STRATEGIES FOR TURNING OFF AT THE END OF THE WORK DAY
How do you turn off your work brain—and all of the worries that invade while practicing law—and free yourself to be able to enjoy downtime?
Or perhaps the question should be are you able to turn off your work brain and its ancillary worries when you leave your workday behind?
When I was much younger, I thought that some lawyers had a gift of being able to switch their work brains off and relax on demand. How I envied them as I tossed and turned at night with visions of file disasters dancing in my head. As time passed, I began to realize that people weren’t just born lucky and stress-resistant—that we all learn our stress management strategies somewhere and that some strategies are better than others, and that sometimes we need to approach stress management consciously and even strategically.
We considered strategies for tuning out work stress at Assist’s Red Mug Coffee Circles on Monday, and I want to share some of the excellent strategies that were shared. But first, I want to provide an update about the evolution of Red Mug Coffee Circles.
Assist has been holding Red Mug Coffee Circles for two and a half years. These circles were the culmination of two initiatives—drop in coffee chats for lawyers to counter isolation and loneliness in our profession (which we initiated in 2018 as part of our Assist Community program) and one-on-one coffee times for junior lawyers and articling students to meet with senior Assist peer support volunteers as part of our response to the 2019 Law Society Articling Student Survey that indicated that one-third of articling student and junior lawyer respondents had experienced harassment or discrimination either during their articling period or the articling recruit process. Add in one pandemic with work from home orders, and we created a safe space for legal community members to join an online group where we could address issues commonly experienced.
We love our Red Mug Coffee Circles! Peer Support volunteers enjoy getting to know newcomers to our profession, and newcomers value the relationships they develop and the information they receive.
But we realized something: our “newcomers” were settling in, and now that most lawyers have resumed in-person work at least to some extent, there were fewer common issues being universally experienced. And we continued to have new newcomers who were searching for articling positions and exploring what careers in law could look like.
If you have been reading our meeting notices carefully, you may have noticed that we have been shifting our topics to experiment with what works best for our participants. Based on our experiences this fall, I am pleased to announce that Red Mug Coffee Circles will continue to run every Monday at noon, but we will alternate between topics of general interest to lawyers and issues specific to newcomers to the profession.
So, this was the context in which we had our discussion about strategies for tuning off our work mindset so that we can get restorative downtime.
Our participants had a wide range of experience in law, from people at the beginning of their careers who are aware of the negative impacts that practicing law can have on well-being to veterans who have helped pave the way for the lawyer well-being movement. We all learned from each other. I am going to try to capture as many of the suggestions as possible for the benefit of people who are interested in this topic but were unable to attend, and to raise awareness about why you may want to join us for subsequent discussions.
Before the pandemic and work-from-home orders, most of us had a distinct space between our offices and our homes. This space was generally filled by commuting, whether by car, foot, cycle, public transit, or other means. One senior lawyer, not at our session on Monday, talks about how he would load his briefcase with things he might want to read at home at the end of the workday but that by the time he reached his home, he would leave his briefcase in the trunk of his car and enjoy his evening with his family.
Who knew that something we hate and like to complain about—commuting—could actually work to our advantage, serving as a barrier between work and home and move our minds from lawyer thoughts to family or recreational thoughts.
I suspect that using your commute to bridge between home and work is most effective if you are not engaging with your phone, which we all know counts as distracted driving. Clearing your head of work worries is an added bonus from putting your phone in the backseat!
During the work from home period, creating a physical or temporal barrier between working in your dining room or kitchen to enjoying downtime was more challenging. One of our lawyers would leave the house for a walk or bike ride to simulate this barrier. In the pre-pandemic world, I often stopped at my fitness studio for a class on my way home from work. This helped me pack away my work concerns as well as burning off excess angst and anxious thoughts.
The fitness studio between my office and my house was a casualty of the pandemic, and the location I now attend is on the other side of downtown. To my surprise, I am now going to exercise classes on the days I work from home, and not from the office even thought the drive would be shorter. I find that getting home to see my dog is my motivator for leaving the office, and that I need the exercise barrier between work and home more on days that I work from home. I guess that this illustrates that we must keep an open mind about what will actually work for us!
And we talked about the positive role that our pets play in calibrating our back-home mood. Does the welcome home from your pet function to shift your brain from work to relaxation? Or does the rush of endorphins from having your face licked minimize some of your work stress?
One lawyer shared that he uses mindfulness and yoga for transition from work and home rather than exercise. We talked about the different dimensions of being and that while exercise supports our physical well-being, activities like mindfulness support our spiritual well-being.
Spirituality is a very broad concept. Some people associate spirituality with religious faith or practice, but the American Bar Association Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being used this definition: “developing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of life”.
This led to a discussion about the different dimensions of well-being using the Task Force model—perhaps engaging in any of the dimensions other than occupational and intellectual can serve as your break?
If you find it hard to turn off your lawyer brain, please consider this tip from one of our lawyers who cycles to work. He has a particular corner on his commute where he visualizes leaving his work concerns behind. When intrusive thoughts enter his head, he reminds himself that he left work issues at that particular corner. This works because he picks them up the next morning as he heads back into the office.
Another lawyer uses scheduling time to worry about issues, particularly when they intrude on sleep. He books a time the next day to address those concerns, say the next day at 11:30 am. By appointing a time to deal with these issues, he can let go of them because there is a time where they will be addressed. He often finds that they are no longer weighing on him when the appointed time arrives.
Some of these strategies involve discipline—you have to fight the impulse to continue to worry. With practice, this becomes easier. Engaging in mindfulness activities can help you develop this discipline and talking to other lawyers who use these techniques can help you build confidence that they work. Please consider joining us on Tuesdays at noon for our fifteen-minute mindfulness session. You do not have to let your anxiety free flow into all aspects of your life!
Changing out of work clothes—to casual wear or pajamas—can also help reinforce your relaxation mindset. I don’t know about you, but suits are often the equivalent of armour to lawyers (gladiators in suits!). Taking off your armour may help you move away from lawyer thinking patterns, including negative thinking and critiquing others which are not always popular at home. If you find that you are staying in your work clothes while you start cooking supper or engaging in your homelife activities, try changing into more relaxed clothing and see if it makes any difference to your ability to relax.
One lawyer talked about service to others as a way of creating space between work and downtime. She volunteers extensively, often working one on one with individuals including refugees. She finds that these activities displace work worries and that she feels energized from helping others. If you volunteer at a legal clinic or another organization, can you schedule your commitments to help you transition from work to home?
I have also used different intellectual activities to displace work worries. I enjoy challenging crossword puzzles, so when I have an unpleasant interaction with someone (much rarer now that I work at Assist), I take a break to do a puzzle and this completely different type of activity helps me recalibrate.
We talked about the role creative activities can play. Several of us had hobbies which involve creativity, but one lawyer talked about doing regular activities creatively. His example was cooking. You can cook by rote, or you can choose to cook using creativity and to put your whole self into making something special. He applies this approach, harnessing creativity, to other aspects of our lives.
We shared singing our hearts out and dancing like no one is watching. Our lives are ours to be lived, and we can let ourselves be limited by our work worries, or we can find strategies that help us to reach beyond our concerns to be the best versions of ourselves. For the people we love, for our pets and for ourselves.
We talked about how taking regular vacations where we turn off from work builds our stress resistance. This can be hard for junior lawyers who worry that they will be viewed as not being committed enough to their jobs to stay connected but being committed to your job in the long run can mean disengaging at times so that you return refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to do the best legal work you can do.
I think we all shared a sense of community with the people with whom we shared our strategies, and this is a big part of what Red Mug Coffee Circles are all about.
So, if your calendar has an opening on a Monday at noon, just email Eileen (email@example.com) for the Zoom link and join us.