By guest blogger, Joanna Wong
Between early mornings, late nights, and long commutes, what do you do when you feel tired? Do you stop and recharge, or do you white-knuckle your way through your career?
Of course there are times when it is necessary to keep a breakneck pace, but it is unreasonable to maintain a breakneck pace and not expect a broken neck.
According to Dr. David Ballard of the American Psychological Association, signs of burnout include: exhaustion, negative emotions such as frustration or cynicism, a fight or flight mentality, the disregard of one’s health, and a preoccupation with work when at home. Sound like any lawyers you know?
Burnout is increasingly becoming an issue in the workplace, with some experts noting cases of complete burnout by the age of 30. While we might have seasons of exhaustion or worry, it is important that those seasons do not become our lifestyle norm. If we want to continue with the careers we worked so hard for, the responsibility falls on us as individuals to know and take care of ourselves.
With a little planning and a lot of discipline, you can make choices to preserve both your mental health and your career.
Prioritize Your Wellbeing
Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercising go a long way. You might be an incredible machine that churns out contracts or briefs or whatever it is that you do, but you are a machine that is made up of neurons and muscle and cardiac tissue. If you don’t take care of yourself, your body (and mind) can and will break down. This isn’t a matter of “wouldn’t it be nice if…” This is a necessity.
Schedule time alone. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, everyone needs time alone. Meditation and yoga are classic examples of activities meant to quiet the mind and recharge, but if you’re like me and prefer more “active” activities, try your hand at painting or gardening or playing an instrument. The idea isn’t to put another item on the ever-growing to-do list, but rather to find something that is quiet and life-giving.
Schedule time with others. You make schedule time with clients. You schedule time with opposing counsel. You schedule time to network and get CLE credit. But when did you last schedule time with a friend? So often we are well-meaning when we exclaim “We should get together sometime!” but so often we fail to follow through.
Contrary to the great philosophers Simon and Garfunkel, we are neither rocks nor islands. There is something remarkably communal about humans. In every culture, life milestones and major holidays are celebrated by uniting and feasting. Why is that?
Perhaps there is something about relationships that lightens the heart. Again, this is not about tying yourself down with commitments (in fact, it’s healthy and recommended to say “no thanks” when you need to), but this is about maintaining and cultivating those relationships that give us joy.
Instead of getting together “sometime,” schedule a specific day, time, and activity right off the bat. This will give a solid time slot to schedule your other commitments around. It will also give you something to look forward to.
Respond to Stress Early and Often
Burnout does not happen overnight. Just like the fuel in the car, our energy slowly dwindles as we use it. The goal is not to avoid expending energy, but rather to replenish it as it is used.
If I’m planning a road trip, I will fill up my gas tank before I leave. I also watch my fuel gauge as I continue down the road, but I won’t postpone getting gas until the light comes on. Who knows where I will be or if there will be a gas station nearby? Instead, I plan ahead and look for opportunities to get gas along the way.
My friend ran out of gas on the freeway once. Her gas light came on, but she thought she could drive another few miles. She couldn’t. It was a terrifying and dangerous experience for her. She somehow managed to get her fuel-les car to the side of the road while all the cars, trucks, and semis sped past her at 70 mph. She wasn’t hurt, but she learned her lesson.
Likewise, burnout happens when we don’t respond to stress at it occurs. Sometimes we see the early signs of burnout, like my friend’s flickering gas light, but we ignore them or try to squeeze out another mile or five. We let stress burn away our energy, bit by bit, until we find ourselves with an empty tank.
At times, I’ve told myself that I didn’t have time to take care of myself, and maybe you’ve made similar statements, too. The thing is, we can choose to either stop now – or be forced to stop later.
Will you take the time to recharge, or will you be my friend who stranded herself on the freeway?
Joanna Wong is a recent graduate of Chapman University Fowler School of Law who took the July 2013 administration of the California Bar exam. She currently volunteers her time at Legal Aid Society of Orange County and the Bette and Wylie Aitken Family Violence Clinic while looking for employment as a trial attorney.
As the most important Thanksgiving of her life draws near, Joanna is taking her own advice by catching up with old friends, painting, and experimenting with pumpkin pie recipes.
To connect with her, visit joannawong.net.