Making Meaning of the New Year
So, as we count down to 2014, whether or not we make resolutions, we tend to reflect upon our lives. We ask ourselves what we need to change, what we hope to do differently in the coming year. When we do make resolutions, we tend to think on a “micro” level: losing weight, exercising more, arguing less with our partner, or attending more of our daughter’s track meets. Yet these goals are in the service of larger values—the things that make our lives meaningful.
This is not merely an academic point. Understanding the meaning and value of the resolutions to which we commit makes us more likely to actually engage in the behaviors needed to accomplish these goals. Exercising more for its own sake, or because your physician has been nagging you to do so, it unlikely to provide the motivation for real behavior change.
Whether or not you make—or stick to—resolutions is less important than the extent to which your life feels meaningful to you. Do you know what makes your life feel significant? Do you have a clear sense of purpose in your life?
Lawyers and the Search for Meaning
Research on lawyers indicates that most went to law school with a clear sense of purpose for their work but graduated having lost sight of it. This may be one of many reasons why lawyers have significantly higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and other mental health problems than the general population. Certainly measuring life’s moments in six-minute increments is far from a meaningful life. Many solo and small firm practitioners have been able to retain a greater sense of purpose in their work than attorneys in large firms. Your ability to personally engage with your clients and understand their aspirations and concerns may allow you to feel that your work has significance.
Still, law is a demanding profession. The intense requirements of legal practice undoubtedly contribute to the high incidence of depression. The legal landscape has become more competitive than ever. As the job market for lawyers has shrunk, more and younger lawyers have hung out their shingles. A tight economy has decreased the demand for legal services. Worrying about getting and keeping clients can become oppressive.
Research suggests that lawyers tend to view the world more pessimistically. Certainly you’ve been trained to problem spot; the better you are at this, the more your services are in demand. But carrying this pessimism into life outside the practice of law predisposes you to depression. It’s hard to be happy when all you can see is what is wrong with everything.
The Effects of Stress
At its best, law practice can be very stressful. Litigants are not happy people. Opposing counsel can wear you down. There’s not a lot of positive emotion in law practice, and experiencing a lot of negative feelings takes its toll. Negative emotions narrow our attention—we’re focused on fixing what’s wrong. In this state of mind, it’s easy to miss the other things that are going on around us, particularly “the human touch”—perhaps the most meaningful part of life. While a busy practice can ease economic concerns, it brings other stresses.
In addition, the multiple demands of a heavy workload, taking care of family, driving through rush hour traffic, running to get groceries and dry cleaning—to say nothing of complaining or demanding clients—do far more than make you feel stressed. They put your body into chronic “fight or flight” mode. The result is a cascade of stress hormones, the overexposure to which disrupts almost all your body’s processes, putting you at increased risk for heart disease, memory impairment, and depression.
And if law was a “jealous mistress” before BlackBerrys, what is it now? It’s easy to feel controlled by the electronic tools you bought with the intention of helping yourself. Our 24/7 devices delude us into acting as if human beings were made to function continuously. Without sufficient recovery time, we can’t help but become exhausted. I never cease to be amazed that a smart attorney who would never submit to surgery under the knife of a sleep-deprived physician continues to work on a brief after several sleepless nights. Sleep deprivation not only impairs efficiency and effectiveness; over time it can lead to permanent cognitive deficits and increase vulnerability to obesity, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease. Drinking coffee all day is no antidote.
Facing the New Year
Perhaps the most insidious way in which law practice can harm you is by enabling you to be too busy to think about all this. And the less you think about it, the worse it tends to get. Who wants to step on the scale knowing they’ve gained too much weight? Why would you want to go home to a spouse you know resents you for all the time you’ve spent at work? Not long ago a client of mine confided how much she dreaded her son’s approaching fifth birthday party. “I’ve missed most of the first five years of his life, and the party only reminds me of this,” she confessed.
If you use this time of year for nothing else, you might consider using it to face all those “What’s it all about?” questions you’ve been avoiding. Will that make you uncomfortable? Undoubtedly. Then why do it? It comes back to values. You value your life—after all, this is not a dress rehearsal. There are relationships you value and a range of things outside work that can provide you with a sense of significance. Keep in mind that people who believe their lives have meaning or purpose are less likely to report depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or workaholism. They feel more engaged in their work and, perhaps most importantly, more control over their lives. Without considering what makes your life meaningful and acting in ways that are consistent with what you most value, it’s impossible not to feel at sea.
No matter how far off course you’ve veered, you are still driving the bus. You—and only you—can make change in your life. If you are worried that you won’t live up to your commitments, understand that most people make resolutions with the best of intentions but don’t know how to effectively alter their behavior. In order to successfully make change, you need to have the right tools. No one gave you those in law school. Don’t let prior failures to change discourage you. Failures teach us about what doesn’t work—we can’t learn without them. You can cultivate a life worth living. Here are some things to try:
- Clarify your values. What do you stand for? What do you believe in? Consider moments in your life when you’ve felt most proud. What were you doing? Then ask yourself how other people would know what you value without your telling them. This second part is crucial because values are only meaningful if we act on them.
- Think small. We can only make change one small step at a time. Once we recognize how far some of our behaviors are from being aligned with our values, it’s easy to panic and feel the need to change everything. This is guaranteed to fail. Changing behavior is about self-control, and psychological research indicates that self-control is like a muscle. You have to exercise it for it to get stronger. Trying to change too much simply overloads and exhausts it. Similarly, fatigue, overwork, and distraction impair your self-control muscles just as they do the muscles you exercise at the gym.
- Be specific. Changing behavior requires conscious, intentional focus. Doing this necessitates disrupting automatic patterns of behavior. If my habit is to turn on my computer the moment I get into the office and I make a resolution to call an aging parent instead, odds are, the moment I get into the office I’ll turn on my computer and, at the end of the day, remember with chagrin the call I’d intended to make. Success requires a very specific plan—and reminders. Decide exactly what you will do and when and how you will do it. A resolution to exercise more is unlikely to be successful. However, deciding that you will go to the gym on Tuesdays and Fridays at 5:00 pm and putting those appointments in your calendar are more likely to make that happen.
- Focus on what you will do, not what you won’t. If you have ever tried not to eat sweets, then you probably know the wisdom of this. Having a specific plan for what you will do instead is far more likely to help you accomplish your goal. For example, rather than deciding that you won’t work late, determine when you will leave your office. Mark the time in your calendar. And make yourself accountable to someone for following through.
- Make self-care a top priority. In my many years coaching lawyers, especially women, I have noted the tendency for this value to fall to the bottom of the list. Self-care is not selfishness. It is the foundation for everything else. If you don’t make taking care of yourself a priority, you will not have the endurance to do all the other things you value. Yes, taking time to sleep or eat or exercise is time away from clients and family. But without taking the time to care for yourself you will undermine your effectiveness in the short run and risk not being there for anyone else at all in the long run.
- Focus your attention on the present moment. You can decide to spend more time with your family or take time to exercise, but if your mind is at the office, what’s the point? The famous biomedical scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn wisely said, “You only have moments to live.” We can only make our lives worth living if we can be fully present—with our clients, our loved ones, and ourselves. This kind of mindful, present, intentional focused attention is a skill that is easily learned; and the rewards are directly connected to living a more meaningful life. First of all, this will help you counteract any tendency you might have toward pessimism. Certainly you’ll keep seeing what’s wrong—but you won’t be able to avoid seeing “the good,” too. You’ll no longer be seeing the world through lenses that block it out. In addition, when you are able to focus on the present moment, not only is each moment richer, but it is also much easier to notice whether you are living in a manner that is aligned with what matters most to you. You’ll be less likely to get lost in the busy-ness of practice and instead be more fully present in the moments of your life. Wouldn’t that make for a good 2014?