They say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That holds true for burnout. All lawyers know someone who’s experienced it – and often experience it themselves.
It’s much easier to climb out of burnout or to avoid it altogether if you are proactive in the beginning of your career to create a foundation of good behaviors and support. Here are some ideas to give yourself some muscle to combat burnout.
Turn Burnout into Addiction
I’ve been reading Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter, and his description of addiction seemed like the opposite of burnout:
Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.
In contrast, when people are burned out, they tend to have uninspired unreachable goals, unpredictable negative feedback, no sense of progress or improvement, tasks that seem impossible and boring, and no social connections. Whereas addiction leads to people being unable to stop, burnout leads to people being unable to continue.
What I think is interesting though is that though addiction and burnout might be opposites, the cure is the same: eliminating the emotional identity with the activity, setting boundaries, and human connection. And burnout sufferers could learn something from addicts – gain back your interest by gamifying your job. Your legal career doesn’t seem like a game, but using gaming techniques can make it more fun.
1. Set Achievable Goals
Humans respond very well to routine and the feeling of control. Look, my personality type purportedly hates the routine. Yet work and life as a lawyer can be so chaotic and uncontrollable that when you can, you will cling to the routine and controllable like a life preserver.
Legal work is not likely to be addictive by itself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it so. Though your tasks can seem endless, it’s helpful to break them down into smaller, achievable goals and focus on your progress. Give yourself a checklist if it helps you feel accomplished. Visualize how far you’ve come from starting law school to interviewing to your experience now. And you can always offer yourself gold star stickers or little gifts and tokens for accomplished tasks.
2. Cling to Your Positive Feedback
Feedback at a law firm tends to be unpredictable. You’re likely to get some positive feedback and it’s important to remember those instances to keep you motivated. Every motion you win, every new concept you learn, every impossible deadline you meet – it’s all helpful for appreciating your growth and development as an attorney. It can often feel like you are treading water in legal work, but if you cling to the positives, you are better equipped to seeing your positive trajectory and feel better about your lot.
This is, of course, not license to ignore negative feedback. But often women and lawyers tend to over-focus and dwell on negative feedback. I assume you may be the same way so I assume you have given considerable thought to the negatives. Now give some thought to the positives and give yourself some deserved credit. You’re likely doing far better than you imagine.
3. Set Boundaries Early On.
Whether you’re addicted or burned out, you’re likely to rue failing to set clear boundaries at the beginning of your journey. Often one thinks, when I have more seniority and a reputation as a hard worker, it’ll be easier to ask for better treatment. Well, guess what? It doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it can be harder as you’ve already set a precedent for your superiors and yourself on how to treat you.
As the saying goes “better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” If you are clear about the boundaries for your time for yourself first, then you can see how people react. Many people will just work around you. And if they don’t, you’ll be in a strong enough place mentally to consider if this is the right environment for you.
But if you don’t carve out the boundary, no one else respects it and you don’t respect it yourself. It’s easier for YOU to cave until there’s no “you” left.
As an example of how easily boundaries shrink, when I took my career break, I felt incredibly guilty using my time for myself – even though I wasn’t employed! It’s only after taking time for myself when I learned to value my own time.
Don’t forget that it’s your time and your life. A great book is Set Boundaries, Find Peace.
4. Remind Yourself of Your Purpose
So many people go into law school with a purpose. And it’s really easy to get sidetracked by your job.
Not only should you have a purpose, but you should have a deadline. I know a lot of lawyers with impeccable pedigrees. They’ve told me their dreams – to go solo, to work at a nonprofit, to move somewhere. It’s honestly a little embarrassing how modest their goals are considering the amazing bandwidth they have. It’s not nothing to excel at Yale or Chicago Law Schools. They beat the odds. But stepping out of line and trying something new – they’re terrified.
If you’re not on the deadline, you have to ask yourself, is this REALLY your dream?
5. Have Trustworthy Confidantes
We have a loneliness epidemic. And I think part of the problem is that people don’t have real friends anymore. Instead, we have frenemies who root against us, influencers who don’t care about us, shallow acquaintances who don’t know us, and then people who are just too busy.
You need people in the trenches with you who are willing to be honest about the experience. If you have people in the past who have proven themselves true, do whatever you can to keep these friendships alive.
Also cut out anyone toxic. It’s far better to be alone than in bad company. If you’re drowning, you don’t want extra weight pulling you down.
Conclusion – Prevent Burnout by Gamifying your Career
Lawyering is a hard job. Burnout is common. I can’t promise you that you’ll be able to work partner-track hours while avoiding burnout with these tricks. But it absolutely helps to try to gamify your environment to make the workplace more addictive than troublesome.