Most New Year’s posts extol the virtues of picking a word, a theme, a vision, or goals for the coming year.
This is not one of those posts.
Instead, I’m just telling all you unhappy lawyers what your top priority needs to be for the coming year: Create some silence.
Literal silence would be great, but what I’m really talking about is mental silence. The kind of silence where your anxious, stressed brain isn’t rabitting from idea to task to guilt in an endless loop. The kind of silence that you can just dwell in for a tiny little while, and relax.
Because I know that as soon as you walk back into the office, you’ll be losing your mind, right? Overwhelmed by the constant demands of law practice, by a to-do list that breeds faster than the dust bunnies under your bed (also, on your to-do list), and maybe by some family demands–just for fun.
I Just Need a Long Vacation
I hear you muttering, “What I need is a really long vacation.” You’re not talking about the few days off that you might have managed recently, and which you either napped or binge-watched through, or vainly wished you could.
No, you mean a couple weeks of no job, no reminders, and the biggest decision is a choice between a massage, a nap, or a beverage with an umbrella in it. Then, you’ll finally be relaxed and able to figure out how to get that novel written, or really focus on making a big career change.
Except there is no time for any vacation, and you’re feeling trapped, suffocated, and desperate.
But I have good news, you stuck, unhappy lawyers! You don’t need a 2-week vacation to a perfect spot to quiet the overwhelm. It’s so much simpler, and cheaper, than that.
The vacation you need is from your screens and your belief that you must always be productive. Those vacations, my friends, are possible today—and you don’t even have to get out of your PJs to go!
It’s a gift you can give yourself right this minute.
I know, this sounds so impossibly cheery and positive that many of you likely want to throat punch me, or at least yell a bit. I get it. Just hear me out before pelting me with emails explaining how Pollyanna I am.
Dazed and Confused
At base, overwhelm and its pal anxiety happen when we have too much stimulation, and not enough mental capacity to process it all. “Stimulation” covers a lot of ground. it can be
- life management,
- or even ideas.
Usually, it’s a combination.
Stimulation is a curse of modern life. Technology has given us speed and efficiency, but we haven’t figured out how to keep technology our servant, rather than our cruel taskmaster.
That’s why we’re having such a hard time processing all the facets of our lives. We don’t just stand in line and do nothing—we can be entertained! Or accomplish things! Hell, even the bathroom is no longer the one place where it’s just you and your thoughts. (Though if you are one of those rare creatures who don’t take your phone into the loo, well done indeed.)
Overvaluing productivity and filling every second with something stimulating is a dynamite recipe for overwhelm and stress. No wonder lawyers are perennially clinging by their fingernails to sanity.
Turns out, your brain needs you to be a lazy, shiftless bum regularly. It needs time to mull things over and roam freely in odd places. It needs variety and frequent changes in rhythm. Lacking that kind of freedom, your brain (and therefore you) gets frenzied and spastic, going through lots of motions but accomplishing little.
When we had no instant gratification (read: smartphones) within easy reach, our brains got much more downtime. In the 1980s, we had one newspaper to read in the morning, and then the evening news. We might take a book to an appointment, in case we had to wait. There was zero chance of checking email, since it didn’t exist in most places. Heck, people couldn’t even call you once you left the office or your house.
Then Blackberries became a common scourge, followed by smartphones. Smartphones have really made things harder, since they can be used for really good reasons, and really crappy ones.
Make Your Life, Like, Totally Awesome
So here’s my suggestion for your instant vacation: Live like it’s 1988. Act like you cannot entertain yourself via a screen while in lines, at meals, in the loo, or during exercise.
You can have music, since Walkmans and boomboxes were a thing then. Crappy headphones only–no noise-canceling wondertoys. No podcasts, no videos, and no talking on the phone in your car or while walking down the street. No texting, either. (Yes, if your kids or significant other call and it’s probably an emergency, you can talk then. I’m not a totally tyrannical Luddite.)
In other words, just stand in that damned line for your latte and be a little bored, or twitchy from phone withdrawal. Watch the weirdness around you. (There is always weirdness, trust me.) Smell the coffee. Smile at the barista, and a random stranger. Or just do none of it, and let your mind wander. I promise you’ll survive.
Other strategies I’d suggest:
Limit your news diet to an hour per day. That’s about all we got in the 80s, between the paper and the evening news. (No, I do not care about your Mensa-level uncle who read 10 papers daily.)
Notice your social media time while you’re at work. Personally, I’m a Facebook addict. I noticed that any time I was bored or frustrated with what I was doing, I’d just click on that perennially open tab. When I finally let myself notice the amount of time I was spending there, I finally closed that tab. You can use the hurdle of activation energy to your advantage sometimes.
Give yourself a couple dedicated times during the day to scratch that social media itch, but then, that’s it. Set a timer if you need to. Then give yourself a reward when you stop. Maybe it’s stretching your legs for 5 minutes outside because it’s a gorgeous day. Maybe it’s going to grab some flowers or a plant for your office. (Succulents—very, very hard to kill. Trust me.) Or playing with an office toy (Zen garden, anyone?) Or maybe Nerfing a hidden picture of your least favorite person ever? Or chocolate? Whatever it takes.
Give this kind of vacation a whirl for a couple weeks, and see what happens. If you want to be very data-oriented about it, rate your stress level when you’re first back in the office and following your regular routine, and then rate it again in 2 weeks.
I’m betting you will think some new thoughts, feel more creative, or notice your shoulders unknotting and your gut hurting less. Or maybe something else even more gratifying.
I’d love to hear how it goes.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who has discovered she needs silence about as much as oxygen. Naturally, she got her teenage son an electric guitar for Christmas. If you need help creating some silence and space in your head so you can make some big changes, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.