Category Archives: The Ethical Lawyer – Legal Ethics Blog

Attorney Burnout: The High Cost of Overwork

Being truly productive is not about filling your time with more work and plugging away at your to-dos without breaks.  Still, managing a heavy caseload and working beyond office hours are expected and even glorified in the legal industry.

Overwork is considered a badge of honor when it is equated with dedication, responsiveness, and a can-do attitude. But when mounting stress pushes you into the downward spiral of burnout,  it is impossible to make meaningful contribution and perform at your peak. The fire in your belly fades out and the inner drive gets replaced with indifference and disillusionment.

Knowing the symptoms helps you spot burnout and take action to alleviate it. Understanding the effects of overwork and other contributory factors is key to preventing and stopping burnout. Recognizing the consequences of burnout makes you less likely to ignore the telltale signs.

What is Burnout?

There is no clear definition of burnout. More often, it is discussed in terms of its common symptoms. Although burnout is typically linked with chronic stress, they are not the same. Burnout is at the extreme end of the stress continuum.

In the 1970’s, psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger coined the term and referred to it as “a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.”

Christina Maslach, psychologist and creator of the leading burnout measure, the Maslach Burnout Inventory™ (MBI), describes burnout as a syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic, job-related stress. She notes that burnout is “a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of a negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people.”

In the 10th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10), burnout is given its own code (Z73.0) and is referred to as a state of vital exhaustion. Burnout, however, is not recognized as a medical diagnosis in part because its symptoms overlap with those of more widely studied conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorder,  as well as physical illnesses.

While there are questionnaires to self-assess burnout, there are no official methods to diagnose burnout or whether the symptoms are caused by something else.

What are the Common Symptoms of Burnout? 

Warning signs of burnout include emotional symptoms, such as feeling overwhelmed, forgetfulness; inability to focus; feeling empty or depressed; chronic anxiety; increased irritability; intolerance of others; and withdrawal from friends and family. Physical symptoms include headaches; indigestion; nausea; sudden weight loss or gain; and getting sick more frequently. Among the behavioral symptoms are insomnia; alcohol dependence; and substance misuse.

Maslach’s 3 key dimensions of burnout

Maslach and her colleagues found that burnout has three key dimensions:

Emotional exhaustion is overwhelming exhaustion that includes low energy, depletion and fatigue. It is feeling emotionally drained by interpersonal contact and being overextended and exhausted by one’s work.

Depersonalization refers to cynicism and detachment, i.e. a negative and excessively impersonal response toward clients (recipients of one’s services or care)  and various aspects of the job. It is usually associated with irritability, loss of idealism, withdrawal and other negative shifts in attitude.

Reduced personal accomplishment is a sense of inefficacy and a feeling of ineffectiveness in producing the desired results. It refers to a negative self-evaluation of professional competence. It is linked to depression, low self-esteem, low morale, and an inability to cope.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory™ evaluates the three dimensions with a 22-item survey using a 7-point Likert scale for responses.  An answer reflects both the frequency and intensity of feelings and may range from “Never” to “Every day”.

The Emotional Exhaustion subscale includes nine items, such as  “I feel burned out from my work,” “I feel fatigued when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job,” and “I feel I’m working too hard on my job.” Higher scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.

The Depersonalization subscale includes five items, such as “I’ve become more callous towards people since I took this job,” “I worry that this job is hardening me emotionally,” and ” I don’t really care what happens to some recipients.”  Higher scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.

The Personal Accomplishment subscale includes eight items, such as “I feel I’m positively influencing other people’s lives through my work,” “I feel exhilarated after working closely with my recipients,” and “I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job.” Lower scores on this subscale correspond to higher degrees of burnout.

Freudenberger’s 12-stage model of burnout

Freudenberger described the development of burnout in 12 stages, which do not necessarily occur in order and might not all be experienced in every case:

1. Compulsion to prove oneself (excessive ambition; obsession with proving worth)

2. Working harder (inability to switch off; taking on more work)

3. Neglecting needs (lack of social interactions; unhealthy diet; irregular sleep)

4. Displacement of conflicts (roots of problems are dismissed; feel threatened by disagreements)

5. Revision of values (work becomes the only focus; life becomes one-dimensional as family, friends, hobbies, etc. are neglected)

6. Denial of emerging problems (intolerance; inflexibility in thoughts and behavior; cynicism; aggression)

7. Withdrawal (hopelessness; reduced sense of direction; use of alcohol and drugs for stress relief)

8.  Obvious behavioral changes (odd shifts in behavior and emotional outbursts, which concern friends and family)

9. Depersonalization (devaluing self and others)

10. Inner emptiness (feeling empty and anxious; addictions develop)

11. Depression (feeling lost and uncertain; pessimistic outlook on the future)

12. Burnout syndrome (mental and physical exhaustion that can be life-threatening; medical attention becomes critical)

As psychologist Cary Cherniss notes, burnout begins with a mismatch between your work demands and your resources to deal with these demands (stress). It progresses to the immediate, short-term response of anxiety, tension and fatigue (individual strain). Then it sparks changes in attitude and behavior, such as greater cynicism and detachment (defensive coping). Paying attention to the early warning signs is key to staving off the more severe symptoms and full-on burnout.

What are the Causes of Burnout? 

Both the workplace environment (external factors) and your individual traits and personal habits (internal factors) contribute to  burnout.

Workplace factors

In their book, The Truth About Burnout, Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter identify six factors in the workplace that fuel stress and trigger burnout. They are:

1. Work overload. Organizational restructuring, downsizing and budget cuts force individuals to work more with fewer resources.  Billable hour requirements and other financial demands push lawyers to work longer even when they ought to take a break and recharge.

2. Lack of control over your work. Having autonomy — such as the freedom to determine your own priorities, set limits, and solve problems creatively — is critical for workplace motivation and engagement. When you have little or no control over which tactics and strategies you use, and when you execute them,  it’s much harder to influence the outcome and derive satisfaction from the work you do.

3. Insufficient reward. Meaningful rewards come in a variety of forms.  They include high pay, good benefits, recognition from peers and supervisors, and the feeling that you make a difference for your organization and your clients. In the high stakes legal industry,  lawyers are harshly reprimanded and called out for mistakes and failures, while their diligence and successes are often taken for granted. If your work is not met with appropriate reward, burnout is more likely.

4. Lack of community. When there is minimal support from colleagues and supervisors, unresolved conflicts, extreme competitiveness, and intense isolation within your workplace, there is a higher propensity for cynicism and detachment.

5. Absence of fairness. Trust, openness and respect are necessary for a workplace to be perceived as fair. Inequities in the workload or pay structures, favoritism in promotions, biased evaluations, and failure to appropriately resolve disputes can lead to burnout.

6. Conflicting values. A mismatch between your organization’s values and your personal values makes it hard to align priorities and goals. Inconsistencies between the organization’s stated objectives and its daily actions also create frustration, discontentment and negativity.

Individual traits and habits

Common personality traits or tendencies among lawyers, which tend to cause burnout, are:

1.  Perfectionism. Deadline-driven work, complex laws and rules, and ongoing changes in procedures and policies are some of the factors that encourage perfectionism. This involves setting impossibly high standards and rejecting any work product short of perfection. Unrealistic expectations, aversion to mistakes and the overvaluing of flawless performance can steer you toward burnout.

2. Conscientiousness. Prioritizing work and clients’ needs over self-care and personal commitments is prevalent among lawyers. The ability to make a difference  can lead you to say yes to unreasonable requests and never-ending demands. Overtime, your conscientiousness and sense of service can begin to feel more like self-sacrifice, deprivation and martyrdom.

3.  Achievement orientation. High achievers tend to have lower resilience to stress and setbacks. They obsess about meeting goals no matter the costs, and find it difficult to discuss their weaknesses and accept constructive feedback. Due to their strong desire to excel, they are generally hypercritical of their failures and fall easily into comparison traps.

4. Workaholism.  Many lawyers work beyond the standard 40 hours per week,  e.g. 50 to 80 hours, because they are workaholics. They have an extreme internal drive, are excessively hard workers, and are addicted to work. They work compulsively and excessively, beyond what is required to meet organizational goals or their own financial needs.

What are the Consequences of Burnout?

Burnout has far-reaching consequences on lawyers, their organizations and the industry as a whole. They include:

Ethical Missteps

ABA Model Rule 1.1 (Competence), which is reflected in Rule 1.1 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, instructs lawyers to provide competent representation, which “requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

Rule 1.3 of the MRPC (Diligence), which mirrors the Model Rule, states “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”

Rule 1.4 (a), MRPC (Communication) and the Model Rule, requires lawyers to promptly inform the client of key decisions and circumstances and obtain informed consent; reasonably consult with the client about the means to accomplish objectives; keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter; and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.

These and other ethics rules are more likely to be broken when you are experiencing fatigue, cynicism, detachment and hopelessness due to burnout.  Your capacity to meet the demands of your profession and needs of your client are depleted by burnout.

Intense fatigue, for example, makes it much harder to keep up with the workload, track and meet deadlines, analyze and apply complex laws, and respond promptly to client’s questions and concerns. Your cognitive abilities and creative problem solving skills are not as sharp as they could be when you are burned out.

Excessive depersonalization of clients strips your ability to show compassion and address highly sensitive issues.  Too much distancing from your work can lead you to overlook critical aspects of a client matter.

Feeling ineffective and helpless discourages you from exerting effort and exploring ways to solve problems. Your interest and focus wane when you think what you do makes little or no difference.

Health-Related Problems

Emotional depletion and mental fatigue often lead to serious health problems. Burnout has been linked with physical consequences, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular disorder, chronic pain, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and shorter life spans. Burnout is also associated with psychological effects, including depression and anxiety disorder.

Impaired Relationships

Burnout can lead to withdrawal from family and friends as well as more interpersonal disputes. Work-family conflict, for instance, arises when obligations at work take time and energy away from family-related responsibilities.  Negativity, lower energy, irritability and increased frustration affect your ability to maintain relationships with colleagues, team members, supervisors and partners.

Substance Abuse 

Stress is a known contributor to alcoholism and drug addiction. In a 2016 study titled, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, researchers found that more than 1 in 5 lawyers said they felt their use of alcohol or other drugs was problematic at some point in their lives.  The study found that attorneys in the first 10 years of their practice experience the highest rates of problematic use (28.9%), followed by attorneys practicing for 11 to 20 years (20.6%).

Alcohol or drugs is sometimes used to numb out, relax, or cope with work-related stressors. Some drugs, such as cocaine, also serve to increase mental alertness. Self-medicating to deal with burnout leads to drug addictions and substance abuse.

Dysfunctions and Reduced Productivity in the Workplace 

Burnout and its related symptoms prevent you from getting the most important things done efficiently, effectively and in a timely manner. Cynicism or negative attitudes toward the organization, clients and colleagues reduces commitment to the workplace, job satisfaction, and quality of service. It also contributes to communication breakdown and low workplace morale. Emotional exhaustion and physical fatigue lower productivity and increase absenteeism and tardiness.

In addition, the growing sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment often causes burned out lawyers to quit their jobs, close their practice, or shift to another profession or vocation altogether. Heavy workloads, inadequate rewards and job dissatisfaction, which are part of the burnout culture, are among the reasons for high turnover rates. The organization incurs significant expenses when recruiting and training lawyers to replace those who leave.

Overwork Comes At a High Cost that Does Not, in the Long Run, Outweigh Any Possible Benefit

Prolonged exposure to stress (e.g. excessive workload), combined with the workplace environment and personal characteristics and tendencies, make lawyers vulnerable to burnout.

Burnout not only impairs your personal health and productivity, but also affects the outcomes of your organization in the form of subpar work product, decreased client satisfaction, and a higher propensity for legal errors and ethical missteps.

The high cost of overwork, which is a requisite for burnout, means you must take purposeful breaks daily, weekly, and yearly – no matter how busy you are. The heavier your caseload, the more recharging and refueling you need to avoid running on empty.

For more information, read the related article, Attorney Burnout: The Benefits of Purposeful Breaks (and how to take them).

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Deadlines & Daily Habits: Why Time Blocking Works

Time blocking (or time boxing) is an essential productivity technique that involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.

It allows you to prioritize important, deadline-driven or time-sensitive matters, make progress on growth-based projects, and communicate with clients and prospects without giving them 24/7 access to you. Ultimately, time blocking leads to strategic deadlines and productive habits that help you get important tasks done well and on time.

Here are three reasons why time blocking works:

1. Develop laser-like focus

Because a time block is a pre-planned, distraction-free period for tackling your most important tasks (MITs) or one big thing, it gives you the opportunity to practice the skill of concentrating on cognitively demanding, high-value work without giving up easily.

Instead of jumping from task to task or giving in to urges to check social media or surf the web, you learn to sit with discomfort and stay committed to the task at hand.

Focus, however, requires willpower – the mental energy to resist short-term temptations to make long-term gains. And willpower is a limited resource. With time blocking, you  build daily habits that move you forward and get you unstuck, without relying too much on self-control.

Time blocks allow you to hone in your efforts on a single big task that must be done, or a batch of low-value tasks that will accumulate if you ignore them too long. Decision fatigue is reduced when you know exactly what task you need to tackle, how long you should spend on it, and when to break from it.

By routinizing and batching low-level tasks, you reserve your energy, attention span and concentration for complicated tasks that require laser-like focus.

2. Produce higher-quality work

Time blocking gets you in the zone and increases flow – the mental state in which you are absorbed in and fully involved in the task at hand – by reducing distractions and minimizing interruptions.

When you invest your cognitive abilities on a complex task ( instead of scatter your attention on busy work), you make fewer mistakes, notice significant details, and produce more creative, higher-level work. Time blocking encourages you to postpone mindless activities and time wasters so you can attend to your more important and/or urgent work.

3. Speed up progress on priorities

Time blocking encourages conscious choices in which you say yes to essentials (do list) and no to non-essentials (don’t list)

Rather than overcommitting or succumbing to endless obligations, you set clear boundaries and realistic expectations with others.

If you habitually reply to emails and text messages within 5 minutes of when you get them, the sender will come to expect the same or similar response time for all correspondence. If you answer every telephone call regardless of what time they come in and what you are doing, you teach the caller that their problem always matters more than your own. If you keep an open office so anyone can walk into your office at any time, observers will conclude it’s fine to interrupt you regardless of what’s on your own agenda.

Being highly responsive makes you procrastinate on taking action on your own, highest priorities. By having time blocks for when you meet with clients and colleagues, take telephone calls, and respond to emails, you set appropriate boundaries that allow reasonable access to you without compromising your most important work.

Time blocking minimizes multitasking (time suck) and maximizes single tasking (time saver)

The ability to multitask is generally viewed as a valuable skill in our pseudo-productive world. Performing two or more tasks at one time seems to be the way to go when time is short and you have many things to do. But as Dave Crenshaw points out in the The Myth of Multitasking, the most you can do is “switch tasking” (switch back and forth between two or more tasks) and “background tasking” (do two or more mundane tasks like listen to the radio while you drive or watch TV while you exercise.)

The human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is not possible when (1) at least one of the tasks requires focus or effort to complete, and (2) the tasks involve similar types of brain processing.

Constantly shifting your attention makes you feel busy, but actually makes you less productive. When you stop what you’re doing to attend to an interruption, distraction or another completely different task, you are left with a  cognitive residue that takes about 15 to 25 minutes to clear up so you can refocus on the initial task. Multitasking (or switch tasking) is very different from taking deliberate breaks for necessary rest or taking time to let ideas percolate and incubate.

Background tasking is fine when you couple a primary task with a low-concentration or mindless activity. You can take a walk with a colleague while you discuss a work issue during your lunch break. You can listen to classical music while you organize your receipts for tax filing. You can catch up on the latest episode of your favorite podcast while you do the dishes.

But when it comes to your high-concentration, most important tasks, the best way to complete them in less time and with greater ease is to single-task. Focusing on one task at a time typically leads to better results.  

Time blocking reduces procrastination (time suck) and encourages deliberate action (time saver)

Classically defined, procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing action to a future time.  Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit, defines procrastination as “a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.”

In certain situations, delaying a task purposefully and strategically can work to your benefit. Sometimes you do need to reflect on things, allow ideas to percolate, gather and synthesize information, clarify your intentions, and determine your ultimate goal before you take action. This is known as strategic procrastination.

In other cases, delaying action on an important task while you work on other tasks to build momentum.  This is called structured procrastination.

Dr. John Perry, a philosopher at Stanford University and author of The Art of Procrastination, notes that despite being a habitual procrastinator, he is very productive most of the time. He notes:

The key to productivity is to make more commitments – but to be methodical about it. At the top of your to-do list put a couple of daunting, if not impossible tasks that are vaguely important sounding (but really aren’t) and seem to have deadlines (but really don’t). Then further down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter. With this appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

Perry suggest that instead of working on your most important task first, you start a different task on your list that needs attention. By making other tasks just as important, you can make it easier to tackle the most significant.  Structural procrastination is supposed to motivate you to do difficult, important and time-sensitive tasks, as long as they are a way of not doing something more important.

But there are side effects. Strategic procrastination works only if you start the project early and give yourself time to develop and test ideas. It should not be used to complicate simple things that can be done quickly and doesn’t require a lot of thought. Preparation, which includes building expertise on the topic and mindfully reflecting on ideas, is key.

Structural procrastination works only if you eventually get around to doing your most important task. It should not be used to permanently avoid your main priority by un(consciously) engaging in low-leverage, shallow work instead of high-value, deep work.

They are ineffective as overall productivity strategies. Relying on strategic procrastination or structural procrastination benefits you in only some situations. You are not always creative under pressure, especially when all or or most of your work occurs when the deadline looms. You are likely to end up with mediocre results, high stress, and undeveloped solutions if you start the work too late and don’t have an adequate incubation period to develop ideas and insights.

Time blocking prevents you from delaying or postponing tasks that should not be put off to a later time.

Time blocking takes advantage of Parkinson’s Law (i.e. work expands to fill the time allotted)

Simply put, you will use up all the time to complete a task when given a certain amount of time to do it.

Think about a lawyer billing by the hour with no deadlines. Compared to a lawyer who charges a fixed fee for a specific matter, a lawyer who bills by the hour will likely do more work than is necessary to fill or exceed the minimum billable quota, as long as the client is willing to pay for it and remain a client.

By setting specific time blocks to tackle and complete a task, you learn to reduce perfectionism, ignore trivial details, simplify the steps involved, and work more productively toward a desired outcome.

* * *

In terms of improving diligence (Rule 1.3), developing competence (Rule 1.1) and communicating effectively (Rule 1.4), time blocking works on multiple levels. It takes practice to use it consistently, but once you do, you will benefit from increased focus, higher-quality work, and more deliberate progress on your most important tasks.

To learn more, read the related article, Deadlines & Daily Habits: How Time Blocking Works.

# # #

This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Deadlines & Daily Habits: How Time Blocking Works

Exercising reasonable diligence, providing competent representation, and clearly and timely communicating with clients are critical professional responsibilities. When these ethical duties are neglected, lawyers are vulnerable to missing deadlines, producing sub-par work product, getting angry telephone calls from frustrated clients, and being reported to the bar disciplinary agency.

How do lawyers combine the essential skills of diligence, competence and communication to get important tasks done well and on time? How do they resist distractions, minimize interruptions, clarify their focus areas, and make purposeful progress on their highest priorities?

One essential productivity technique is time blocking. Also known as time boxing, this involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.

Here are the 5 steps to implement time blocking to get essential tasks and projects done, while weeding out the non-essentials:

1. Do a brain dump 

The feeling of overwhelm comes with having too many goals to reach and carrying around too many ideas in your head.  By recording your to-dos, intentions, and plans in a notebook, on a sheet of paper, or in an electronic app like Evernote, you can capture all the things that occupy your thoughts.

Pick a certain day of the week (e.g. Sunday morning or Friday afternoon) to list out the stuff  – small tasks, big projects, short-term goals, and long-term projects – that take up mental space. Strive to get everything out in one session, although you may add items to the list sporadically, as they pop into your mind.

The brain dump is the first step to figuring out what to prioritize and get done within a certain time frame, as well as what to delegate, defer or drop altogether.

The process will also help you organize your projects and break them down into small, manageable steps (next actions) toward the desired outcome. If your list includes “write legal brief for X matter,” jot down the individual tasks involved in completing it. These include reviewing the file, narrowing down the legal issues, creating an outline, doing a first draft, and revising and editing to produce a final draft.

By capturing the steps it will take for you to reach an objective effectively, you can start to organize your projects, create a concrete action plan, and begin to make progress through time blocking.

2. Prioritize

The brain dump leaves you with random priorities. You then need to decide which are your must-dos and, on a daily basis, focus on the three most important tasks (MITs) or the one big thing that will make the most noticeable difference. Narrowing down your top priorities gives you room to deal with emergencies, delays, interruptions, and distractions outside your control. 

The Priority Matrix – also known as Eisenhower’s Urgent-Important Principle – is a useful tool for prioritizing significant, time-sensitive projects, building necessary knowledge and skills, and letting go of the distractions. It distinguishes between importance and urgency. Important tasks contribute to long-term accomplishment. Urgent tasks require immediate attention.

The system includes four different quadrants that enable you to prioritize tasks based on their importance and urgency. It reminds you that not every task is created equal and you may decide whether to tackle it now or defer it.

The Priority Matrix involves putting your tasks in one of four quadrants:

QUADRANT 1: Important + Urgent.

 

Examples: filing a legal brief by the deadline; appearing for a court hearing; attending a scheduled appointment with an important client

Significant, time-sensitive projects

 

 

 

 

QUADRANT 2: Important, But Not Urgent (at least not yet)

Examples: writing and publishing an article; preparing for a presentation; taking a course in your field; evaluating your work

Knowledge learning and skills development; planning and strategizing; mindful reflection and purposeful breaks

 

QUADRANT 3: Urgent (usually to someone else), But Not (always) Important

 

Examples: dealing with your boss’ last-minute request, attending an impromptu meeting, handling a colleague’s need to “pick your brain”

 

Time-pressured distractions and interruptions and random communications (like telephone calls, emails, text messages)

QUADRANT 4: Not Urgent, and Not Important

 

Examples: checking social media, surfing the web for news and videos, online shopping

 

Mindless activities and time wasters

 

3. Schedule priorities like appointments

After deciding on your top priorities (big rocks), your growth-based projects (pebbles) and recurring tasks that may become emergencies if you neglect them too long (sand), you next set a focused block of time to deal with them. Schedule the time blocks on your calendar at the start of your day or at the end of your day.

Be sure to match the task with your energy level, personal circumstances, and external environment. For example, do your deep work when your mental clarity and attention span are at its peak, you have the fewest interruptions, and you have access to a quiet workspace (or can at least choose your background noise).  Shallow work can be done when your energy is low (e.g. afternoon or end of day), you are more distraction-prone, and your workspace is noisier and more chaotic. 

Estimate how long a task will take and strive to carve out the ideal amount of time to spend on a particular activity. For complicated tasks that require deep thinking and high concentration, you could start with an hour and work your way up to two or three hours as you build your focus muscle. For shallow tasks, limit the time you spend on them to 25 minutes.

The Pomodoro Technique is one way to develop the skill to concentrate on one task at a time. First, you identify the task to do. Second, you set a timer (typically 25 minutes).  Third, you work on the task only until the timer goes off.  After the timer rings, you check off your task. And if you give in to interruptions and distractions (e.g. checking emails, getting a snack), you reset the timer. 

If you have fewer than four check marks, take a short break (5 minutes), then go to step 2. If you have at least four check marks, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, and do the steps all over again.

Studies show our ultradian rhythm allows our brain to focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs a break. So take purposeful, necessary breaks that involve stretching, hydrating, and calming your mind. Engage in rest and reflection that truly allow you to decompress and reset. Go outside for a walk, meditate, read a funny story or listen to instrumental music. 

4. Eat the frog before the candy

In Eat That Frog, author Brian Tracy writes, “Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it.”  He writes:

The first rule of frog eating is this:

If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.

The second rule of frog eating is this:

If you have to eat a live frog at all, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at it very long.

If you have two important tasks, start with the more difficult one. And take immediate or prompt action rather than mull over it for too long. Tackle your major task – the one that’s high-value but you’ve been postponing – first thing, when your willpower is at its peak.

Be intentional about when you check your emails, watch online videos, scroll through web pages, and engage with social media. Make it as hard as possible to reach for your digital devices at any time of the day. Avoid them first thing after you wake up (when you ought to be gearing  for your most significant projects), and right before bedtime (when you ought to be winding down and clearing your mind).

You don’t have to respond to emails, telephone calls and text messages as soon as they come in or within second or minutes. By end of day or next day is usually more than enough in most cases.  Go online during chunks of predetermined time blocks on your own schedule. That way, you stay responsive and connected without being bombarded by digital distractions throughout the day.

Before you start high-focus tasks, close your web browsers and keep your smartphone out of sight – preferably in another room – with the Do Not Disturb mode on. (If you’re expecting a truly important call, you can set your phone to have it go through.)

While you’re engaged in deep work, stay away from social media, online news feeds and other digital distractions that clutter your mind. If you feel the urge to go online, remind yourself that your time block is for real work or purposeful breaks. 

To reduce digital temptations altogether, remove automatic alerts, like the pop-up messages and sound alerts you get each time a text, or email comes in. Disable push notifications from social media.  Try online filters and website blockers like FocusMe (paid service), Freedom (paid service) or StayFocused (free service for Google Chrome users).

Another way to tackle your MITs or one big thing is to theme your days. Set aside a day to concentrate on a high-cognitive demand task, such as writing an article, studying and analyzing a complex issue, following up and communicating with important clients, and making progress on a particular matter.

Block out time for your miscellaneous, low-cognitive demand tasks that require attention. Batch similar activities like replying to random inquiries from prospects and responding to requests for information or updates from clients.

5. Review whether actions reflect priorities

Do an honest assessment of your daily actions to determine whether you’re addressing your real priorities or just getting distracted with busy work.

Keep an activities log and record when you did each task and how much time you spent on it.  Are you investing more time than necessary on low-cognitive, shallow work that contributes little to your success? Does the task appropriately align with your energy and focus levels?  Have you been doing your MITs or one big task first thing or do you procrastinate on what you really need to be doing? Are you overscheduling and failing to build margins or leave white space in your calendar?

Tracking your time raises awareness of how much is spent on the meaningful versus the meaningless. It gives you a visual cue of important areas that need your attention. It motivates you to drop time wasters and energy drainers that steer you away from your preferred path. You learn to rework your plan and modify your scheduling to keep yourself accountable, stay on task, and make progress on the most important matters.

* * *

By taking the 5 steps to time blocking, you get to work on your important, high-value tasks, free of distractions and interruptions, without neglecting the routine, low-value tasks. In effect, you set strategic deadlines and cultivate productive habits that enable you to get the right things done effectively and efficiently.

Time blocking helps you develop long bouts of focus on complex problems and increases your flow state. It encourages you to batch small activities into restricted time blocks, instead of having them eat up your precious day.

Use time blocking to make steady progress and avoid procrastination  on significant, time-sensitive matters (Rule 1.3, diligence); build knowledge and skills and prepare adequately for representation (Rule 1.1., competence); and communicate clearly and deliberately with your clients (Rule 1.4, communication).

To learn more, read the related article, Deadlines & Daily Habits: Why Time Blocking Works.

# # #

This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Zeal Meets Zen: 3 Ways to Cultivate Mindfulness in Law Practice

Mindfulness is paying attention to your present experience without judgement. It develops your awareness of what is before you, as well as how you relate to it and act or behave as a result.

For lawyers, the capacity to operate in responsive mode (rather than react impulsively to challenging situations) leads to competence, diligence, and other ethical behaviors in law practice.

Mindfulness reduces your preoccupations with thoughts about the past and future, which frequently add to stress, worry and anxiety. With a regular and consistent mindfulness practice, you reap a host of benefits, such as reduced procrastination, increased focus, better decision making, and stronger resilience to stressors.

Here are 3 ways to cultivate mindfulness in law practice:

1. Meditation

Meditation is a formal practice of mindfulness. In Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR), Zen practice, and other kinds of meditation forms, there is sitting meditation and sometimes walking meditation.  This involves setting aside a time block to sit calmly and quietly or walk  slowly and silently.

It’s important to actively engage in meditation by staying open and curious. Sometimes your practice will be frustrating and consist of aches, pain, discomfort and meandering thoughts. Other times it will give you tremendous stress release and bring a sense of peace and equanimity. There’s no point in evaluating whether your meditation session is good or bad; just let it unfold naturally.

Find a meditation teacher who resonates with you. Classes are available at your local yoga studio and meditation center, as well as online.  You could also try a mindfulness or guided meditation app like Headspace, Insight Timer and Calm.

Choose a style that works for you and dive deep into it so you can experience significant, long-term shifts. Avoid jumping around quickly from one technique to another or striving to “master” a specific method or form.

Commit to a regular practice, ideally a minimum of 15 minutes every day. Good times to meditate are during your morning routine, over the lunch break, at the end of your work day, and during your evening routine.

If you’re new to meditation, you can keep it brief (e.g. one to five minutes).  Experiment with the length of your meditations and don’t be discouraged if there is no noticeable difference after just one or two sessions. It usually takes consistent practice for several weeks before your mindfulness training becomes a habit that brings long-lasting effects.

Focused Attention

One of the most common forms of meditation is focused attention. This involves placing your attention on a chosen object, such as the breath, sensations in the body, the sound of a metronome, or a visual piece. When your attention drifts, you bring it back to the object.

Open Monitoring (Open Awareness)

A more advanced form of meditation is open monitoring or open awareness. This involves expanding your attention, as a neutral observer, to the changing flow of experience, such as breath, bodily sensations, and thoughts, as well as external stimuli like sights, sounds, tastes and smells.

You notice the images, stories, judgements, and commentaries your mind generates.  You just allow them to be there, as is, without attempting to direct or control them. You don’t try to focus on or hold on to any one thing, but allow your attention to shift naturally, without judgment.

2. Mindfulness in daily life

Mindfulness can be practiced within or added to your normal, daily activities. When you’re doing a task, just do that one thing and pour your attention on it. As you drive, know you’re driving. As you walk, know you’re walking.

Eliminate digital distractions and external stimuli that take you out of the present moment and prevent you from savoring quiet time. Do daily activities – such as like brushing your teeth, eating, waiting in the checkout line and talking with another person — mindfully and deliberately, and not while you’re engaging in other activities. Embrace any boredom or frustration that comes with single tasking and focusing on one experience.

Take a mindfulness pause after every hour or so of focused work or busy work, or when you hear the telephone ring. Notice your breath. Observe your surroundings. Be in the moment before you move on to the next thing.

If necessary, use a mindfulness timer. When it goes off, ask yourself whether what you were doing was the best use of your time and energy. Were you fully attending to it? Does it deserve your ongoing attention?

3. Morning routine (morning rituals) and evening routine (evening rituals) 

Although the middle of your day is susceptible to distractions and interruptions, you typically have control over how you start and end your day. In particular, you can bookend your day with a morning routine and evening routine to cultivate mindfulness in your personal and professional life.

Both morning routines and evening routines work best when they include specific rituals done at a specific time period. They also, however, need to adapt to changes in your life and the seasons of your life.

If you start your day off by checking emails, reading news feeds and logging on to social media, you flood your brain with new information that triggers stress hormones and puts you in reactive mode. Having a mindful, morning routine reduces the fight-or-flight instincts and helps you begin your day more calmly and purposefully.

In The Miracle Morning, author Hal Elrod describes 6 steps known as S.A.V.E.R.S. for your morning routine. They are silence, affirmations, visualization, exercise, reading and scribing (writing/journaling). Although  Elrod’s method might not work precisely for you, it gives you a solid framework for creating your own morning rituals.

Morning rituals, after you wake up, could be as simple as spending two minutes in bed noticing your breath, followed by feeling your feet on the floor, light stretching, drinking water, and washing your face. After a brief mindfulness practice (e.g. meditation, tai chi, hatha yoga), you review your daily plan and commit to tackling your number one priority.

Evening rituals may include shutting down electronic devices, reviewing your day’s accomplishments, planning for the next day, writing in a gratitude journal, reading poetry, and meditating for 15 minutes before you turn out the lights and go to bed.

A morning routine primes you for a truly productive day. An evening routine puts you in a calm state for deep rest and rejuvenation. Take time to plan and execute morning rituals and evening rituals that bring mindfulness to the start and end of your day, no matter how hectic the middle of it gets.

Conclusion

Formal meditation, mindfulness in daily life, and mindful morning and evening routines are three ways for lawyers to purposely engage with their day and intentionally integrate the professional ethics rules into their practice.

With mindfulness, you are more likely to act in alignment with deeply held ethical principles and the core needs of the situation, rather than rely entirely on transitory thoughts, feelings and emotions that can steer you in a harmful direction.

To learn more, read the related articles, Zeal Meets Zen: How Mindfulness Promotes Competence in Law Practice and Zeal Meets Zen: How Mindfulness Promotes Diligence in Law Practice. Also check out A Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness & Meditation in Daily Life.

# # #

This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

SUBSCRIBE           CONTACT

Photo by: Jason Parker-Burlingham

Zeal Meets Zen: How Mindfulness Promotes Diligence in Law Practice

Mindfulness is a solution for lawyers to de-stress, concentrate, and get important things done in the midst of limitless distractions and mounting responsibilities.

Even modern-day, watered-down versions of mindfulness practice, which dates back about 5,000 years ago, produce noticeable, personal benefits. Improved health and enhanced wellness further lead to diligent, ethical action in law practice.

What is Mindfulness? 

There is no single definition of mindfulness, although it is now widely discussed in books, articles, classes, workshops, research studies, and other sources. In general, it involves conscious awareness of or receptive attention to what is before you, followed by appropriate action. It serves as both an inquiry tool and a way of being.

One of the simplest definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  Credited with introducing non-secular mindfulness to the West, Kabat-Zinn defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”

John Goldstein, teacher of Vipassana (Insight) meditation and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, points out that mindfulness is not just about being present, but also noticing how your mind works and how you relate to the present. He describes mindfulness as the power of the mind to observe the present — free from desire, delusion or aversion, which reduces unskilled tendencies and encourages skilled choices.

What is Zen? 

Zen practice emphasizes “zazen” – a Japanese term that is often translated as sitting meditation or Zen meditation. This involves staying upright to whatever thought, feeling, emotion or sensation arises, without clinging to what you like or pushing away what you don’t like. Mind and body are together in a holistic posture and in harmony with what is.

The Zen mind is often said to be like the vast sky or clear water, in which the confused mind shows up as the clouds or the waves. It permits paradox and allows for the coexistence of your original nature (being with what is) and dualistic thinking  (e.g. for and against, right and wrong, good and bad, success and failure).

Zen meditation and other forms of meditation encourage mindfulness, not just during the practice, but also in your daily life. You benefit not from mastering a meditation technique, but from bringing a similar quality of attention to your normal activities.

What is Diligence? 

The  words “zeal” and “zealous advocate” do not appear in the professional ethics rules. But lawyers are expected to represent their clients with zeal by way of consensus within the legal community, as well as comments found in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.3 (Diligence).

Rule 1.3 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which mirrors the Model Rule, states “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”

Comment 1 adds:

A lawyer should pursue a matter on behalf of a client despite opposition, obstruction, or personal inconvenience to the lawyer, and take whatever lawful and ethical measures are required to vindicate a client’s cause or endeavor. A lawyer must also act with commitment and dedication to the interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf.  A lawyer is not bound, however, to press for every advantage that might be realized for a client…The lawyer’s duty to act with reasonable diligence does not require the use of offensive tactics or preclude the treating of all persons involved in the legal process with courtesy and respect.

The negative effects of procrastination on diligence is so significant that it is mentioned specifically in Comment 3, which states:

Perhaps no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination. A client’s interests often can be adversely affected by the passage of time or the change of conditions; in extreme instances, as when a lawyer overlooks a statute of limitations, the client’s legal position may be destroyed. Even when the client’s interests are not affected in substance, however, unreasonable delay can cause a client needless anxiety and undermine confidence in the lawyer’s trustworthiness.

How Does Mindfulness Promote Diligence? 

I prefer the term right diligence rather than right effort. Making efforts can make you tired, but when you are diligent, you don’t need to be tired. ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

The ethics rules reflect a certain set of core values governing the legal profession. Diligence, which includes staying on top of things, meeting deadlines, and following up on solutions to further the client’s interests, is specifically covered in Rule 1.3.  Values like commitment, dedication, courtesy, respect and trustworthiness also appear in the comments of Rule 1.3.

Mindfulness promotes steady progress toward timely, effective completion of a matter (diligence) — without the use of unethical measures — in several, key ways:

1. Clarifies what is most important

When you’re putting out fires and tackling one urgent thing after another, it’s easy to lose sight of your core purpose and true priorities.

If you’re not clear on your number one priority or most important task, you will feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. You will be more prone to tackle a bunch of less significant tasks that require less brainpower and are easier to do.

Mindfulness fosters mental clarity. It lets you pause, reflect and consciously choose what matters the most. It helps you pay attention to your own needs and the situation at issue, rather than compare yourself to others and their circumstances. Mindful reflection gives you insight on where to dedicate your focus, time and energy, and stop yourself from getting caught up in a flurry of activities.

When you deliberately choose your top priority, you are better equipped to make disciplined progress and take steady steps toward finishing the assignment. You also purposely delay or say no to low-leverage projects that keep you busy, but add little value.

2. Discourages procrastination

Procrastination is delaying action on a task that needs to be done now. Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor and procrastination researcher at Carleton University, notes you are more likely to procrastinate on aversive tasks that tend to be boring, frustrating, difficult, meaningless, ambiguous or unstructured. In his book, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, Pychyl explains that procrastination is an avoidant coping response to tasks that evoke negative emotions.

How many times have you put off an important task because you just did not feel like doing it? And did you keep yourself busy with other tasks (e.g. reply to emails) so you would have a good excuse to postpone the one thing you really needed to do (e.g. write a legal brief)?

You might have told yourself you do your best and most creative work under pressure, when you’re up against a deadline and the task can no longer be delayed. And you blame performance deficiencies and poor-quality work product on having a busy schedule and lack of time, rather than on procrastination and  lack of diligence.

Pychyl adds that mindfulness awareness and acceptance are key steps to resolving procrastination, which is a self-regulation failure. By understanding when and why you procrastinate, you can make stronger efforts to take action,  instead of give in to the habitual response of delaying the task to avoid negative emotions.

Moment to moment awareness allows you to respond accordingly to the situation at hand. Instead of letting your thoughts and feelings dictate whether you do a particular task, you do the task because it brings high value and fulfills a real purpose.

3. Improves focus and other cognitive functions

Performing two or more tasks simultaneously – instead of doing just one – can seem like a time-saver for busy lawyers. But multitasking is really a huge time suck when you’re dealing with cognitively demanding tasks. It’s more productive to monotask or single task when an assignment takes effort and focus to complete well.

You’re only able to tackle two tasks when the cognitive load of at least one of them is low. Examples include walking with a colleague while you discuss a workplace dilemma, filling out your expense reports while you listen to classical music, or reading case law while you cycle on a stationary bike.

But have you tried checking your emails or text messages when you’re participating at a trial, office meeting, or conference session? You will definitely miss out on what is being said while you’re reading about unrelated issues.

The human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen explain the mind has a limited capacity to pay attention, which makes it impossible to focus on two or more completely unrelated tasks at the same time.

When you concentrate on a single task, both the left and right sides of the prefrontal cortex work together in harmony. But when you multitask, you switch between the two sides of the prefrontal cortex. Shifting between tasks, instead of tackling one individually, can cost as much as 40 percent of your time.

In a University of California – Irvine study, researchers found it takes, on average, up to 20 minutes to refocus on an activity after being interrupted by email or another minor distraction. Each time you divert your attention from one task to another, you add to the time it would otherwise take you to complete it.

As your brain takes in new information on the second task, your attention becomes scattered and you lose your primary focus on the first task.  You then have to catch up on the information you missed or the thought process you abandoned to fully get back to the first task. Plus, attention residue from a prior unfinished task affects your performance on the new task.

Despite the consequences, many lawyers spread their attention among two or more things to reduce boredom, deal with impatience, avoid the difficult task, feel important, or get a quick dopamine hit. But with mindfulness, you get more comfortable with discomfort, develop a stable foundation for instability, and become more accepting of difficult situations you cannot change.

In a 2012 study, researchers found that “a brief period of mindfulness meditation may serve as a quick and efficient strategy to foster self-control under conditions of low resources.” Being able to pause and observe your thoughts and feelings, without engaging with them, gives you more impulse control.

A 2010 study found that “brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.” Researchers noted, “Our findings suggest that 4 days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention.”

In short, mindfulness steers you away from counterproductive distractions and shiny new things, and helps you focus on the cognitively demanding task you really need to do.

4. Leads to better decision making and choices

Mindfulness allows you to notice your feelings and thoughts without letting them control you and your actions. While feelings and thoughts are necessary and natural, they can get you in trouble if you react impulsively to them. Watching TV for hours, drinking alcohol excessively, and putting off the important telephone call to deliver bad news can ease discomfort, tension and fear in the short term, but cause serious long-term problems.

With enhanced awareness, you can improve your discernment and ability to take appropriate action in alignment with your deepest values, professional ethics and excellence, and the needs of the situation.

Roy L. Baumeister, pscyhologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, notes that willpower and decision making are interconnected. Willpower is a limited resource such that when you use it on one task that requires self-control, you have less to apply on the second task. Each time you make a decision, you deplete your willpower and start making poor decisions or avoid making choices altogether.

With mindfulness training, you avoid exhausting your willpower to control thoughts, feelings and sensations. You just let them be and keep coming back to the present. Furthermore, mindfulness practices often involve rituals and routines from which you can develop good habits. In turn, habits reduce decision fatigue and make it easier to tackle difficult things because you have a certain time block, space and auto-response for doing them.

Even when you don’t feel like it, you will still write the research article when you have a good habit of writing daily, say from 9 am to 10 am.  Instead of putting aside the weekend before the deadline to crank out the article, you commit one hour each day to work on it weeks in advance. Just like with meditation, the value is in the momentum that comes with habitually or regularly working on the high cognitive demand task.

Mindfulness also helps you break bad habits, which is why a growing number of addiction centers incorporate it into their substance abuse programs. By stimulating the prefrontal cortex (decision making/moral reasoning center) and shrinking the amygdala (fight or flight center) in the brain, mindfulness increases your ability to see possibilities, spot opportunities, and make empowered choices rather than react impulsively and habitually.

Instead of succumbing to the bad habit of surfing the Internet as soon as you get bored with writing, you can take a mindfulness break. Or use mindfulness to activate higher order activity and deactivate lower activity in the brain to stay with the main task.  This results in a higher quality work product and fewer mistakes.

In addition, mindfulness helps you become more fully aware and accepting of circumstances you cannot control. This is not passivity, but about letting go of your tight grip on what you believe is right and wrong, or good and bad, or just and unjust.

When dealing with a difficult client, unreasonable opposing counsel, or a tough judge, you will find yourself wishing they were different and agreeable to your perspective. Stress hormones get released, which clouds your reasoning, triggers negative emotions, and brings old patterns of attacking and defending to the surface.

With mindfulness, you observe the situation and drop your judgements about others and opinions about what they should do. You welcome both feelings of compassion and aggression as equally important, energetic sensations  in the body that come and go. By making space for them, you can choose when and how to act, rather than give in to impulsive reactions.

You also recognize your thoughts as stories, narratives, mental constructs and interpretations about what is happening. Your thoughts are not facts. They often depend on transitory feelings and emotions, social conditioning, traumatic experiences, personal biases and other factors that have little to do with present reality.

Mindfulness training helps you acknowledge that others, just like you, are simply trying to protect themselves and meet their own needs, not necessarily harm you or ignore your needs. When you are open to considering the other person’s needs without judgment, there is greater potential for mutually satisfying outcomes, even in the most hostile situations.

Except in unique situations – such as when one party has a mental condition or personality disorder — it’s usually possible to build common ground. Two persons who feel a mutual connection are more likely to resolve their conflict and be satisfied with a solution that meets the most significant needs of both, but not every single one of their individual needs. Recognizing that an opposing viewpoint has value encourages mutually acceptable solutions instead of non-negotiable, win-lose positions.

5. Reduces propensity for burnout

Overwork contributes to chronic stress, anxiety, and depression and compromises your ability to provide diligent representation. When demands keep exceeding resources — and you have no opportunity to recharge and recover  – you become vulnerable to burnout. Common symptoms include disengagement, emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, cynicism, a sense of inefficacy, and impaired concentration.

The American Psychological Association notes, “Acute stress comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the future.” Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR), in particular, has been found to reduce stress and quell anxiety.  It consists of an eight-week program of hatha yoga as well as formal and informal meditation practice. Formal practice includes breath-focused attention, body scan-based attention, open monitoring of moment-to-moment experience, walking meditation, and eating meditation. Informal practice includes brief pauses to direct your attention to the present moment.  Together, these practices improve your ability to recognize thoughts,  emotions, and sensations as temporary and respond effectively instead of habitually.

Studies also show that mindfulness-based therapy (MBT), which includes mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), can help with depression and anxiety. A mindfulness practice reduces excessive orientation toward the past or future, which triggers feelings of depression and anxiety. It increases your ability to attend to unpleasant or challenging situations nonjudgmentally and openly.

A 2016 study also found that MBCT helps reduce intolerance for uncertainty (IU), which is prevalent in anxiety and panic disorders. IU is a predisposition to react negatively on an emotional, cognitive, and behavioral level to uncertain situations and events due to negative beliefs about uncertainty and its effects.

Mindfulness enables you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment, accept reality, deal with catastrophizing misbeliefs, and generate tailored, informed responses to difficult circumstances.

Mindfulness also builds emotional resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from criticism, rejection, setbacks, failures and other stressors. Clinical psychologist and resilience research, Dr. George Bonnano notes that how you perceive stressors and react to them is a central element of resilience.

2016 study linking mindfulness and resilience concluded that mindful people are more skilled at coping with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down. By sitting quietly and calmly even while your mind is active and working involuntarily, you are better able to take a more reflective and less reactive response to stressful conditions.

In Hardwiring Your Brain for Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson  explains the brain is divided into two operating modes: reactive and responsive. When the brain is in reactive mode, your cognitive functioning is impaired and you think less clearly. When your brain is in responsive mode,  you  feel “in the flow,” which boosts productivity and satisfaction.

Maintaining moment to moment awareness keeps the brain in responsive mode and beats its negativity bias, which is the tendency to react more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally positive ones. By recognizing how the brain is wired to make you fear any and all threats, as well as overlook positive stimuli, you build emotional resilience to daily challenges that, when left unchecked, can lead to burnout.

Mindfulness reminds you there is a middle way between burning out and quitting. You don’t power through when you’re exhausted, and you take necessary breaks with guidelines and limits. Taking even 5 to 10 minute pauses between hour-long blocks of work is key to maintaining steady progress. Breaks allow you to refresh your focus and renew your energy to begin, follow through, and complete important assignments.

Diligence does not mean you get sucked into your work to the detriment of your health, well being, and significant relationships.  Pulling all nighters, out hustling the competition, and skimming on sleep become less attractive when you’re mindful and recognize self-care as critical to diligent productivity.

Conclusion

The growing body of research and scientific studies on the benefits of mindfulness is spurring more law schools to offer mindfulness programs,  associations to organize mindfulness presentations and workshops, and law firms to promote mindfulness to their members.

With mindfulness, you are better equipped to avoid procrastination and provide zealous, diligent representation while exercising professional discretion and showing courtesy and respect to all persons in the process.

To learn more, read the related articles, Zeal Meets Zen: How Mindfulness Promotes Competence in Law Practice and  Zeal Meets Zen: 3 Ways to Cultivate Mindfulness in Law Practice. Also check out A Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness & Meditation in Daily Life.

# # #

This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Photo by: Blue Gum