The key to work-life balance is to work effectively and spend your leisure time efficiently. Most of us waste too much time on nonproductive tasks, work inefficiently, and we spend leisure time shopping, cleaning, caring for children, washing the car, and doing laundry rather than enjoying a hobby or being with our family. How do you find time to relax, take a vacation, read a book, or spend an evening with your family? The answer is to become more efficient at work and fit personal tasks into your life every day. Emulate a high-wire walker: before each step he makes small adjustments in his balance by leaning a little to the right, moving an arm up or down slightly, or shifting one foot a quarter inch to regain or maintain his balance. If you practice micro-balancing between work and life every day, you will be on your way to achieving a happy and productive life.
Unfortunately, during your early years in law, there is a temptation to become engrossed in your work and neglect your personal life. There is always something more to do on a case and your senior partner will pick the worst possible time to assign you a major legal brief that needs to be done quickly. You can’t always avoid spending extra time at the office to achieve your career goals, especially when the work is important to you and your senior partner. But, to achieve work-life balance, you need to compensate for those long days at the office with time spent on personal tasks and your family. Pay attention to your own well-being and care for your clients and senior partner – they are not mutually exclusive. Don’t let work and family become an either-or-game. Do both well. Work-life balance means occasionally leaving the office early to see your wife and kids, go to a park, listen to a concert, or see your physician, as well as staying late to finish an important brief.
One key is smarter use of technology; by avoiding costly overhead you can work less hours as a solo practitioner and earn the same income. But, what do you do about those demanding billing hours required by large law firms? Recognize this is the cost associated with the huge salary; discuss the tradeoffs with your spouse. Is the commitment worth the money? Another tactic is to work from home some days so you can take time off to see your wife at lunch and play with your children when they come home from school.
Why is Balance Important?
No attorney wants to be seen as a slacker. On the other hand, if you don’t achieve a good work-life balance, you will impair your mental and physical health, become depressed or anxious and you may turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate your pain. Being depressed, anxious, or substance dependent will impair your productivity, creativity, efficiency, income, and well being. And, these stresses can lead to serious ethical problems as well.
The single most important factor in achieving work-life balance is having some autonomy at work. Feeling you are in control of your own time will give you a sense of ownership, a feeling of achievement, and satisfaction with your job. Moreover, if you are able to balance your work and life so you have time to eat right, exercise, and maintain good mental health, you will be more productive, and enjoy life more.
Balancing Work and Life as an Associate
If you work for a large law firm, you will be subjected to enormous pressure to spend long hours in the office. But, there are a few things you absolutely must do to avoid burnout. First, you need to set some personal boundaries. Let your co-workers and managing partner know the limits of your availability for extra work. If your daughter plays soccer every Saturday morning, or you swim for an hour at 5 a.m. every day, let your manager know you can’t miss that time. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean you won’t work extra hours; it’s just that you need to maintain limits on when you are in the office so you have time for your self and your family.
Boundaries are important every day of the week. If you meditate every morning between six and seven, let your manager know you are not available to take calls during that time. However, you need to reciprocate when your manager assigns extra work for a week end. Take on the extra work cheerfully, explain exactly when it will be finished, and don’t miss the deadline. Keeping your personal time from being invaded is difficult, but not impossible.
One way to protect your personal time is to turn off your smart phone in the evening. Put your phone away so you have time to think and be with your family. Start small by turning off your phone for an hour or so each evening and gradually increase the time away from your phone. In this way, you can train your co-workers and manager when they can conveniently call. The key is to maintain your boundaries consistently so others will respect them.
Another trick to achieve work-life balance is to share your personal interests and activities with your co-workers and manager. You’ll be surprised how supportive they can be when you tell them you are learning to sail, ski, play a musical instrument, fly a plane, or do yoga. Communicate with your co-workers and manager about your personal interests and needs. For example, if you are attending a class on photography, be honest about when the class meets and offer to work extra time to make up for that shortened work day. If you will be gone early Friday afternoon, make certain to work extra-long on Wednesday or Thursday and let your manager know what you are doing. Also, it’s important to make certain you meet deadlines at work so you don’t leave for a class when there is a brief due that evening.
In addition to setting boundaries and communicating your personal needs to your manager, it helps enormously if you efficiently organize your work and personal life. Each day, make certain you understand what work you need to do and what your partner wants at home. Make notes on your calendar of important events and deadlines; draft a long-term and daily list of things to do. By having an organized plan, you can achieve more at work and have more time for your personal life and family.