Most lawyers who are depressed have a hard time being productive. Work—and here I mean everything from preparing for depositions to arguing a motion in court to the kinds of “work” we assign ourselves, like reading a good book or planting a garden—is a chore to the depressed. It drains us, leaves us feeling as bad as before, physically worn out and emotionally depleted, instead of proud of ourselves and invigorated. Other people with depression seem to work very hard all the time, but there is little payoff for their efforts. As with so much of depression, there is a real chicken-or-egg question—is work so difficult because we’re depressed, or are we depressed in part because we can’t accomplish anything? And as with so many chicken-or-egg situations, we face a false dichotomy: the truth is, poor work habits and depression reinforce each other.
1. Clean out the junk.
It’s easy to let our offices become cluttered: our desk is a mess with on-going or half-digested projects, scattered pens, and things on our to-do list that have been perched on the corner of the desk so long green mold has overtaken them. Clean it up. Check out my previous blog, My Desk, My Enemy and The Organized Lawyer for tips on how to improve this situation. I’ve found it particularly helpful to have a place for EVERYTHING. I line up hanging file folders in my credenza, label each one and drop documents in there to keep my desk tidy. I try to keep five projects on my desk that I’m actively working on. If my discipline lapses, I put aside time at the end of the week, dump all contents of desk into a huge box and go through each item one-by-one (toss things in the garbage, take other stuff home and keep items I really need to file later on). Another nifty item that I value as much as my beloved North Face ski jacket: a ScanSnap. It allows me to scan and trash paper documents that I don’t use often, but need to refer to later on or preserve, quickly and easily.
Most lawyers have this on their to-do. Nevertheless, they never get around to working on it. But giving it the time and energy it deserves energizes us because taps into our creativity and invests in our future. We all need more clients and marketing is an important part of any serious game plan to get them. Check out these greats blogs on this topic from the Attorney at Work website for more ideas.
Mindfulness mediation involves taking a set period of our day to sit in silence and watch our minds as thoughts and feelings roll by without reacting to them. As lawyers, we’re hammered all day by stress. It depletes our energy and effectiveness because our brains are knocked off balance by all the moment-to-moment crises, both real and imagined. Sitting quietly for a proscribed period of time allows us to regroup and refocus. Check out this article from the ABA Journal, Minfulness in Legal Practice is Going Mainstream. I do it everyday for 15 minutes. I’m a busy lawyer, just like you. If I can find the time, so can you.
Everybody knows how important it is for our health. It clobbers high levels of toxic stress, gives you pep and leaves you less prone to anxiety and depressive disorders. If you’ve been avoiding the gym or have “fallen off the wagon,” try doing it before work. I’ve found it’s critical to always keep my gym gear in my truck. It serves as a constant reminder to hit the elliptical and gives me one less reason (“I don’t have my workout clothes with me”) why I can’t go to the gym. Check out the excellent book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain for further reading on the connection between exercise and our mental health.
5. Find Meaning.
If you dig hard enough, you can always find meaning in your day-to-day law practice. Stop thinking of your job solely as a matter of dollars and cents and as much a matter of service to others. When we don’t do this, we dehumanize our clients and, in the process, ourselves. It’s all about balance. You don’t have to forget that law is a business. But you also shouldn’t forget that your clients are flesh and blood folks with real problems that need your care and attention. I love this quote from author Studs Turkel: “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
6. Stop blaming the law for your problems.
This is a big energy sucker. And whining never helps. Blaming is the opposite of taking responsibility for one’s self: you become a victim of your own life. Choice empowers us. Complaining disempowers us. It’s as simple as that. It’s a question of attitude. I had a friend who blamed the law for all his misery. So, he chucked it all and went back to school to become a teacher. What happened? He was unhappy and blamed his dour mood on teaching. The moral of the story? While it’s true that the practice of law is tough and demanding, our experience of it is greatly influenced by our attitude. Resolve to have a better one.
7. Be careful about the company you keep.
Lawyers are known pessimist – they tend to see the worst in everything. Check out this article, Why Lawyers Are Unhappy, by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. Dump lawyer friends who incessantly gripe about being a lawyer. If you have to work with them, don’t join in their bitch sessions. You don’t have to, after all. You have some choices here. Sit quietly, offer something constructive, or change the subject. Over my twenty-five years career, I’ve found that hanging out with complaining lawyers that love to bitch about how shitty life is or tear down other people behind their backs leaves me dispirited about life and law. It’s cancerous.
8. Enhance your relationship with those you work with.
We snap at co-workers, are dismissive of their needs and don’t treat them with the respect and thoughtfulness they deserve. As a consequence, we don’t get much good energy in return. Would it take much time to get your secretary a cup of coffee in the morning? Small acts of kindness count in life. How about stopping whatever you are doing to actually listen to a co-workers problem and not check your e-mails or texts on your cell phone? When people do this to me, I find it rude. Being considerate to others goes a long way!
9. Find pleasure outside of work
Lawyers bark they don’t have time to do neat things after work or on the weekends. When we talk about importance of the work/life balance, this is what mean. For me, I’ve found it with blogging and volunteering at a wonderful place called St. Luke’s Mission in a poor section of Buffalo. I find these things not only meaningful, but also pleasurable. Silliness is also good tonic for all the seriousness that ails us. And lawyers are an all too grim-faced bunch. I finally got around to going to a new indoor go-kart track they recently built at our mall. Frivolity is a good thing!
10. Get more sleep.
We neglect sleep at our own peril. In fact, we’re a country of sleep-deprived people. Our bodies evolved to need a minimum amount of sleep and lawyers don’t get enough. Perhaps their bodies are too jacked up with stress or they can’t stop ruminating about their law practice. Recent research indicates that a lot of depression’s worst symptoms (lack of concentration, chronic fatigue, etc.) are deeply influenced by poor sleep. Maybe you need a sleep study to get to the bottom of what ails you in this department. Take care of this and you’ll be in a better position to wake up refreshed and ready to charge through your day.
I spend time – too much it – trying to keep my desk in check.
Like a taciturn child, it erupts with tantrums of disorganization. The fact that it’s a mess today seems unfair, as if a hole suddenly formed in the ceiling above me and dropped a cache of briefs, case opinions and half-used legal pads onto my workspace.
I shuffle the papers that lay before me. They look back at me. Ten minutes go by. I reshuffle everything all over again. Sound familiar?
Mind you, on the Clutter-o-Scale, my desk is only a 4 out of 10. If so, why the grief?
Some of my angst comes from having trouble finding things. But an equal measure comes from the sense that I should be more organized. We have made a religion out of organization in this country which has sprouted temples of crazed worship like The Container Store or Organize.com. Maybe this growth industry is in reaction to how much stuff/junk/information we like or have to obtain and perpetually reorganize. This mania has even spawned an inane reality T.V. show “Hoarders.”
Too many things compete for lawyers’ attention besides the usual culprits of returning phone calls, court appearances and last minute deadlines. When you add a messy desk to an already stressed-out life, well, it becomes the enemy.
Desks are the pedestals of our productivity. How we organize the stuff on them has a big effect on how well or if we get things done in a timely fashion. But just as important as these practical concerns is the impact it has on our mental health.
What is your Organizational Style?
According to Kelly Lynn Anders in her book The Organized Lawyer, “Not everyone prioritizes about what the eye needs to feel relaxed. Some ideas work for some and not for others. That’s why it’s important to know your type.” She identifies four types of organizers:
Stackers organize by topic in stacks. They are visual and tactile and like to give the appearance of order. The busier these people are, the more stacks they have.
Spreaders are visual like stackers, but must be able to see everything they’re working on.
Free Spirits keep very few personal belongings around the work area. They like new ideas and keep reports, books, articles and magazines near.
Pack Rats have emotional ties to things. They like the feeling of fullness around them and like to tell stories about what’s in the office.
Which type are you? She has a lot of useful suggestions, among them is color coding files. On her own desk, she keeps commonly used files close at hand. Because she identifies herself as a “stacker,” Anders avoids cabinets and other hidden spaces for her files. “The reason I don’t have a lot of hidden storage is stackers have a tendency to squirrel things away,” she said. Check out some of her other suggestions at her website.
A Contrarian Point of View
While we don’t have his brain’s elephantine computing power, it’s worth considering that your desk mess might not be so bad after all.
Dr. Jay Brand, a psychology professor, argues that a squeaky clean desk doesn’t always equate with a productive employee. It can actually hinder personal efficiency because a person’s desk is an extension of his/her mind. That’s because our human memory has a limited capacity, or finite ‘cells’ available for storage and since most people do multiple things at once they almost immediately ramp their working memory to capacity. They need a place to park some of the information from their working memory into the environment and what more logical place than their desks?
According to Dr. Brand, “these cluttered desks that people use to store information from their working memory are called ‘cognitive artifacts’, and they expand a person’s capacity to think and utilize the environment”. He argues that companies with clean desk policies waste time by requiring workers to clean up their cognitive artifacts every night and re-clutter them the next morning. He points out that everyone has a different working style and piles can be organized topically, chronologically, or according to an individual system. As long as the pile means something to the person who made it, it is effective.
I’ve known plenty lawyers in this group. But I ain’t one of them. Maybe it has to do with my own depression over the years. Or, as Kelly Anders suggests, it’s just my type that determines how I lay out the work space in front of me.
The Depressed Desk
When a lawyer has depression, motivation and organization are BIG problems. A lack of energy blunts motivation. We already know that it’s a good idea to keep our desk together, but there simply isn’t much neurochemical juice to get it done. But, time or a court’s scheduling order waits for no one. If we don’t keep the paperwork on the conveyor moving, we end up a casualty of our work days and add to the stress/anxiety/depression mix.
“Many people equate depression with the inability to work. In reality, the problem is often the inability to feel like working. People who are depressed assume that their lack of motivation is a sign of weakness, and if they could just buck up a bit, they would be more productive. But waiting until you feel like doing something is the single biggest mistake you can make when you’re depressed and need to get things done.”
Yes, we need to start working in spite of our desire not to. Dr. John Preston, in the same book, elaborates further:
“Depressed people find it very hard to ignite this self-generated action due, in large part, to decreased metabolic functioning in the frontal lobes of their brain, which are responsible for initiating behavior. So if a person waits a long time and not only not accomplish the non-rewarding tasks but also miss out on the big projects that can bring big rewards.”
So it appears that folks who aren’t depressed and are motivated people have ramped up brain metabolism. I’m envious. Yet, there is something we can do about it. As I’ve written about before, consistent exercise helps boost the happy chemicals in our brains, jacks up metabolism and improves our motivation and focus. Moving is motivating.
We must outfox depression. It would have us do nothing. So we must do something. When I apply this simple wisdom to my day, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how my feelings catch up with my doing and how my doing affects my feelings.
My experience during bogged down moods, was that I’d get most things done, but it would take lots of energy. When I’d come home from work, I’d be spent.
Six Simple Solutions
I agree with an observation made by Leo Babauta on his blog Zen Habits: “The most important thing to remember is that you must have a system in place, and you must teach yourself to follow the system. Otherwise, you just clean your desk, and it gets messy again”.
Here are a couple of tried and true tips that have helped me:
1. Get rid of all those pens. Only keep three or four. More than that, and there’s too much ink in your work space. If you love pen, keep your stash at home. I often troll the pen aisle at Office Max — strange, but true. So I know how difficult it is to part with them.
2. Take home any books that you don’t use on a regular basis. It’s just more clutter and keeps you from easily putting your hands on the important stuff you need to do your job.
3. Hide cords – these are like a floating octopi with tenticles that seemingly go everywhere. Use twist-ties or coil your cords up.
4. Only keep on your desk what you need for that day. Then section off your desk and workspace so that everything has a specific space.
5. Have a dump day. Take everything off your desk and out of your drawer and then put it in a big pile. Then, sort through what is garbage and what you really need throughout the workday.
6. Schedule a date and time to clean your desk. Ideally, at the end of a workday. Weather permitting, do it on Friday’s around 4 so that I start my Monday fresh.