Reflections on Six Law-Free Weeks

Vol. 30 No. 2

By

Steven D. Zansberg (szansberg@lskslaw.com), chair of the Forum on Communications Law, is a partner at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP, in Denver, CO.

This past summer, I had the good fortune to spend six full weeks traveling with my family, visiting six of our nation’s majestic national parks, and reconnecting with extended family and friends. In the process, I gained a certain perspective that has transformed my outlook on work-life balance—a perspective that has stayed with me since and, hopefully, will continue to stay with me in the future. I can sum up my epiphanies in four short phrases. I know that these will sound like obvious platitudes, and, let’s face it, that’s what they are. Nonetheless, because I managed to forget them for a span of years, I feel compelled to offer them up as reminders to my equally obsessive contemporaries. I know you’re out there.

 

1.      Remember Who You Were Before Law School

Never lose sight of the truth that you are who you are, not what you do. A corollary to this is that you are much more than what you do at the office or while earning your living. Attorneys who work in an extremely high-pressured, high-demand, professional environment—in which time is tracked in six-minute increments—are constantly (even when “off the clock”) thinking about what needs to be done next (tomorrow, next week, next month) and what should have been done previously. In such an environment, it is all too easy to lose sight of your identity outside of, and apart from, your role as an attorney. Yet, of course, lawyers are also fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends, and members of various social and other groups.
     It is not unusual, though it is bad, to lose connections with those outside of your work sphere as you immerse yourself, sometimes for months at a time, in work to the exclusion of all else. Don’t do it. Keeping in contact—either in person or by phone, but not by e-mail, text, or Facebook (see below)—with those who knew you before you began practicing law is an important way to remind yourself you are who you are, not what you do for a living.

2.      Unplug!

Second, make it a conscious goal, on a daily basis, to speak with people one-on-one and in person, without any electronic device interfering with your conversation. I know: This, too, seems much too obvious to be stated. Yet, once again, many lawyers are so wedded to their computer screens—whether on a desk, cell phone, iPad, exercise machine, or anywhere else—that they have drastically reduced the amount of time that they spend each day engaged in uninterrupted, face-to-face interaction with human beings. Prolonged disengagement from social interaction with other people—in which 80 to 90 percent of waking time is spent with eyes fixed on a blinking cathode-ray tube or LCD screen—is simply not how humans are meant
to live.
     Although technology has greatly improved productivity and increased efficiency, in my humble opinion, the quality of people’s lives was better back when they got up from their desks, walked down the corridor, and sat down across the desk from a colleague and chatted about an issue instead of sending him or her an e-mail. The latter may be more efficient, but it’s not nearly as fun or satisfying. Same was true when people picked up the phone and spoke to one another and heard each other’s voices rather than sending each other cryptic texts typed with their thumbs on minuscule and virtual keypads. I’m not a Luddite: I have a smartphone, a laptop, and an iPad; and for Hanukkah I bought my two boys an Xbox to help them exercise in the cold winter months. However, I am absolutely convinced that everyone would be much happier if they spent more time actually speaking to one another, hearing each other’s voices, and seeing each other’s facial expressions. Try it.

3.      “Turn It Off, Like a Light Switch”

Third, it is equally important that you strive to compartmentalize your life. Prior to my extended break this summer, I was doing many of the same healthy, self-nurturing activities that I have continued doing since returning to the office in August: swimming most mornings for half an hour, playing games and roughhousing with my two sons, skiing, attending temple services on Saturday mornings, etc. However, none of those activities had been particularly restful or rejuvenating for me. Why? Before my vacation, although I was physically outside the office, my brain continued to engage in work. When you are away from the office and enjoying a concert, visiting a national park, or floating your way down a ski run through fresh powder, be in that moment and enjoy the experience! Consciously work to “turn it off” (if you haven’t seen the show The Book of Mormon, you must do so), and do not think about work.
     Although an extended vacation is an invaluable way to recharge your batteries once or twice a year, you need to recharge your batteries every day. If you eat, sleep, and breathe work on a 24/7 basis, your productivity, judgment, and, most importantly, happiness and satisfaction will all be diminished. Set aside at least one day a week when you spend time with your family and/or friends and others doing things you enjoy doing that have no connection whatsoever to your work. Doing so will not only cause you to enjoy your work more, it will, in fact, make you better at it.

 4.      To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Lastly, but, in truth, most importantly: get more sleep. Because attorneys earn their living by selling their time, they tend to place far too little value on the amount of time they spend asleep. Study after study has confirmed that adults generally need seven to eight hours per night of uninterrupted solid sleep. This is an average; some people need more, and some people need slightly less. No human can consistently perform or function well on only six hours or less of sleep per night, on a sustained basis. Indeed, extended sleep deprivation is among the “extreme interrogation techniques” to which the Bush administration subjected prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere to “break” them in hopes of extracting “actionable intelligence” information. People who live outside of enemy confinement should not voluntarily subject themselves to such intolerable conditions. Get more sleep. Your quality of life will improve dramatically.

 

You’ve probably heard all four of these rather obvious “how to improve your life and achieve success” tips before. Nevertheless, I’ve learned this past year that they really do work. See for yourself.

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