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    On Balance
    Addicted to Busy

    The legal profession puts a high value on “busy,” and being busy isn’t a bad thing as long as the activity is purposeful. But no matter the reason, being too busy has a price. If you are stuck in this culture of busyness, here are a few ways to dig yourself out.

    Paula Davis-Laack

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    empty gas tankThe phrase, “I’m so busy” has come out of my mouth more times than I care to count in my professional life. I can’t get through a conversation with many people these days without one of us giving a recitation of all the activities we have going on in our lives. Busy has become our badge of honor, particularly at work. The more I bill and the more clients I have, the more I am valued, seen as important and worthy. For many years, my worth was tied to my title – who was I if I wasn’t a lawyer? I had to wrestle with that question when I left my law practice and started a new business doing something completely different, and let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. My busyness covered up a whole lot of stuff in my life that I didn’t want to face.

    The Price of “Crazy-Busy” in the Legal Profession

    Being busy isn’t a bad thing as long as the activity is purposeful, but no matter the reason, being too busy has a price, especially in the legal profession. Lawyers suffer from high rates of alcoholism, depression, and suicide. Researchers have studied the prevalence of major depressive disorder (MDD) in 104 occupations and found that lawyers suffered from MDD at a rate 3.6 times higher than nonlawyers.1 Approximately 3 to 5 percent of the general population suffers from MDD, yet the incidence of MDD exceeds 10 percent for lawyers.2

    In the general population, the base rate for generalized anxiety disorder is 4 percent, yet 30 percent of male lawyers and almost 20 percent of female lawyers reported scores above the clinical cutoff in this area.3 Lawyers also experience higher than average rates of drug and alcohol abuse than both the general population and other professionals.4

    Finally, a recent CNN.com article entitled “Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves?” reported that law ranked fourth among professions with the most suicides.5 Eight state bar associations have added a mental health component to mandatory CLE requirements.6

    Being too busy can also lead to burnout. When Type A, perfectionist, workaholic, overachieving lawyers get busy, they work harder and stay later. When this behavior gets rewarded, it fuels more of the same. What’s interesting is that burnout may appear to affect men and women differently. One study7 assessed the prevalence of burnout in male and female physicians (general practitioners, specifically) using the three-factor Maslach Burnout Inventory, which examines the following dimensions of burnout:

    Exhaustion: Feeling emotionally exhausted, depleted, and a loss of energy.

    Cynicism: Having a negative attitude toward clients and those you work with, feeling irritable, and withdrawing from people and activities you once enjoyed.

    Inefficacy: Experiencing diminished personal accomplishment, a perceived decline in competence or productivity, and expending energy at work without seeing any results.8

    This study found that men and women process these burnout dimensions differently. Women experienced exhaustion first, followed by cynicism, then inefficacy – they didn’t think they were being effective care providers so they stopped to evaluate their situations. The men, on the other hand, tended to experience cynicism first, then exhaustion. Interestingly, many of the men in the study kept practicing because they didn’t feel as though the symptoms from the first two stages affected the quality of care they provided. They didn’t reach the inefficacy stage because they thought they were still being effective.

    It appears as though both men and women missed many of the warning signs that indicated slowing down was necessary.  

    Burnout Warning Signs

    The warning signs of burnout can look like symptoms of other illnesses, but when coupled with a crazy-busy schedule and chronic stress, burnout must be evaluated as a potential cause. Here are some common burnout warning signs:9

    • Frequent headaches and muscle aches in general
    • Stomach aches and digestive issues
    • Restlessness
    • Change in sleeping or eating habits
    • Chest pain and heart palpitations
    • Getting sick more often than usual
    • Exhaustion
    • Becoming irritable with co-workers and clients
    • Doubting yourself and lack of confidence
    • Feeling disillusioned about your job
    • Drop in productivity
    • Dragging yourself to work and finding it difficult to start once you get there
    • Becoming a poor team player
    • Increased absenteeism
    • Work taking over your life

    If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor or healthcare provider to discuss.

    The Crazy-Busy Addiction

    In her New York Times bestseller, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown argues that people use a number of numbing strategies as armor against vulnerability – showing other people who you really are. And before you decide that this doesn’t apply to you because you’re not numbing with drugs or alcohol, Dr. Brown talks about one of the most prevalent numbing strategies people use – something she calls “crazy-busy.” She says, “I often say that when they start having twelve-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”10

    So what helps? If you are stuck in this culture of busyness, below are a few ways to dig yourself out.

    Set Boundaries

    You’ve heard this a million times, but you do really need to establish firm boundaries around your time and your energy. One of my colleagues created the following system:11

    Paula Davis-Laackcom paula pauladavislaack Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress and Resilience Institute, an organization that educates, coaches, and trains attorneys and professionals about how to better manage stress, prevent burnout, and build resilience. She is the author of a newly published e-book titled, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.

    Bag it: Is this something I have to do at all – can I let it go completely?

    Barter it: Is this something I can delegate or offload to someone else?

    Better it: If it’s something that is depleting and I have to do it, how can I make it better?

    Or, follow the advice of best-selling author and life coach, Dr. Martha Beck: If you’re wondering whether to say yes or no to something, choose the answer that feels like freedom. Period.

    Establish Your Balance Builders and Balance Busters

    I do this exercise in my resilience trainings to help people rethink work/life balance. Make a table with four squares labeled as follows: Balance Builders – Work; Balance Builders – Non-Work; Balance Busters – Work; and Balance Busters – Non-Work. Balance builders are those activities that build your energy and rejuvenate you, while balance busters are those activities that deplete or drain your energy.12 I’m always shocked at how much time we spend doing activities that drain us; in fact, in my last training, the participants realized that they spent 90 percent of their time doing activities that drained them and only 10 percent of their time doing activities that energized and rejuvenated them! No wonder we’re burning out.

    Understand Your Thinking, Emotions, and Behaviors

    A fundamental tenet of cognitive science is that your thoughts drive your emotions and reactions.13 When you have an emotion or reaction to a stress-producing event that you don’t like or that surprises you, map out what you were thinking in the heat of the moment right before you reacted. Learning to understand your thinking will help you get better at processing your emotions and reactions in a way that will help you stop undercutting your performance and instead build resilience.

    To fully recover from my burnout, I had to take a hard look at what was driving my crazy-busy ways. I missed many warning signs along the way and had to have some tough conversations with myself and other people. In reflecting on my own journey, I’m reminded of a quote from Gloria Steinem: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”


    1 William W. Eaton et al., Occupations and the Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder, 32 J. Occupational Med. 1079-87 (1990).

    2 Id. at 1081.

    3 Patrick J. Schiltz, Symposium, Attorney Well-Being in Large Firms: Choices Facing Young Lawyers, 52 Vand. L. Rev. 871 (May 1999).

    4 Nancy Levit & Douglas O. Linder, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law 6 (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press 2010).

    5 Rosa Flores & Rose Marie Arce, Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves?, CNN.com, Jan. 20, 2014.

    6 Id.

    7 Inge Houkes et al., Development of Burnout Over Time and the Causal Order of the Three Dimensions of Burnout Among Male and Female GPs. A Three-Wave Panel Study, BMC Public Health 240 (2011).

    8 Christina Maslach & Michael P Leiter, Early Predictors of Job Burnout and Engagement, 93 J. of Applied Psychol. 498-512 (2008).

    9 Mayo Clinic Staff, Job Burnout: How to Spot It and Take Action, Mayo Clinic, Dec. 8, 2012.

    10 Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead 137 (New York, NY: Penguin Group 2012).

    11 The Bag It, Barter It, Better It system was created by my friend and colleague, Gretchen Pisano, MAPP, www.plinkcoachingcenter.com.

    12 Edy Greenblatt, Restore Yourself: The Antidote for Professional Exhaustion 9-22 (Los Angeles, CA: Execu-Care Press 2009).

    13 Judith S. Beck, Cognitive Behavior Therapy Basics & Beyond, 2nd Ed. 3 (New York, NY: The Guilford Press 2011).

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