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On Balance

Get Out! Take an Actual Day Off to Curb Lawyer Stress

After four months at the (home) office, here's the story of my big day off.

By Megan Zavieh
On Balance by Megan Zavieh

Read more from Megan Zavieh here.

Beyond doubt, we are all experiencing incredible amounts of lawyer stress. This fantastic Twitter thread from Alexis Rockley spells it out so well. The stress is unrelenting, and it is insidious. Even when we think we are fine or “handling it,” lawyer stress influences our ability to think and work.

Lawyers in solo and small firms also face the extra stress of knowing there is no big safety net if we drop the ball at work. We don’t have a crew of associates or partners who can swoop in if we fall behind. Typically, we are responsible for our own systems, including calendaring. Financial burdens fall on our shoulders, and mistakes can be costly. That is why it is so critical to give ourselves time and space to cope before the stress becomes too much.

Unrecognized Stress Buildup

Stress is sneaky. It creeps up slowly, building almost imperceptibly. Since it can be hard to recognize in ourselves, sometimes a small mirror is needed. Here is my story of realizing stress was getting to me, seeing the possibility of real harm, and stopping to take a day off to uncork some of the pressure.

Pandemic? So Far, So Good …

I feel I have been handling COVID-19-related changes in life pretty well. In the beginning, I loved having my kids home for schooling. I work from home anyway, so that was seamless, and my business did not drop off precipitously. I expanded my work hours to allow for being home more, plus for clients who were needing more ability to reach me. We coasted along fairly well from mid-March to mid-May. I felt like life was pretty good, all things considered.

As we approached the last couple of weeks of schooling, however, I felt the mercury rising. I was short-tempered, unfocused and struggled to prioritize my time. Some days I was entirely spent by the end, not always feeling like I had accomplished anything. Other days I realized my children spent far too many hours on screens while I cranked away at productive lawyering.

About a week ago, my 6-year-old caught the short end of the stick. I heard something happening in the next room and went off guns blazing, yelling at them in my certainty they had done something wrong. They quickly corrected me, and I realized my anger was unjustified. I felt horrible. I hugged the 6-year-old, apologizing. And then I heard the words, “Mommy, I think you need to take a day off. You need a day without your computer when you just play with us.”

There was the mirror. And it was 6. I couldn’t see it for myself, but to those innocent eyes, it was clear as day.

Why Is Taking a Day Off So Tough?

I would love to say I immediately closed my computer and headed off with my kids, but I didn’t. I made excuses, and I went back to work. After a few reminders from the 6-year-old, though, I blocked the following Friday off on my calendar. I didn’t tell them, but my calendar entry read, “Take kids exploring.” I had no idea what we would do, but I knew we had to get out. I trusted the 6-year-old.

As the day approached, it was so hard to leave the calendar blocked. After all, if I canceled, the kids would never know. Clients needed me; new clients wanted appointments; I had a pile of work to do — the list of excuses went on.

But, I kept thinking of those sweet eyes telling me I needed to spend a day playing and held firm. And, here’s the key, I also had asked my assistant to hold firm on that day, keeping me in check. (Accountability makes such a difference in making this sort of thing happen.)

The other push I gave myself was searching for something to do. Once I settled on a five-mile hike along a national park trail that ended at a waterfall, I was pretty jazzed to make it happen.

Preparation Is Key to Taking Off

So, Thursday afternoon, I told the kids our plans, and I set an out-of-office reply in my email. The most recent out-of-office was from February, pre-pandemic, and it wasn’t for a vacation, it was for a legal conference. It had been four months since I was out of the office. Four months of full-time parenting, running a business, trying to exercise on Zoom with my gym-mates, pandemic fears, wiping down groceries, debating the use of face masks in schools, protests and social unrest, and more.

Four months of no rhythm to the week. Four weeks of staying up too late. No wonder I was feeling stressed!

When Friday morning came, I still spent a little time on my email and responding to clients who could not wait. But then I shut down, and I turned to my kids. I had no idea at that moment of pressing “shut down” just how much the next 24 hours would mean to us all.

Allowing the Day to Unfold at its Own Pace

With no time pressure, my 13-year-old and I woke everyone else up. We set out all the fixings for sandwiches and let everyone make their own. I didn’t push anyone out of the way to do it myself since they were taking too long. I just let them do their thing. We packed a cooler to leave in the car and a ruck for hiking, got the dogs and their water bowl and kibble, and we headed to the mountains.

We drove with the windows down and the music up loud. I think even the kids felt the change in the air as I didn’t check my phone at every opportunity. Instead, we had a proper “music education.” The 8-year-old chose Ice Ice Baby to blast, and the kids cracked up that I still know all the words. We moved on to Whitesnake and Chris Janson, and they wondered where in my brain I store all these lyrics. I knew they were having fun because no one asked for the volume to be turned down or for me to stop singing.

We arrived at the park later than planned, thanks to road construction, but no one seemed to mind (or even notice). We had no cell signal, and that was just fine by all of us. We headed out on the trail with our dogs, spending hours wandering, training the dogs not to bark at all the other dogs on the trail, splashing in the creek.

We didn’t check the clock once.

Back at the car, we relaxed, ate, laughed and looked at the pictures the 11-year-old had taken of the beautiful sights. We started heading home, but after about 15 minutes, we realized we had left the 8-year-old’s treasure of the day, a large walking stick, behind at the parking spot. Normally, I’d keep driving home, telling the 8-year-old they were out of luck, but the mood was completely different on this day. Without hesitation, I turned around and headed back. The stick is now safely at home.

Holding Onto the Glow

There was something so wonderful about this day that I desperately wanted it to last forever. Under normal circumstances, when the cell signal was back, I’d have switched immediately into work mode. I’d have checked emails, worried about what had transpired while I was out, and allowed myself to get stressed all over again. I’d spend the last few minutes of my day before sleep double-checking email and the calendar. But on this day, I made a conscious choice not to. In fact, I did not check email or social media all evening and into the next day.

I believe this was the key to making sure the benefits of the day lasted beyond a few hours.

Of course, eventually, I checked in and did all that was required to maintain my practice ethically. But choosing Friday for this day off was gold. It was whipped cream on top of an ice-cream sundae because I did not have to rush back to work.

Stress Is Affecting Everyone

Taking this day to recharge has had a truly palpable impact on me. But what struck me most was its impact on the kids. If we adults are experiencing unprecedented stress, think about what children are feeling. They can’t name it; they can’t stop themselves and think, “I need to take a deep breath”; they can’t rationalize that this is temporary.

Plus, with all of us working from home, they are exposed to their parents’ everyday stress.

That Saturday morning, it was clear this day off had an impact on them. The first one up asked to do his math, which we do not require in our house on a Saturday. He was energized and excited to tackle it. Another woke up and got out a computer, opening it to their summer academic activity (learning Farsi) without hesitation. The next one up — same story. They all had renewed energy and happiness. Sibling bickering was at an all-time low. (If anyone knows how to keep this going, I’m all ears.)

Replicating the Recharge

It seems so simple to do this again — just take a day off work. But looking back, here are some things I did differently that made this day off truly reinvigorating. I hope to re-create it another day.

  • Take a Friday off. This way, reentry is slow, and no one is banging at the door to get your attention.
  • Use the out-of-office reply on email and voicemail. You’ll feel less stressed knowing that anyone trying to reach you is being told you won’t be responding today.
  • Cut the cord! If you are going somewhere your cellphone will work, put it in airplane mode. The lack of a connection to the outside world is so important to stay present.
  • Don’t jump back in until the next day. You are not out for just part of the day; you are out for the whole day, all the way to bedtime.
  • Let go of the idea that the world can’t function without you for a day. It can.
  • Be present. Embrace the idea that you deserve your presence for a day, and that your family needs your full attention.
  • Breathe.

Self-care and lawyer stress management are critical to the success of your law practice. They are as important as your email app or calendaring tool. Without you functioning at your best, deadlines will pile up, mistakes will happen, and there may be severe consequences for them. So take a day. Have an adventure.

And spread the word. Let’s make it a movement.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Megan Zavieh Megan Zavieh

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of “The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.” At Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action and guidance on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. She podcasts on Lawyers Gone Ethical, blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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