2019 Focus: Mental Health & Happiness, Essential for the Solo & Small Firm Lawyer

At the beginning of the year, I went to the gym. Not exactly a novel January 1st idea. The workout was noteworthy, however, because I did not go to start losing the ever-elusive “10 pounds,” a past go-to New Year’s resolution. I went for mental health and happiness, one of my 2019 focuses.

Last fall was exceedingly busy. The packed schedule from September through November is always a challenge. In 2018, though, the addition of awesome professional opportunities and a baby tipped the scales. To save time, I quit the workouts enjoyed since middle school to exclusively focus on the workload of my then three-person law office.
What was then unknown to me, however, is that I did not create additional time, I worsened my situation. Although physical benefits are most-often associated with exercise, physical activity has significant mental health benefits, including stress reduction. Since I unwittingly eliminated a major stress-relief outlet, stress had nowhere to go, bottling-up inside me and manifesting in physical health issues.

The first month or so, nausea was a frequent symptom. Then chronic “ear infections” ensued. By late October, the pain radiated from my ear down my jaw, making it difficult to talk and chew.

About every two weeks, I visited the doctor. Prescriptions included antibiotics, nasal sprays, new techniques for using them, pain relievers, heating pads, liquid diets, and a flying ban to avoid bursting an eardrum. Eventually, I was referred to a specialist.

Two days before my appointment, I read an article about a woman under extreme stress. She visited her doctor complaining of ear and jaw pain, each time sent home with a diagnosis that “nothing was wrong.” I immediately instinctively knew that I shared this woman’s fate. The specialist confirmed my intuition 48- hours later when he concluded that although it felt like I had an ear infection and inner-ear fluid, they were mental ailments that did not physically exist.

Leaving that doctor’s office, I knew the key to improved wellness rested with me.

5 Suggestions That Improved My Health & Happiness to Better Serve My Clients, My Family & Me

Self-Education: In 2018, I insatiably listened to audiobooks and podcasts focused on entrepreneurship and empowerment. For the first time, it was realized that although I have zero time to read, I have tons of time to listen. Hearing stories about additional entrepreneurs who overcame physical ailments caused by mental stress led to my epiphany when reading the above-referenced article that I had traveled down the same path. It’s unlikely that my health would have soon improved without such self- realization and subsequent implementation of techniques learned this past year. Audiobooks that were especially helpful to me included: Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu, Girl Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis, Option B by Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant, and Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. Podcasts included: How I Built This with Guy Raz, Rise with Rachel Hollis, and Skimm’d from the Couch by theSkimm.

Ask for Help: Additional tasks meant learning to ask others for help completing projects that I previously did and did well. For example, instead of planning our son’s first birthday party by myself as would have been my usual mode of operation, I asked my husband if he would create and mail the invitation, handle RSVP’s, and oversee additional aspects of the festivities. Working together was a lot more fun than working in isolation and balanced the work between us so that it was manageable, not overwhelming. Brainstorming with colleagues, regarding, for example, best practices for tackling your email inbox, will also equip you with tools not thought of alone in your office. One additional tip here – when possible, identify when assistance with tasks and/or mentorship is needed and proactively ask for it. As much as we may wish or think differently, others are not mind readers. To best  allow them to assist you, verbalize your request and the anticipated amount of time necessary to complete it so that   they can plan for such task and schedule adequate time to help you.

Use Mindfulness Apps: A significant hurdle last fall was an inability to divert my mind away from the stressor, such as challenging conversations with clients or overly aggressive opposing counsel. Although the thoughts expressed here had not yet come full circle, I was aware that stress triggered at least some of my symptoms. Yet, without a game plan, the stressful event remained on auto-loop with no relief in sight. Use of a mindfulness app is one resource that changed that and equipped me with tangible tools, including meditation guides, breathing techniques, and visualization maps, useful in successfully navigating recent stressful situations.

Free, top-ranked apps that may assist in your mindfulness journey include: Aura, Breethe, Buddhify, Calm and Headspace.

Engage in Release & Transition Techniques: Additional techniques can also reduce stress during the day. For example, substantial research evidences that the most efficient employees work for increments of approximately fifty minutes followed by a short break.

Intentionally following such a schedule by setting an alarm on your phone can maintain energy throughout the day, prevent burnout, and facilitate longer productive work hours. To illustrate, although it may be tempting to power through motion drafting for four hours, the research is steadfast that forcing yourself to stop every fifty or so minutes, say for a glass of water and a quick walk around the block, will improve the quantity and quality of your work.

Similarly, your productivity can increase by properly transitioning from one task to the next, such as by: (1) closing your eyes; (2) quickly repeating the word “release” several times with the intent to release tension from your body; and (3) visualizing your intent for the next project on which you will work or experience to which you will transition. A time that this approach is particularly helpful to me is the transition between the office and home. Briefly visualizing the experience I want my family to have when we’re together instead of immediately rushing through the door has made me a better wife and mom upon arriving home.

One resource for learning such technique is Brendon Burchard, who details strategies for maximizing performance in all aspects of life through his The Brendon Show podcast, High Performance Habits book, and The High Performance planner.

Make Time for What Brings You Joy: What ever that may be!! This article is not intended to promote exercise if you despise physical activity. The point is that you must intentionally live life in a way that fosters well-being; you cannot practice law 24-hours a day. For me, Orangetheory Fitness classes are a part of being joyful; for you, a different tool may be best. What ever you choose, choose something! No matter how heavy the workload, attempting to work around-the-clock will not make you more productive, especially not over what is hoped is the long-haul of your solo or small firm career. Additionally, remember to scale the activity to fit your current season. Whereas I completed a full workout most days of the week when I had more time, I now give myself grace to workout less often and for shorter periods. What is most important is weekly engaging in at least one activity that in some way minimizes your stress, increases your happiness, and maximizes your productivity.

So, here’s to intentionally living your best 2019, friends - continue to #ShineItForward™ and #SpreadYourSunshine™!

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