A Wellness Action Plan to (Re)Start 2021January 19, 2021
By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director
When I thought about where to start my 2021 Resolution for the Legal Profession series, I quickly settled on wellness, because starting the year off on the right foot is so important to the success of the rest. Further, the tumultuous start to 2021 has only underscored that this is the right topic to begin with.
Because I am hardly an authority in this area and have a solid track record of not setting a great example, I brought in the real expert I quoted in the Resolution, Erin Clifford, who was kind enough to agree to share some of her wisdom here:
BG: The advice I see on wellness often sounds like “eat your vegetables,” and while that of course is a good idea too, do you have any advice for thinking about this so it does not come off like a self-flagellation exercise?
EC: My philosophy is that you build upon small lifestyle changes over time. As you make small tweaks in your lifestyle – whether you are working towards weight loss or stress management – these changes become habits and build on one another. For example, someone who has not exercised in years can start by setting walking goals (5,000 steps per day, then 10,000 steps and so on) instead of deep diving into an intense workout class where they may get injured or feel intimidated.
I also recommended that individuals break down their overarching macro-goals into micro-goals. This will stop you from feeling mentally overwhelmed. For instance, the thought of losing 20 pounds can seem somewhat daunting, but when you break it down into micro-goals (five pounds at a time) it seems attainable. Plus, this type of goal setting allows you to celebrate the small victories.
BG: It seems like just about everyone is talking about wellness these days in a profession that used to never talk about it—what do you attribute that to?
EC: The pandemic allowed our profession to take a pause, and in doing so, individuals have been evaluating what is important to them in their personal and professional lives. Many lawyers have since communicated to me that they did not realize how much they were neglecting their own self-care. I also believe that individuals recognized that the grind of burning the candle at both ends was not only unhealthy, but it was preventing them from maintaining a desired work-life balance.
BG: Wellness is obviously important for everyone, but are there any lawyer-specific issues we should be aware of?
EC: Lawyers tend to struggle with stress management, depression, anxiety, and addiction. While it has been taboo in our profession to talk openly about mental health, I believe the tides are fortunately changing. The law is a very rewarding but demanding profession. Thus, lawyers need to be open about their struggles so they can get the assistance that they need from their employers, families, and mental health professionals. Individuals should also strive to create time in their schedules to refuel and create a healthier work-life balance.
BG: As a former litigator who still thinks that way, it can feel like a sign of weakness if you are not ready to go at all times. I’m not talking about trials or TRO’s or the like, when that is exactly how you better be, but the rest of the time in what increasingly can become a 24/7 world if we let it. We can’t be on top of our game if we are always on trial, right?
EC: Lawyers are often their worst enemies and have a difficult time using their no buttons. You make the choice to be always on, and I would encourage anyone reading this to set priorities and boundaries that work for your unique lifestyle. For instance, I instruct my clients to set a technology cutoff time. Unless it is an emergency or you are on trial, you are unavailable after 6pm period. When you consistently respond at all hours or always say yes to things that you do not have time for, others will keep knocking at your door because you have not made the choice to set clear boundaries.
BG: One thing that was key for me personally since the initial shutdowns last March was resetting a daily routine that accounts for the new realities of the pandemic. It always makes me think of a great song and video from the ‘80’s, Do It Again by the Kinks. I did that purely by instinct, but I have since heard it actually is helpful for wellness, is there anything to that?
EC: Yes! Studies suggest that our brain loves a plan so when we set a strategic schedule, we will not only be more productive, but it allows for us to build in time to recharge our batteries. For instance, select your rise time and set your alarm as if it were any other workday whether you are working at home or back in the office. Clearly identify your work hours, as well as downtime to refuel with exercise, meals, mindfulness, and doing something that you love (i.e., spending time with your family or walking your dog). In addition, given our current climate, take it one week at a time and be flexible with your schedule.
BG: Setting boundaries and taking breaks seems especially important when the lines between work and home have just about completely blurred now. That used to happen more naturally when we regularly walked to court, to meetings, to the lunchroom, etc. Do you have any suggestions for how we can build that back in when most of our lives are virtual now?
EC: When you are working from home, you need to keep your personal and professional lives separate. For instance, keep your workspace distinct from your personal/family space. I recommend eating meals and snacks at your kitchen table as opposed to your desk. Further, change clothes at the end of your workday to mentally transition into your evening. In addition, talk to your family about boundaries so everyone can have some space in your home.
BG: Any other practical advice for what we should incorporate into that routine?
EC: I would include these three tips into your daily routine to up your health game. On average, you need 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. This is crucial for maintaining your body’s immunity, metabolism, and productivity. Further, sitting is the new smoking, so make sure to move around at least a half hour a day. You can break it up by setting movement alarms on your phone. In addition, load up on minimally processed whole foods (i.e., vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, healthy fats, nuts and seeds) and limit heavily processed foods and sugars (i.e., candy bar, pop, chips, fried food).
BG: A longer question for you next, when I started practicing back in the early 90’s, technology was such that you were not reachable outside of the office unless you gave them a land line number, and the assumption was that when any of us went on vacation, we were unreachable absent a truly urgent situation. And it all worked out just fine for everyone.
Somewhere along the way with the advent of smartphones (which don’t sound so smart in this context), the default expectation in our profession seemingly changed to our still being reachable and checking our emails even when we are on vacation. I am not sure who sent that memo that changed the way we view vacation, but that was a terrible idea—do you have any advice for bringing back vacation as a time to actually unplug and recharge?
EC: Studies show that individuals are more productive and function at a higher level when they recharge their batteries. Therefore, lawyers should make a point to use their vacation time and take mental health days. This is one area where the legal culture needs to change. If you are overworked, overstressed, unhealthy and not taking care of your needs, you will not be at your best for your clients, colleagues, family, and friends.
BG: I have written before about the psychic benefits of pro bono and giving back, and that feels like it may be even more true in today’s environment. What do you think?
EC: Giving back to the community and helping someone in need can be a tremendous form of self-care. I would highly recommend engaging in some pro bono work or volunteering. I am the president of Lawyers Lend-A-Hand and the amazing individuals that tutor for our organization tell me all the time how good it is for their souls and mental health.
BG: Do you have any advice for those of us in leadership positions, speaking as someone who too often has modeled the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach?
EC: Leaders in the profession need to realize that their colleagues must be given space to take care of their physical and mental health. Otherwise, they will not function at their best for you, your firm, or your clients. Not only does the literature suggest this, but we all see it with our own eyes. Attorney burnout, suicide, and substance abuse are on the rise. Thus, it is up to the leaders of our profession to take care of each other, and in doing so, transition the profession into a healthier place for new generations of lawyers.
BG: Do you have any good, practical resources you would suggest for people who want to learn more? I want to put in a plug for the CBA Well Being & Mindfulness Committee as one to consider, but I’m sure you have other good ones too.
EC: Meditation and breathwork are ideal for attorneys to manage their stress and mental health. I would highly recommend these mindfulness resources: Calm, Headspace, and Chill Anywhere. I also love MyFitnessPal for tracking exercise, food, and accountability. Further, my website has many lifestyle resources: www.erincliffordwellness.com
BG: Thank you again for taking the time to do this Erin, I/we really appreciate it. And that is a good place to finish here too, I have heard that expressing gratitude for the good things in our lives is a good wellness strategy and wonder what you think about that one?
EC: Practicing gratitude is a great mindfulness tool. Positive thinking has a tremendous impact on your overall health. When we live with the grass is always greener mentality, we overlook all the wonderful things present in our lives. A great way to flip your mindset is by keeping a gratitude journal. Every morning or before you go to bed, write down five things that you are grateful for in your life. Over time this will create a positive mindset that will transform your outlook on life. You can also place a gratitude trigger, such as a picture or favorite quote, somewhere in your home or workspace, which will remind you to feel grateful each time you look at it.
Well, after seeing Erin’s advice, I am doing better than I thought on this front (to be clear, that is a low bar). I definitely don’t have the sleep thing down and have a lot of work to do on setting better boundaries, but these are some good tips that I will definitely be building into my own wellness action plan for this year.
You can hear more from Erin and ask some of your own questions at the upcoming CBA/CBF Program, “Your Practical Action Plan for Wellness in 2021” on January 27th at 3 p.m.