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I am a lawyer and a parent. I also try to have a social life, volunteer, take care of my pets, and run a household (not completely by myself, thank goodness). Recently, a friend — also a lawyer and parent — and I were discussing the challenges of work-life balance, or work-life integration. Here’s one question we tossed around: Is it better to compartmentalize work and the rest of life or to integrate them? For example, if I am at the pool with my daughter in the afternoon and a client calls, do I answer and handle the issue at that moment? Or, do I send it to voicemail and deal with it later?
Of course, the nature of the issue may determine the answer. An emergency must be dealt with right away. But often, things can wait a bit. For example, I work late at night after everyone else in my house is asleep, or early in the morning, so I can handle certain issues without significant delay.
But, as my friend said, sometimes issues are “hanging over your head” during family time. And that increases anxiety — knowing there is something that is not being addressed. Maybe, we mused, it would be better to just take the call, make it as short as possible, craft a plan or response, and then get back to personal time.
The one approach — sending the call to voicemail — would be “compartmentalizing.” The second — taking the call at the pool — would be “integration.” Traditional wisdom says compartmentalize: We work at the office, we live at our home and we play somewhere else. But our world and the practice of law are changing. Compartmentalization works less well than in the past.
As our practices — and our clients’ expectations — evolve, we must change our approach to handling it “all.” We must integrate all the areas of our lives. The key is allowing for overlap between all the areas’ boundaries, like the rounded triangle in the middle of three overlapping circles. You spend a majority of your time in the central, rounded triangle, but can move to the outer areas of each circle when compartmentalization is preferred, like on vacation.
Here are five ways to integrate and compartmentalize.
1. Decide what matters most to you. We say we want to “have it all,” but what we really mean is, we want to have all that we want. In other words, “having it all” means different things to different people. Decide what’s important to you, and integrate those areas. For everything else, compartmentalize. Relegate it to the outer edges of your circles, or push it completely out of the circles if you really don’t need or want it.
2. Create a schedule that works for you. If you are lucky enough to have the flexibility to craft your schedule around client needs and deadlines, rather than law firm strictures, then you are well on your way to work-life integration success. Assess your clients’ needs, your needs and the needs of the people you care about. Then, craft a schedule that satisfies those needs as much as possible. For example, perhaps you can work early mornings before your family wakes, then take an hour break to have breakfast and spend time with your kids. Next, it’s back to work until midafternoon when you head to the gym or pick up the kids from school. After dinner or kids’ bedtime, maybe it’s back to work, or time to sleep. This kind of schedule integrates the areas of your life at various times of the day. The same can be done during weekends. Taking one or two hours each Saturday for planning or catching up with your work can give you a bit more personal time during the week.
3. Compartmentalize tasks. This is about focus. Compartmentalize a task when you perform it so that you can focus on it exclusively and completely. This alleviates unnecessary stress by allowing you to give the task at hand the attention it deserves. For example, if you are mentally editing a memo while tucking your son into bed at night, you aren’t present and enjoying the moment at hand — and you aren’t effectively editing the memo, either. It’s lose-lose.
4. Mini-task instead of multitask. We all know that multitasking isn’t efficient or effective. In fact, switching between tasks too often, or trying to focus on more than one task at a time, lowers productivity by up to 40 percent. Again, lose-lose. But there’s a difference between trying to multitask and taking small periods of time to focus on each task. For example, I can write a post for 25 minutes while my daughter watches her favorite kids show. I can completely focus on the writing for that short period of time. And when the show is over, I can put it aside and focus on family time. These small chunks of time, when added together, lead to completed work projects and also allow quality time with family. One task at a time, in chunked time periods.
5. Integrate your personality, too. When you can be your true self in all areas of your life, you significantly reduce stress. Of course, certain aspects of your personality may be more prevalent in certain areas of life, but the different aspects should not be contradictory. Much like determining what matters most to you in life, determine who you are, who you want to be and your true nature. Then make decisions from that place of “your” truth. (Related: “Leave Your Lawyer at Work.”)
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