Lawyer Burnout

Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system. – Sam Keen

Sitting across from Tom, a lawyer for the past 15 years, I was struck by his ashen face.  Before he even said a word, before I asked him how his practice was going, his slumped shoulders spoke volumes about a good man weighed down.

As we spoke over coffee at Starbucks, he asked if I thought he was suffering from clinical depression.   I didn’t think so, I told him.  I thought he was burnt out.  

Tom burnout

According to an article on burnout in the ABA Journal, lawyers facing increasing pressure to “value engineer” their services have adopted a “better-cheaper-faster” approach to practicing law because that’s what their clients are demanding.

This was certainly true in Tom’s case.  There was no end, no limits to the demands put on him to be better, to be cheaper to run faster.  As if he were a machine.  He hunkered down into a survival mode, had little positive energy to invest in himself or his family and ultimately burned out like a meteorite entering the earth’s atmosphere.

Burnout isn’t just a consequence of trying to keep up with an insane schedule, however.  It’s also about how lawyers actually think.

Author of the book Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction in the Law, Amiram Elwork, PhD  writes:

“Because law requires objective logical analysis and close attention to details, the legal profession attracts perfectionists. These are people who live by the rule: “If I don’t do a perfect job in every detail, I will fail.” Perfectionists tend to be workaholics who are often viewed as inflexible, uncomfortable with change, and obsessed with control but unconvinced that they have it. Since perfection can’t be achieved, striving for it can cause constant dissatisfaction.

“My clients are perfectionists,” says Alden Cass, a therapist to both corporate attorneys and men on Wall Street. “They have very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose,” he continues. “Their expectations of success are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout—they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula.”

Elwork opines that “another reason that some lawyers experience burnout is that their core values are not aligned with their own behaviors. Sometimes this problem reflects an internal psychological conflict, whereas at other times it is a conflict between the lawyer’s values and those of the organization at which he or she works.”

My friend Tom is also in this boat.  He works for an insurance defense litigation firm.  He’s a compassionate man who tries his best to be a good person.  The culture of his firm tells him to “hammer” personal injury victims at their depositions and trials.  He hates to do this, but doesn’t know what else to do.  He has a family to support and feels stuck at his job.

He suspects other lawyers at his firm are burned out, but doesn’t really know what a burned out lawyer looks like.  There are, however, telltale signs.


  • Over-commitment (always in motion)
  • Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous client involvement)
  • Idealistic standards
  • Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by crisis!)
  • Lack of help and assistance
  • Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself (“hitting the wall”)
  • Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”
  • Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities
  • Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations
  • Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no


While they share some similarities, there are some important differences between the two conditions.

Both depressed and burnout sufferers show symptoms of withdrawal and fatigue.

  • Depressed individuals also show signs of hopelessness and disinterest. Severe depression can already alter the sleep-wake pattern of an individual thus triggering insomnia.
  • The most serious cases are those involving persons who possess some recurring thoughts about death. Those who experience a burnout are often accompanied by feelings of helplessness, self-doubt and failure on top of the other feelings similarly experienced by depressed individuals.


Burnout is a state that is just induced by severe stress. Depression, on the other hand, is a clinical behavioral disorder affecting one’s mood. As such, it is therefore more appropriate to say that when you are having a burnout you are also at risk of experiencing or developing depression rather than the other way around.

  • Researchers have successfully found important physiological differences between people who suffer from burnout and those who suffer from depression: individuals suffering from burnout do not produce enough cortisol, as if the body decided to go on strike. As a reversal, those who suffer from depression produce too much of it.
  • When one is suffering from depression, he or she is unable to attain or experience a state of pleasure. As a result, you often see depressed individuals shrouded in extreme sadness. Burnout sufferers look different because they feel overly exhausted to the point of doubting their own ability to carry out their regular activities of daily living. Severe burnouts may also lead one doubt his self-worth.
  • Depression is usually rooted upon a number of factors like when one is suffering from an incurable chronic disease or an extreme severance of relationship (death, breaking from a serious romantic relationship) with a very significant other. Depression has also been discovered to have some genetic predisposition and environmental roots. With regard to burnout, this condition is usually tied in with strains in work and high demand stresses of life in general.

A STRATEGY FOR AVOIDING BURNOUT                                                                

It’s easier to avoid burnout in the first place than it is to overcome it. Here a handful of do-able strategies for escaping its clutches:

  • Rest, relax, recreate, renew. It’s the only avenue for sustaining us for the long haul.
  • Give something up before taking on a new commitment or responsibility. Don’t keep “adding floors” onto your already towering skyscraper of activities.
  • Learn to say no and to set up reasonable boundaries around your involvement. Specify the help you’ll need and the constraints on your time.
  • Set priorities and consult with your family. Service work occupies an essential role in our lives but must never take priority over family. Be willing to occasionally say no to low priority activities when they conflict with quality family time.
  • Get away from it all on a regular basis through hobbies, recreation, short “sabbaticals,” and sometimes just being a couch potato.
  • Listen to your body’s stress warning signals, such as headaches, backaches, dizziness, insomnia, and unexplainable fatigue.
  • Cut out the hurry and worry. Stress is the natural byproduct of trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5 pound bag. Do only what you reasonably can in the time available and with the resources available.
  • Consider changing jobs.  Sometimes the only thing you can do is leave your job and seek employment at another firm.
  • Consider changing careers.  Some lawyers tell me that they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  Being burned out has forced them to confront this decision.  It can be done and there are many happy ex-lawyers out there.

Further reading —

The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law by Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder

Say Ciao to Chow Mein: Conquering Career Burnout by Christina H. Bost Seaton

Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Burnout – New York Magazine article

Burnout: Avoidable, Not Inevitable – American Bar Association article

Knockout Burnout! – Attorney at Work website article


When Life Loses Its Meaning: The Heavy Price of Acheivement

“If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight. What had once been a throbbing, vital structure is now deserted. Where there had once been activity, there are now only crumbling reminders of energy and life. Some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.”

This is the opening of the 1980 book, Burn-Out: The High Cost of Achievement, written by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, the first person to describe the syndrome known as burnout. Dr. Freudenberger explained his use of the metaphor by noting that people who burnout under the stress of living in a demanding world are very much like a burned out building. Although on the outside they may look the same, “their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.”Bottom of Form

The discovery of burnout in the 1970s came during an era of great social and personal stress. It was a time of government corruption (Watergate), war protests (Vietnam), stagflation, soaring divorce rates, oil shortages, and an unstable job market where long hours and stressful work environments were the norm. The chronic stress of this era caused many people, especially those who were “accomplishers and doers,” to lose their enthusiasm.

Dr. Freudenberger noticed that while most of his high-achieving clients had once pursued life with vigor, excitement, and optimism, over time their passion had been dulled, in some cases killed by what he called “a demon born of the society and times we live in;” times exemplified by swift changes and the “depersonalization” of neighborhoods, school and work environments. They began to feel disengaged, disenchanted, and uninvolved, even when surrounded by family and friends. They began to view their jobs as draining and unrewarding. For many, life seemed to have lost its meaning.

Sound familiar? It should. Today’s world is remarkably similar. War, economic woes, distrust of the government, soaring unemployment, seemingly endless work days, and stressful jobs-all of these things are taking a heavy toll on the minds and bodies of our best and our brightest, leading to chronic fatigue, disillusionment, discontentment, and disengagement.  In short . . .  burnout.

So I thought I’d share with you some pearls of wisdom from the man who discovered the condition known as burnout. Although the insights and advice Dr. Freudenberger offered to victims of burnout were published over 30 years ago, they bear repeating because they are no less true today than they were 30 years ago.

“In a word, slowly. No matter how suddenly it seems to erupt, Burn-Out is a chronic condition; something a person has been working toward over a period of weeks, months, even years.” (p. 13)

The Type of Person Most Likely to Burnout

“The people who fall prey to [burnout] are, for the most part, decent individuals who have striven hard to reach a goal. Their schedules are busy, and whatever the project or job, they can be counted on to do more than their share. They’re usually the leaders among us who have never been able to admit limitations. They’re burning out because they’ve pushed themselves too hard for too long.” (pp. 11-12)

The Symptoms Common to Burnout

Exhaustion: usually the first distress signal of distress in burnout victims

Detachment: Dr. Freudenberger explains that when burned out people feel let down by people and situations (which inevitably happens), there’s a strong temptation to think, ‘I don’t care, it wasn’t important anyway,'” which leads to detachment.

Boredom and Cynicism: what was once exciting now feels draining, and “You begin to question the value of activities and friendships, even of life itself. You become skeptical of people’s motives and blasé about causes.”

Impatience and Heightened Irritability: as burnout worsens and it becomes harder and harder to accomplish tasks, impatience grows and spills over into irritability with everyone around.

A Sense of Omnipotence: Dr. Freudenberger notes that sentiments such as “No one else can do it. Only I can” are expressions of an unhealthy ego. He says, “Be assured–somebody else can do it. Maybe not the same way you’d have done it or with the same degree of excellence, but it may be a situation that doesn’t require excellence.”

A Suspicion of Being Unappreciated: burned out individuals often become upset over what they see as a lack of appreciation of all they do, and they become increasingly bitter and angry.

Paranoia: when people feel put-upon and mistreated, as burned out people often do, they become increasingly suspicious of their environment and the people around them.

Disorientation: feeling a growing separation from one’s environment

Psychosomatic Complaints: Dr. Freudenberger says that “Headaches, colds that linger, backaches–all these are signs that something is wrong, and it’s usually something the person doesn’t want to look at.”

Depression: In contrast to depression unrelated to burnout, Dr. Freudenberger notes that burnout depression is “usually temporary, specific, and localized, pertaining more or less to one area of life.”

Denial of Feelings: “Since we know that people who are subject to Burn-Out are the carers among us, it doesn’t make sense to assume that one day, for no particular reason, the caring simply stopped …. Far more logical is the assumption that the caring has been shut off for a very good reason–and shut off by the person himself.” (pp. 67-68)

What Burnout Looks Like to Others

“A person who is burning out is not, on the surface, a very sympathetic figure. He or she may be cranky, critical, angry, rigid, resistant to suggestions, and given to behavior patterns that turn people off. Unless we’re able to probe beneath the surface and see that the person is really suffering, our tendency will be to turn away.” (p. 11)

The Excessive Demands High-achievers Place on Themselves

“As we pile layer on layer, the weight bows us under. We begin to make excessive demands on ourselves, all the time draining ourselves of energy. To compensate for the weakness, the burning out we feel, we develop rigidity. Things must be just so … to maintain our position, we must constantly excel. Unfortunately, the harder we try, the more we impair our efficiency. About the only thing we succeed in doing is burning ourselves out more.” (pp. 5-6)

Taking a Good, Hard Look Inside

“Since being out of touch with, or shutting off, large parts of yourself is a primary contributor to Burn-Out, your greatest protection against it is self-awareness.” (p. 27)

Keeping Perspective

“… never lose sight of the fact that you, as a human being, are more important than the task, no matter how crucial the task may be.” (p. 158)

Keeping a Sense of Humor

“Remember, if you want to avoid Burn-Out, heavy is out; light is in. Any time you can laugh at something, you reduce its importance, even if that something is yourself.” (p. 179)

The Paradoxes of Society

“At the same time our society dangles the impossible dream in front of us, it sets the stage for Burn-Out by eroding tradition, banishing our support systems, barricading minority groups, and dissolving relationships. It sends out mixed messages to all our emerging groups. Women, gays, Hispanics, blacks-we tell them all they are entitled to the same rights and privileges as the rest of the population; then we take our children and move to the suburbs. We advertise ourselves as “equal-opportunity employers;” then we offer unequal pay for equal jobs. To someone buying the promise and setting up expectations based on it, the contradiction between the myth and the reality is devastating. Not the least reason why Burn-Out is on the rise today is that our society abounds in paradoxes like these.” (p. 198)

Dr. Freudenberger offers three basic ingredients for overcoming burnout:

Self-Awareness: He says to ask yourself, “Are you in charge of your life? Or has it taken charge of you? By fostering this kind of awareness, you will eventually get in touch with the real you that you have become so estranged from, and some of your detachment will vanish.” (p. 205)

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast:  Don’t try to be everywhere at one time. Breathe.

Kindness: Dr. Freudenberger recommends getting out an old family photo album. He explains, “Old photographs teach us a lot, especially about kindness … when you sit down with your album, look at that child you were from the vantage point of who you are now …. And remember, that little kid hasn’t vanished from the earth.” He reminds us that the child in us is alive and well somewhere inside and that we can help that child emerge by being kind to ourselves, accepting who we are, and exploring where we want to go.

Changing: The more well-rounded our lives are, the more protected we are from burnout. He recommends, “If you’ve stopped trying new activities, make a conscious effort to start again. Dig up your old adventurous spirit and get it going. Try jogging or skating or swimming or tennis or dancing, but try something.”

Finally, Dr. Freudenberger offers encouragement: “In every fire,” he says, “there are glowing embers. You can use them to rekindle the spark.”

And that’s true. Burnout is not a terminal condition. But it’s also not a condition that gets better by being ignored. So take an honest look at your life. Reassess your goals in terms of their intrinsic worth and update them as needed. A choice you made early on in life may not be the best choice for you right now.

Also, look at your relationships as objectively as possible. What are you bringing to your relationships, good and bad? And explore what your relationships are giving to and taking from you.

Look at your work. Does it consume you? Do you have a life apart from your job, or is your life your job? And is that what you really want?

Finally, what’s the state of your social life? Do you have one? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do, but never took the time to do it? Why not?

When I was writing my book, High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, a friend sent me what I considered a very powerful quote, so powerful that I ended my book with it. Written anonymously, I believe it should serve as an important reminder that life is more than just a job or a marriage or the zealous pursuit of any singular goal.

First, I was dying to finish high school and start college.

And then I was dying to finish college and start working.

Then I was dying to marry and have children.

And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough so I could go back to work.

And then I was dying to retire.

And now I’m dying . . .

And suddenly I realized I forgot to live.

Achievement and success are important, but are they worth sacrificing everything for?

By Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.


Happiness is How You Are, Not How You Feel

Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” For him and most of his contemporaries, happiness referred not to an emotion but the long-term pattern of action, the sum of which was your moral character. It is the habits of virtue that are acquired over years of exercising the appropriate virtues.

A person doesn’t feel happy as much as happiness is a general state of being. Viewing happiness as something in the world as opposed to an individual feeling is not the way we usually understand the term.

The modern orientation is dominated by individual psychology. But something of the older understanding of happiness as essentially relational still exists in a secondary meaning. For example, we continue to refer to “good times,” or a particular era in a country, or to a happy period in a person’s life. This refers not to feeling happy per se—the kind of happiness that brings a smile to our face—but to a condition that arises in a larger context of actions, conditions, and behavior. To live well is to be good. A happy life is a good life, on this account, and a good life is a virtuous life.

“Happiness is the highest good,” Aristotle wrote. And happiness is realized through the practice of virtue. Happiness casts its gaze outward and is obtainable through the cultivation of moral habits.

The story of beautiful Narcissus is the cautionary tale. He drowns in his own reflection because in his love of himself there is no room for others. For Aristotle, friendship is central to human well-being. Human flourishing isn’t possible without it.

“Friends enhance our ability to think and to act,” Aristotle wrote. This isn’t just any way of thinking or acting but consists of good judgment and virtuous behavior. Friends hold us up to our better selves, directing us toward the good.

You need friends to do good and without them you are likely to fail. It is a failure to be virtuous, and without virtue you can’t be happy. Narcissus drowns because in his self-love there is no one to bring him to develop his moral character.

According to Aristotle, it isn’t good luck or fortune that determines whether you will be happy, although he acknowledges the importance of possessing certain goods as making the attaining of a good life more likely. Friendship, wealth, and power all contribute to a good life.

Conversely, happiness is endangered if you are severely lacking in certain advantages—for example, if you are extremely ugly or disfigured, or have lost children or good friends through death. Tragedy and misfortune hinder human flourishing. This is the impetus behind eliminating social injustices and addressing basic human needs—to open up life’s possibilities even to those beset by bad luck.

Today, I think Aristotle would have added the disadvantage of clinical depression, for, as we now know, this is a bio-chemical illness that is beyond the power of the mind to control through a change of attitude or behavior. Other forms of mental illnesses fall into this category. These are medical issues, not philosophical ones. In addition, I think he would have understood how the subordination of women was contrary to the good life. Parity in terms of power between men and women is necessary for the over-all happiness in society.

Basic needs of nutrition and shelter are necessary for a good life, as is access to knowledge. Good fortune and happenstance play a role in happiness but typically luck isn’t a determining factor. As the work of psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman demonstrates, factors such as money and health account for less than 20 percent of the variance in life satisfaction.

People rise above material circumstances by developing their moral character so that you act virtuously despite the limitations. It is possible to have the disposition to be good most of the time despite the lack of material support.

By Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W.


Dan’s Top 10 Stress Books

Full Catastrophe Living

Based on Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s renowned mindfulness-based stress reduction program, this book shows you how to use natural, medically proven methods to soothe and heal your body, mind, and spirit. The title?  Oh, that’s from the classic book Zorba the Greek.  Zorba is a Greek full of a salty zest for life.  At one point, his intellectual benefactor asked him, “Zorba, are you married?”  Zorba snorts, “Married? Wife, kids, house . . . the full catastrophe!”  When all of our lives are pulled about by the catastrophe of daily living, we need mindfulness to ground us, we need the deep breathing and quiet to enrich the quiets place in all of us. 

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky has chapters on how stress affects sleep and addiction, as well as new insights into anxiety and personality disorder and the impact of spirituality on managing stress.
As Sapolsky explains, most of us do not lie awake at night worrying about whether we have leprosy or malaria. Instead, the diseases we fear-and the ones that plague us now-are illnesses brought on by the slow accumulation of damage, such as heart disease and cancer. When we worry or experience stress, our body turns on the same physiological responses that an animal’s does, but we do not resolve conflict in the same way-through fighting or fleeing. Over time, this activation of a stress response makes us literally sick.

Buddha Brain

Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and other great teachers were born with brains built essentially like anyone else’s, but used their minds to change their brains in ways that changed history. With the new breakthroughs in neuroscience, combined with the insights from thousands of years of contemplative practice, this book shows readers how to have greater emotional balance in turbulent times, as well as healthier relationships, more effective actions, and a deeper religious or spiritual practice. It’s full of practical tools and skills readers can use in daily life to tap the unused potential of the brain and rewire it over time for greater peace and well-being.


This book offers a fascinating investigation into the transformative effects of exercise on the brain, from the bestselling author and renowned psychiatrist John J. Ratey, MD. Did you know you can beat stress, lift your mood, fight memory loss, sharpen your intellect, and function better than ever simply by elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat? The evidence is incontrovertible: Aerobic exercise physically remodels our brains for peak performance. This is one of the few books that got me off my ass and into the gym.

How to Train a Wild Elephant

This is a short book and easy to read.  Jan Chozen Bays, M.D., a physician and Zen teacher, has developed a series of simple practices to help us cultivate mindfulness as we go about our ordinary, daily lives. Exercises include: taking three deep breaths before answering the phone, noticing and adjusting your posture throughout the day, eating mindfully, and leaving no trace of yourself after using the kitchen or bathroom. Each exercise is presented with tips on how to remind yourself and a short life lesson connected with it.

The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook

This book details easy, step-by-step techniques for calming the body and mind in an increasingly overstimulated world. It’s based on the latest research, and draws from a variety of proven treatment methods, including progressive relaxation, autogenics, self-hypnosis, visualization, and mindfulness and acceptance therapy. In the first chapter, you’ll explore your own stress triggers and symptoms, and learn how to create a personal plan for stress reduction. Each chapter features a different method for relaxation and stress reduction, explains why the method works, and provides on-the-spot exercises you can do to apply that method when you feel stressed.

Stress-Proof Your Brain

Our brains have evolved powerful tools for coping with threats and danger-but in the face of modern stresses like information overload, money worries, and interpersonal conflicts, our survival reflexes can do more harm than good. To help you adapt your nervous system to the challenges of today’s world, neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson presents Stress-Proof Your Brain. Join him to learn research-based techniques and meditations that will literally re-shape your brain to make you more resilient, confident, and peaceful, including: – How to replace your brain’s unhealthy reactions to stress with protective and self-nurturing responses- Techniques for using memory to soothe and release painful feelings of sadness, guilt, anxiety, inadequacy, or anger – Guided meditations for calming chronic worries, developing gratitude, building inner strength, and more.

Stress Proof Your Life

Stress proof your life is for people who struggle to find time for a shower, much less a bath. The ones who worry that stress is affecting their health and relationships. Or they would worry if they weren’t so knackered. Some people are really good at avoiding some stresses without realizing that they are slaves to another kind. Elisabeth Wilson looks at the sources – occupational, genetic and environmental – and reveals 52 brilliant techniques for creating a stress-free zone. When your batteries are blown and burnout is imminent these top tips can help you regain control.

Getting Things Done

If you’re like me, my biggest source of stress comes from the pressure to get lots of things done everyday.

In Getting Things Done, veteran coach and management consultant David Allen shares the methods for getting things done. Allen’s premise is simple: our productivity is directly proportional to our ability to relax. Only when our minds are clear and our thoughts are organized can we achieve effective productivity and unleash our creative potential* Apply the “do it, delegate it, defer it, drop it” rule to get your in-box to empty.

Upward Spiral

Lawyers help others but take very poor care of themselves. In their quest to max out their earning potential and afford the best material goods our economy has to offer, lawyers lead a narrow, grimly serious existence without emotional rewards. They work inhuman hours yet always feel pressured for time. Since they never stop, breathe, and relax, they are frequently tense, irritable and ready to bark. Author Harvey Hyman, himself a former trial lawyer, gives us the latest science, wit and wisdom in a book I highly recommend.

Stress Management for Lawyers

When you practice law, stress comes with the territory. Such stressors as time pressures, work overload, conflict, and difficult people can rob you of a satisfying career and personal life. It doesn’t have to be that way, however. You can take effective action and this book, written specifically for lawyers, shows you how.


How Lawyers Can Get Things Done When Depressed

Getting things done at work is a top priority for any lawyer.  This is all the more so when a lawyer is suffering from clinical depression because it becomes harder and harder to be productive: stacks of paperwork become bigger stacks of paperwork, deadlines begin to feel like death sentences when they’re not completed and time is running out, and the e-mail box is overflowing like a sink onto a cold tiled floor.

The failure to fix the lack of productivity problem spirals folks out of control.  Not accomplishing things make’s their work problems –  like their overall life problems – seem, essentially, unsolvable. Depressed lawyer can’t seem to remember a time before their depressive episode(s) when they were on top of their game. Author Andrew Solomon writes:

When you are depressed, the past and future are absorbed entirely in the present moment, as in the world of a three-year old. You cannot remember a time when you felt better, at least not clearly, and you’re certainly cannot imagine a future time when you will feel better.

A Tsunami of Self-Condemnation

When you combine lack of productivity and disorganization, you have a recipe for hating one’s self; a toxic self-condemnation that goes on throughout the day for the depressed lawyer: “I got nothing done this morning.  I feel useless and out of control.  I feel like crap.”  They feel incompetent in a profession that prizes competence because they blame themselves for not having the motivation to check things off their list of things they must get done.  What they fail to see, is not they’re inept or lazy.  They’re sick.

Depression creates a real fuzzy dullness in the brain that prevents anyone within its gravitational pull from getting much done; a psychic disorientation that feels like you’ve been kicked in the head by a horse. The reason is that there is actually decreased metabolic functioning in the frontal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for initiating behavior.  So even though we desire to press on the gas to get things done, our brains are running on vapors.

Well Done

Lawyers feel desperate to become unstuck – to get traction and get back on the path of productivity.  In the insightful book Get It Done When You’re Depressed, the authors are dead-on about the types of things depressives tell themselves when trying to get things done – and how this actually leads to things not getting done: (1) You have decided that there’s no use in starting if you don’t have the desire for the project, (2) you search for the feeling of wanting to get something done even when you know that lack of motivation is a normal symptom of depression and (3) you wait so long to get a good feeling about what you need to do that you never even get started.

Given this, how can we possibly get things done when depressed?  Is it even possible? The three points I took away from the book are:

  1. Keep working until you do feel even a small sense of accomplishment, and hold on to that as you finish a project.
  2. Work no matter what so you can go to bed with a sense of accomplishment.
  3. As you start to implement these ideas, remember to take it slow and have realistic expectations.
  4. Remember, depression doesn’t want to do anything and never will.  It’s an inert illness, not an active illness.  If you wait until you ‘feel like it’ to start something, you’ll wait forever.

Lawyers are perfectionist and set high expectations on themselves.  But that doesn’t work with depression; it only serves to fuel the illness because you cannot get everything done that you customarily had gotten done when not depressed.  So, be kind to yourself.

In a past blog, My Desk, My Enemy: 6 Helpful Ways to Get Organized, I wrote further about the nuts-and-bolt of how to get things done when depressed.  Check out the blog for practical things you can put to use in your law practice and life.






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