Return on Investment pt. 3: Solving the Time Budgeting Mess of Lawyer Life

We’ve been putting on our MBA hats and contemplating, in part 1, how a typical lawyer budgets her or his time at work and in other parts of life, and looked in part 2 at some questions for evaluating whether, for the amount of time spent on the job, you are getting the right kinds of career payoff.

Disorganized business guy with clock and post its.

Time budget out of control? Get in touch with your real values to tame it.

Now, let’s put it all together and look at the larger questions: how much time am I investing in activities that are important to my values, and is it enough? Am I underinvesting in things that are long-term priorities?

That’s MBA-speak for asking yourself what’s going to matter the most in the weeks or moments right before you die—your work, your family, your community, your sense of a life well-lived? Something else? How does money, happiness, peaceful easy feelings, expensive toys, enjoying your work, creating a better world, retirement, time with loved ones, etc., etc. stack up for you? What you value differs from what I value which differs from what one of your parents value.

If you find you always rob from your family time budget to supplement the work budget, does that match your life values? If you never allot time for spiritual growth, will you be the person you want to be when you reach death’s door? If you want a more rounded, well-balanced life, have you budgeted time consistently for pursuing the things that will give you that? I suspect if you’re reading this blog, the answer to at least some of these questions is no.

So how do you solve this budgeting mess?

First, do some soul-searching, and really tap into what you value. Yep, this is damned hard work, because you really need to answer the question: What’s your life purpose? Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen points out that this step is usually never undertaken by his students, and I know from experience that the same is true for most lawyers. For most people, in fact. By the time we hit middle school, most of us have been taught to live a life of external gratification:

  • make good grades (because someone says it’s important, not necessarily because you care),
  • study this (because society says you need to know it, not because you’re interested),
  • play multiple sports and participate in activities (because it looks good on your college application, never mind that you’re only interested in one thing)
  • conform to our expectations (because it’s easier on those around you if you don’t ask hard questions about why).

Is some of this necessary? Sure. To the level it’s practiced at? Hell no.

So now, you have the task of getting past all that conditioning to discern your life’s purpose.

You could start tackling the life purpose question indirectly, by making a list of 20 things that really matter to you. Watching sunrises, long weekends with a loved one, truth, beauty, good TV shows, saving the environment, fishing, drinking beer, integrity, kittens—whatever is important to you. I like using this tool because it lets you get at the large, scary question crabwise, which keeps you from shutting down and letting your internal critic take over.

Then you could—I’m just sayin’—get up 10 minutes early, look at your list, and write for 8 minutes about what that list says to you. Make it a very stream-of-consciousness bit of writing, and see what tumbles out. Yes, you do need to do this early in the morning, before the inner critic has had enough coffee to really get going with his/her job of filtering the real you through its lens of fear. (Yes, inner critics are caffeine addicts.)

Or, if meditating is your thing, you could read the list and meditate on it, and see what insights drift your way.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a bolt of lightening from above about what your life purpose is. Often it will come to you in little dribs and drabs. Your job is to pay attention, write down those little dribs and drabs, and be alert to possibilities.

So for example if you have discerned that connecting with nature is part of your life’s purpose, don’t ignore it when a chance to join a group that organizes hikes suddenly pops up in your life.

Now is the really hard part: You’ve got to trust these impulses about your life purpose. The reason this is hard is because lawyers, in particular, have been drilled to not trust their own, or anyone else’s, intuition. They treat intuition as mere fluff, mostly because it doesn’t play well with the scientific method.

Yet many, many innovations and insights of modernity have their genesis in intuition or dreams—Newton and his apple, the spiral staircase in James Watson’s dream that unlocked the structure of DNA for him and Francis Crick. Whether or not intuition and insight can be replicated under lab conditions, they are real, and you can—should—use them when they come your way.

Now that you’ve got a rough idea of your unique life purpose, tweak my back-of-envelope time estimations in part 1 to match your reality. And then, compare what’s important to your purpose and values with where you are actually spending your time. Often, this is eye-opening enough that folks will start to make changes.

On the other hand, if you find yourself saying, “But I can’t cut back on work! I can’t do what I want, I’ll get fired!” it’s time to examine how you’re letting fear run your life, rather than your values running it. I’m not saying that there aren’t situations where cutting back on work even a little could put your job at jeopardy—the workplace is a nasty, vicious environment sometimes.

But by placing your current job above all your values, rather than thinking, yeah, I need to find a better gig, fear has you firmly in its grip. And that is where you are investing your time, in fear. As in, not in hope, not in things that you value, not in a satisfying future.

So what are you going to invest in: fear, or happiness?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who has overcome a few fears in her life, including fear of writing and of singing in public. She coaches lawyers who want to move past their fears into a more satisfying career and life. What fears have you overcome, or do you want to overcome? She’d love to hear about it at jalvey AT jenniferalvey.com.

2 thoughts on “Return on Investment pt. 3: Solving the Time Budgeting Mess of Lawyer Life

  1. LL says:

    “Yet many, many innovations and insights of modernity have their genesis in intuition or dreams—Newton and his apple, the spiral staircase in James Watson’s dream that unlocked the structure of DNA for him and Francis Crick. Whether or not intuition and insight can be replicated under lab conditions, they are real, and you can—should—use them when they come your way.”

    Well, at least I don’t have the problem of discounting intuition and dreams.

    This is also why I consider lucid dreaming a form of technology, so to speak. One of my odder goals is to figure out how this works. It can be replicated, I’m just not sure how.

    It would have been helpful if I had this insight sometime before 30+ years of age.

  2. Pingback: Return on Investment #2: Does Your Work Have the Right Payoff? « Leaving the Law

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