You are strapped into an airplane seat with your child beside you. The flight attendant describes the safety features of the airplane, and she tells you that in the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop down from overhead. You are instructed to place a mask over your own nose and mouth first, and then over the nose and mouth of your child. You think to yourself, “That’s crazy! I need to take care of my child first, and then I can take care of myself.”
This story is an excellent metaphor for the way many of us see our daily lives. In the fast-paced legal environment, we often put the needs of others before our own. Frequently, it feels as though we have no choice but to sacrifice ourselves to keep our clients happy. These clients, as well as our bosses, children, spouses, parents, and friends, all compete for our limited time and energy. It is easy to believe that the best thing to do is to put aside our own needs and put these myriad needs first.
For example, Sue is a hard-working lawyer who enjoys her work and wants to be successful in her practice. She works at least 10 hours each day and often stays late and comes into the office on the weekends. Sue has a husband she loves dearly, a young son, and many friends she enjoys spending time with. Sue began working with a coach because she felt out of balance and nearing burnout. She was struggling with trying to get it all done and realized recently that she had lost herself in that process.
When they began working together, Sue’s coach asked her to name the three most important people in her life. Sue answered that her husband, her son and her friend, Jane, were the top three. Not satisfied with this answer, the coach asked her what other people were important to her, and she added her parents, brother and sister, and an aunt to whom she was close. When her coach then asked her to continue the list even further, Sue knew she was giving the “wrong” answer, but did not know how to change it to make it “right.” Who was she leaving out? Her neighbors, her co-workers, some distant relative? Finally, her coach pointed out that she, Sue, was not even on the list.
At that point, a light bulb went off in Sue’s head. She realized that she didn’t remember the last time that she put herself first. She also realized that she had to make taking care of herself a top priority if she wanted to continue to be productive in her job, fulfill all of the roles her daily life demanded and find the time and energy to enjoy her life. She finally understood that if she did not care for herself, no one else could or would do it for her, and she would end up burned out and useless to herself, her clients, and her family and friends.
As Sue realized, the first step toward taking care of yourself is getting yourself on the list. Try scheduling time for yourself just as you would a client meeting, your child’s school play or any other important commitment. Consider the impact on the other people in your life if you are not caring for yourself adequately. Your clients will suffer much more if you end up in bed with the flu for a week than they will if you leave work at 6:30 three times a week and head for the gym. In addition, the people closest to you will find you much more pleasant to be around if you make it a priority to take quality time for yourself – even if this means you are not always at their beck and call.
Although building in time for yourself may not be easy or popular at first, keep your eye on the long-term benefits, not only to yourself, but to all of those who depend on you in the professional and personal arenas of your life. Remember the airplane metaphor. If the adults on the plane do not put the oxygen masks on themselves first, so that they can keep breathing, there will be no on available to comfort and care for their dependents.
Of course, taking care of yourself on a daily basis is more complex than simply attending to your need for oxygen. To be fully functioning, we all have multiple areas that need attention. It is important to place priority on making sure your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs are all being cared for.
This means eating well, making time to exercise, and doing whatever else you must do consistently to take care of your physical being. It is equally important to nourish your mind. Check in and make sure you are doing work you enjoy. Set aside time to learn something new, read for pleasure, or engage in a hobby you enjoy. Be sure you are getting rejuvenated emotionally, too. Spend time with friends and family you enjoy being connected to. Also, make sure that if your job is emotionally draining that you take time to be alone to replenish yourself. Finally, take care of yourself spiritually. Build in quiet time, meditation, prayer or whatever other activities allow you to feel spiritually filled up.
On one hand, these sound like simple things to do. However, the trick is to build these replenishing activities into your life in such a way that they are part of your everyday routine. Just as you would not skip an important client meeting, it is critical that you structure your life so that you are able to honor your commitments to yourself. These commitments can be difficult to keep when the demands of work and family overwhelm you, so be sure you have built in accountability. Find an accountability partner, a friend or a professional coach, to help you keep these commitments.
While initially it may seem selfish to take care of yourself, and to place a priority on time engaging in these activities, once you recognize how important it is to care for yourself, you can work toward addressing your needs within the time and energy constraints of your daily life. As you experiment with taking care of yourself and you begin to develop routines that work for you, you may also find that it doesn’t take nearly as much as you may have feared.
So, try putting yourself at the top of the list. In doing so, you will find that you are more productive and fulfilled in whatever you do.
Debby Stone, JD, CPCC, PCC, co-founded Corner Office Coaching in 2002 and serves as CEO. Debby holds both undergraduate and law degrees from Duke University. She practiced law for 16 years, first in a large Atlanta law firm and later in her own firm. Debby received her coach training and certification from The Coaches Training Institute, has completed Organization and Relationship Systems coach training through The Center for Right Relationship, and is accredited as a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation. Debby also serves as a senior editor and contributing writer for The Complete Lawyer. Debby works with Corner Office Coaching as a coach, consultant and facilitator. In addition, she runs the day-to-day operations of the company and oversees the work of the firm’s Affiliate Coaches.