionally have meetings before church, followed by three hours of church, followed by dinners or mingles, followed by planning sessions for upcoming activities for my church congregation (I’m the Activities Co-Chair). Feeling tired from reading this yet? Me too.
It doesn’t help that I’m also a relatively impatient person who has gotten used to a go-go-go lifestyle. I am a classic victim of the “need it now” mentality, which hits me from all sides. Clients need things now, which means colleagues needed things yesterday. I sent an email about an upcoming church activity and wonder why I don’t get an immediate response. I have a never-ending to-do list that grows and shrinks in size but is never completely crossed off.
Let me pause here and say that, in spite of the hecticness of everything you just read, I have chosen to be involved in all of it. I chose my career, my hobbies, my level of engagement with friends and family. And I chose it because I wanted it. But sometimes I think I chose it because I’m crazy.
I don’t know about you, but I find that I’m constantly torn between two warring factions inside my brain. On the one hand, I long for a simpler life, one that is less chaotic, slower, and focused more on meaningful time spent with my family and friends. On the other hand, I am compelled by a desire to create and to accomplish and to make as much of my life as I possibly can. These two sides are constantly battling within me, leaving me in a never ending state of tug-of-war between my sanity and my ambition. I completely relate to the line in Hamilton when the cast wonders, “Ev’ry day you fight like you’re running out of time...How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive? How do you write like you need it to survive? How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive? Ev’ry second you’re alive? Ev’ry second you’re alive?” Sometimes I worry that I took too long to figure out what I wanted out of life and am making up for lost time, which means time is something I’m terrified of losing.
Nevertheless, I’m also learning that time allows for things to seep into the corners of your mind as opposed to quickly skimming past the surface. This should not be a surprising fact. Studies are increasingly showing that humans need downtime - often - to process and internalize what’s happening in the world around them. Otherwise our brains rebel and we either burn out (been there! done that!) or become so inefficient that we are shown out.
Now that I have rediscovered this very obvious truth, my goal is to start slowing down, mainly in the context of letting things take their time.
Here are three major ways I force myself to slow down during the week:
One of my very favorite places in Boston is a place called Spy Pond. Sometimes I go running on the Minuteman Bike Trail and I always stop at Spy Pond. I find a quiet corner, sit down, listen to the music of Sarah Jarosz and just think about life, where it is currently and where it’s headed vs. where I want it to be. I watch the people moving around me, the ducks swimming on the pond, the summer breeze against my skin, and the sunset or sunrise over the lake and I just take time to breathe and to think. Then I get up, continue my run and go on with my day. Sometimes my days are so hectic that those times at Spy Pond are the only time I have to sit down and internalize everything that’s happening in my life. But usually that’s enough to keep me going.
Taking a Sabbath Day:
The studies previously cited suggest taking off one day, or at least one weeknight, each week to give your brain necessary downtime. In my case, I have very deliberately chosen to follow the teachings of my faith and to treat the Sabbath as a day of rest. This means I don’t do anything related to my job - including checking emails - on Sundays, no matter what. I have found that people are enormously respectful of this choice and no one has ever asked me to break my commitment, even though it sometimes means I have to work harder throughout the week and on Fridays or Saturdays to make up for the hours I’m unavailable on Sundays. But I have never been more grateful for Sundays. They have become a true day of rest for me - a day when I can rest my soul and reestablish my connection with the Divine and prepare myself for the coming week.
Looking out the windows:
When I was in grad school, the best part of my commute was the 60 second trip over the Potomac River into DC. I would look downstream, away from the city, and imagine Pocahontas just around the riverbend. In Boston, I look out over the Charles River while crossing from Cambridge into Boston, and watch the sailboats glide up and down the river. When I lived in Utah, I would drive past the canyons and watch the sun’s rays splash across the fingers of the mountains reaching down into the valley. At work, if I don’t have time to go outside, I walk downstairs to the cafeteria and watch the ships sailing into the harbor and the planes landing at the airport. These momentary glimpses of the outside world provide snatches of serenity that calm me before the train rushes back underground and I have to fight my way through the crowds or back to my desk.
Moral of the story? In our fast-paced world of social media, commercial outreach, and social, familial and work demands, maybe we all need to slow down a little, to find out own Spy Ponds, look out the nearest window, take an intentional day of rest, and to let ourselves take the time to really enjoy the food we eat, the silky breeze of a hot day, the beauty of nature that surrounds us, and the people we choose to bring into our lives. In other words, maybe we all need to become European.