Flowing Into Legal Career Change

What in your work, unhappy lawyers, do you actually enjoy? What about other parts of your life? And by “enjoy,” I mean something that you undertake not out of obligation or to achieve a particular objective, to paraphrase Dan Pink from his book Drive. Something that is, yanno, fun. Doesn’t have to be knock-your-socks-off fun. Even something like customizing the color scheme of your browser or word processor could count.

jumping happy woman with laptop

Once you commit to adding flow to your lawyer life, your work really can make you leap for joy.

Fun, as it turns out, is not optional if you want to stay out of the loony bin. That’s what psychology research has discovered in the last 40 years. Yet most lawyers and business people haven’t caught on. Especially in our current climate of economic fear and dread, many people think that the only approach to law and business is to eliminate fun and grind more.

Flow Is Not Optional

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (roughly, pronounced “chick-sent-me-high”) conducted some startling research in the 1970s. At the end of the experiment, the subjects exhibited the following symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, a mental illness afflicting about 3 percent of the population. It was like reading a joke that started, “You might be a lawyer if you have . . .“

  • Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge,
  • Being easily fatigued,
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank,
  • Irritability,
  • Muscle tension, and
  • Sleep disturbance.

What precipitated these symptoms? Being denied flow, or enjoyment, for a mere 48 hours. Here’s what the subjects were told to do:

Beginning [in the morning] when you wake up and until 9 p.m., we would like you to act in a normal way, doing all the things you have to do, but not doing anything that is ‘play’ or ‘noninstrumental.’

That meant that (assuming they liked these things), they were not doing the parts of their jobs they enjoyed, going for runs, practicing yoga, playing with the dog or kids, or stopping to look at a something that caught their eye. No listening to music, no TV, no reading the paper.

After the first day, the subjects started complaining of headaches, sluggishness, and difficulty concentrating—their thoughts started going in circles. Some couldn’t sleep.

After a second day, “the general deterioration in mood was so advanced that prolonging the experiment would have been inadvisable,” according to Csikszentmihalyi.

And my first thought was, well, that sounds like most attorneys I know or used to work with. It sounds like me when I was practicing law.

All this after 2 days?? Think of the weeks and months that many attorneys do nothing but grind away, and don’t let themselves have but a drop of flow now and again. What you get is what we have in BigLaw and other parts of Lawyerland: highly anxiety-ridden, toxic environments.

Having flow seems to be as important to adult humans as being held is to babies. Without touch, infants fail to grow. Without flow, adults fail to function.

No Flow, No Career Change

The lack of flow in your life represents the biggest barrier between you and your dream career and life. Without some flow, you literally cannot think straight. Without flow, you certainly have a hard time being resilient about your current situation, let alone being creative about a new one that encompasses things like happiness. The lack of flow sucks you dry, until you cannot imagine a life with flow can actually exist for you.

Csikszentmihalyi found that most people experience flow in their work, rather than in other parts of their life. But if you’ve chosen a career that is far, far from where your flow is, like, oh, say, LAW, it’s not going to help if I tell you to look for flow in your work.

You need to introduce flow in other spaces, so you can regain enough soul oxygen to start seeing possibilities for career flow, and start moving toward them.

That goes for those of you who are basically suited to work as a lawyer, too; so much of many legal work environments is toxic, you won’t be able to find a lot of flow in them.

“How do I find flow, when nearly all my waking hours are taken up by work?” I hear that chorus, unhappy, overworked lawyers, I do.

Putting Flow in Your Over-laywered Life

First, you have to stop kidding yourself that you are a machine whose 10th hour of work is the same quality as your 3rd. I don’t care what partners or bosses believe, every bit of evidence about human functioning shows that without sufficient rest and renewal, you are not efficient when you overwork. If you really must pull those 12-hour+ days, you must schedule some time around hour 5 or 6 to renew. Make it as non-negotiable as a potty break. I’d actually go so far as to say you need to do some mini-renewals every 3 hours or so. Your work quality and efficiency will improve that much more.

Second, realize that introducing flow isn’t a monolithic project. It’s modular. It can be as simple as leaving the office to walk around the block and look for something that pleases your eye or ear. At its base, flow takes you out of your scared self and into appreciation of something else. That something else can be the rhythm of words or sounds, the feeling of movement, the solving of a puzzle or a problem—the list is practically endless, for it encompasses the panoply of human endeavor.

Six ideas for flow moments during the day:

  • Go for a walk and try to find a fountain to listen to, then listen with rapt attention for 5 minutes;
  • Find some flowers to appreciate, either in your firm’s office, an office lobby, or even (gasp) at a street vendor, then pay close enough attention that you could draw their shapes and colors. You don’t necessarily have to draw them later (though that’s an excellent idea), but that’s the level of attention you need to pay;
  • Go in search of an exquisite piece of chocolate. Savor every single moment of eating it. Maybe even talk to the shop owner and find out about how it was made;
  • Get a coloring book of mandalas, geometric patterns, or buildings. Whatever appeals. Art stores and large, chain books stores carry them. And get an expansive set of colored pencils. Spend 10 minutes coloring.
  • Actually go to your yoga or exercise class. (If you need to sign up for a class, I’ve heard great things about Zumba);
  • Take your camera phone, and go look for interesting people or vignettes to snap. And yeah, then take the pictures.

Finally, I challenge you to spend an entire hour doing something fun and festive once weekly. It’s the best way I know to cultivate flow in your life.

Once you’ve got more flow, you’ll start thinking better. Then, you can use that energy for legal career change. Yahoo!

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer whose life is always more productive when she focuses on flow. She coaches unhappy lawyers on incorporating flow into their lives and work. Join Jennifer at the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club on Sept. 15, 2011 at 1:30pm ET to discuss Drive and how you can add flow to your lawyer work and your life. To participate in this free event, dial (209) 647-1000. The access code is 535240# (yes you need to enter the # sign). Or email jalvey@jenniferalvey.com to get on the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club email list.

2 thoughts on “Flowing Into Legal Career Change

  1. Pingback: How Did I Get To Be An Unhappy Lawyer? Part 3 « Leaving the Law

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