chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

After the Bar

Personal & Financial

How to Set Boundaries for Self-Care

Andie Baumgartner

How to Set Boundaries for Self-Care
ArtistGNDphotography via iStock

Jump to:

Ask ten people how to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression, and nine will answer “increased self-care.” With a busy life and demanding career, self-care must be more than treating yourself to spa days, bubble baths, and takeout. Proper self-care is intentionally constructing a life that ensures your needs are met and your time and energy resources are not depleted.

ALM’s latest Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey suggests that 31.2 percent of lawyers surveyed felt depressed, and nearly 64 percent reported anxiety. This alone is striking, but particularly so when compared with the national average reported by a 2019 National Health Interview Survey, which showed 6.7 percent of Americans reporting depression and 8.3 percent concerned about anxiety.

For long-term success, self-care is not optional—it is part of the job. Without a solid framework of boundaries rooted in self-care, any promotion or expansion of your responsibilities likely comes at the expense of your well-being. The following simple strategies will profoundly change your work-life balance. 

Protect Your Time

Sometimes your day is thrown off by an inescapable crisis or last-minute project, but more often, our ideal schedules suffer death by a thousand cuts—your 9:00 a.m. meeting starts at 9:15 a.m. and runs into your 10:00 a.m. From there, it is a domino effect. To catch up, you cut lunch, after work plans, or your moment of peace. Implicitly and explicitly communicating your needs can help minimize these circumstances where others unknowingly bump up against your boundaries.

Clearly communicate when you need to wrap up a meeting and gently remind others when 10 minutes remain (i.e., “We have about 10 minutes left, so let’s summarize.”). Block time in your calendar for commuting, running errands, or focusing time on a project. Establish a default cutoff time that you will not work past. Exceeding this limit is an exception requiring special consideration. Communicate your preferred method of contact and respond only within the hours you feel appropriate. It can be difficult knowing there are unanswered emails in your inbox, so work to build healthy habits around when and how often you check email. Remember that the cost of 24/7 access to work email is that you are always available.

Triage: Do, Delay, Delegate

Prioritize your to-do list daily. The other half of work-life balance is responsibilities to family, friends, and yourself, so ensure your to-do list includes tasks for your well-being: reading, journaling, exercising, and spending time with your family and friends. Examine and triage tasks. Identify non-negotiables—what must get done today, what can get delayed, and what can be delegated or cut? If asked to add new tasks, resist saying yes reflexively. Responses like “I’ll get back to you” or “let me check my calendar” give you time to determine your desire and capacity in the context of your non-negotiables. As a new lawyer, saying no may feel uncomfortable; however, remember that your value is not dependent on your availability to others.

Unplug and Reconnect

Actively connecting to yourself is crucial in setting boundaries; you cannot know you are nearing your limits if you ignore the signs. Irritability or edginess, malaise, disrupted sleep, muscle tension, and difficulty staying focused are all signs of overextension. Set aside time to put yourself in “do not disturb” mode every week. Put devices out of sight, be alone, and do something restorative. Constant multitasking and overstimulation deplete your mental resources, making it impossible to attend to any one concern fully. You are not truly present or resting if you are anticipating the next itinerary item or mentally juggling multiple responsibilities.

Healthy self-esteem is essential in creating healthy boundaries. Self-doubt, insecurity, and imposter syndrome underlie much of the striving endemic to our early careers. Build confidence in your work with a daily check-in, and acknowledge success, gratitude, and growth opportunities. Approach yourself with compassion—be a cheerleader, not a critic. Surround yourself with others who support and respect your efforts to find and maintain balance and build confidence. Our self-esteem concerns are often deeply rooted and difficult to untangle, so a mental health professional is a great resource to help identify and reshape negative self-talk and unconscious reinforcements of low self-esteem.

By being protective of your time and prioritizing your to-do list, you can add hours to your week. Spending that time connecting with yourself and your support system will help restore your emotional and energy resources, prevent burnout, and expand your capacity for growth and success as a young lawyer. 

Lawyer Assistance Programs provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers, and law students who are facing substance use disorders or mental health issues. If you or someone you know is in need of assistance, contact your state or local LAP.