The productive value of vacation

I’m on vacation this week, sort of.  By “sort of,” I mean that I’m more or less alternating vacation and work days.  Today is a work day; tomorrow, I’ll be out playing.  The image to the left?  That’s where I spent part of Saturday and Sunday, reading some of the books that have been on my list for far too long — novels (I can now recommend Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed) as well as business books (finally finishing Managing the Professional Services Firm, and I have a few more lined up as well).  I’m also doing some writing and client work on my “working vacation days,” and squeezing in some speaking as well.

A client asked me earlier today if I wouldn’t prefer to be fully on vacation or fully working.  Well, maybe.  I love my work, and it would be challenging to set it aside completely.  More notably, the truth is that I’m seeing some remarkable benefits from this “neither fish nor fowl” trip.  For example, I now have a long list of blog posts I’d like to write.  Same for newsletter articles.  You’d have to ask my clients to know for sure, but it seems to me that client meetings are going better than ever.  Why do you suppose this is?  Personally, I think it’s thanks to my vacation days.

You see, the last few months have been like sprinting a marathon.  I made the commitment to write a book in February and released The Reluctant Rainmaker in June.  I’ve been fortunate to have many speaking engagements over the past few months, and my client roster is growing.  A vacation has been overdue for some time now, and as my brain unwinds, the creativity is starting to percolate.

Recreation (for the purposes, pronounced re-creation) recharges, refreshes, re-energizes.  Without recreation, I (and you, and anyone you might imagine) become like an ignored pitcher of water.  Keep pouring out without replenishing the pitcher, and before long, there’s nothing left to pour.  To use time mastery terminology, recreation is a Quadrant II activity: not urgent, but important.  Absent extraordinary circumstances, no one will ever give you a deadline to take a vacation.

Fortunately, recreation isn’t limited to a vacation.  It can comes in short bursts (many consider a 15-minute meditation a quick and effective form of recreation) or in longer periods.  The key question is, what refreshes you?  What leaves you feeling as if you’ve replenished your “pitcher” of energy?  Identify several such activities (and snoozing in a hammock counts as activity for these purposes) and make sure you fit them into your schedule.  Yes, a long vacation is fabulous recreation — but it isn’t the only kind that will pay off with increased productivity upon your return.

Avoid overwhelm: hit reset!

A client recently called me, and I could hear the tension in his voice right away.  Too many projects coming due at the same time (and thus, another long weekend in the office) combined with sheer exhaustion to make Rick an unhappy lawyer.  “I just don’t know how I’m going to get it all done.  I always do, but you know, I’m thinking maybe I’m not going to pull it off this time.”  We started listing out exactly what Rick needed to do and, while it was a lot of work, the truth was that he could accomplish all of it within about 30 hours, which would leave him some time free over the weekend — if, and only if, he was able to stop worrying about the work and start doing it.

“So, Rick,” I ventured, “you sound completely stressed out, and your brain seems to be going in six different ways at once.  Why don’t you hit the reset button?”

Rick took a few seconds before speaking, and when he did his voice was incredulous, laced with frustration-bordering-on-anger.  “And how would you recommend I do THAT?”

We all fall into periods of overwhelm, frustration, malaise, boredom, and so on.  Sometimes it’s a few minutes, and other times the feelings can last for weeks.  Hitting the reset button is a simple technique I recommend.  Every person I’ve ever talked with has something that serves as the human equivalent of Ctrl-Alt-Delete.  (Sorry, Mac users, you’ll have to translate that into Mac language or remember your PC days!)  And most people have a variety of strategies that may work, depending on the situation.  A few that clients and I have used:

  • Going for a walk, a run, a bike ride, or other solitary exercise
  • Playing music that pumps you up or soothes you
  • Yoga
  • Calling a friend or loved one for a short conversation
  • Flipping through vacation photos
  • Meditating, praying, or deep breathing
  • Getting a cup of coffee, tea, or other beverage of your choice and savoring it
  • Using smells (essential oils, for instance) to trigger relaxation
  • Stretching
  • Making a “gratitude list”

Although each of the activities listed above are fairly quick and designed for run-of-the-mill circumstances, hitting reset can also mean taking a weekend trip, taking a weekly class, or something else that’s sufficiently out of the ordinary to break your routine.  Each year, I spend a week alone in Wyoming, walking and thinking in nature.  When I return from my retreat, I see my business and my life through new eyes.

After Rick and I explored some ideas, he decided that he would take a quick walk around the block while listening to a favorite “power song” as soon as we hung up, and that he would make time to play ball with his son for a few minutes in the evening.  He was skeptical but willing to give “the reset” a shot.  And he discovered that it worked well enough that he now “hits reset” regularly, as soon as he starts feeling overwhelmed or otherwise on edge.

What might you do when you need to reset your system?

Tuesday shorts 7/29/08 (happiness in the law, client relationships, Blackberry malaise)

I’m attending a conference this week, so I thought I’d load up a few links to good articles and blog posts some of you may not have seen.

Seven Simple Suggestions for Success and Happiness in the Law  The JD Bliss Blog recently posted a summary of a commencement speech by Stephen Ellis, a lawyer who has happily practiced for 36 years.  The suggestions are deceptively simple:

  • Be there for your clients when they need you.
  • Don’t be obnoxious.  Do a good job on the law, facts, and strategy, but don’t make it personal.
  • Be enthusiastic about your clients’ matters; ask how something can be done rather than rattling off reasons why it can’t.
  • Believe in your brain–some things people tell you really might not make sense.
  • Stay focused and stay with it–renew daily your commitment to good work and reliability daily.
  • Get “outside” yourself and participate in community events.  In addition to being a great way to meet more people and broaden your appreciation for your community, you have a lot to offer, and you’ll have fun.
  • Be nice.  In Ellis’ own words, “Cliche it may be, but being pleasant and friendly makes the day’s good spots better and the rough spots smoother. And that makes everyone’s life better–for sure yours.”

Well said!

Building strong client relationships  Frank D’Amore, founder of Attorney Career Catalysts (a legal recruiting, consulting, and training firm), published a helpful article in The Legal Intelligencer recently, discussing how a first-year partner who has landed a major client can build a solid, long-term relationship with the client.  (I particularly appreciated D’Amore’s reminder not to focus so heavily on any single client that business development efforts slow down or stop.)  To build a strong client relationship, D’Amore recommends:

  • Understand your client’s business and industry.
  • Keep your client fully in the loop about what’s happening in the matter.
  • Make your client look good at all times.
  • Maintain regular contact with your client, even when there’s a lull in the representation.
  • Consider how you might help key client contacts in ways that extend beyond legal services.

Stop blaming your Blackberry for your lack of self-discipline  Penelope Trunk, the Brazen Careerist, has a funny-because-it’s-true post about those whose lives are run by their Blackberries.  Yes, I understand needing to receive and respond to emails immediately sometimes, but anyone who’s ever complained about Blackberry bondage should read this post.  Just a clip (from the end of the post):

Blackberries are tools for the well-prioritized. If you feel like you’re being ruled by your Blackberry, you probably are. And the only way to free yourself from those shackles is to start prioritizing so that you know at any given moment what is the most important thing to do. Sometimes it will be the Blackberry, and sometimes it won’t. And the first step to doing this shift properly is recognizing that you can be on and off the Blackberry all day as a sign of empowerment.

PDA Peace

Pavlov’s dog had nothing on most BlackBerry/iPhone/BlackJack/other PDA users.

All too often, we (and I include myself) hear the “beep” or feel the vibration and pounce immediately, even in the middle of a sentence — our own or someone else’s.  And I’ve seen (and though I’d prefer not to admit it, experienced) the discomfort that can occur when someone knows there’s an email waiting but doesn’t pounce.  The ticks, the nervousness.  It’s almost pathological sometimes.

Recently, I decided to drive for a business trip rather than fly, and for safety’s sake, I didn’t want to be tempted to look at my BlackBerry everytime an email came in.  So I set the profile to ring for phone calls only, and to be silent otherwise.  I drove almost 150 miles before I had to stop for gas, and I checked the BlackBerry then.  I had about 40 messages, none of them urgent.  And I had a strange feeling that I subsequently identified as peace.  Peace!  No irritating noises, no demands, no irrelevant press releases.  It was a good change.

That was a month ago, and I’ve continued to keep my BlackBerry on “phone only.”  If I’m expecting something urgent, I ask for a phone call rather than an email, and it’s been truly instructive to discover how much better conversations are when I’m not wondering about the email I just heard arriving.  And the truth is, I have yet to miss anything important as a result of this practice.

Try it.  Just for today.  You can change back tomorrow if you like.  I predict you won’t want to, and I predict you’ll be more present to your work, the people you’re with, even your own relaxation.  And in turn, you’ll be more productive and more creative.

Not a bad return on eliminating an irritant, is it?

Work = Death?

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which a lawyer’s work and life are completely separate.

No, I’m serious.  Pause and imagine it.

When I try to envision that world, I get deeply distressed.  If work and life are separate, and if life has no part in work, what does that imply?  Work = no life, and the absence of life = death.  So, work = death.


Perhaps I’m a life coach for lawyers?  There’s nothing wrong with that; life coaching can be a valuable service.  But that isn’t what I’m about.  I work with clients on business development, career strategy, leadership development, among other issues, and we typically address life coaching issues only to the extent that it affects my client’s professional life.  In other words, if a client is going through a divorce, we may touch on how to stay focused on work when in the office, even when grief or anger threatens to overwhelm, but I’m not the coach to help with sorting through how to approach friends who stop calling because of their divided loyalty resulting from being friends with the divorcing spouses.

Instead, “Life at the Bar” derives from the concept that, to be effective advocates and counselors, we must be alive — fully present, focused, and all systems go — in practice.  While there’s certainly a separation between professional and personal life, it strikes me as sad that work and life are viewed as being divisible, separate domains that must be balanced.  And I begin to imagine conference rooms and courtrooms full of zombies citing legal maxims, just waiting to leave the office and return to life.  Thank goodness that isn’t true for most lawyers!

I’m moving more and more toward the concept of WorkLife Integration.  Integration means that, while professional life and personal life remain separate (as I would suggest they should), there’s life in work, and work and life go hand-in-hand.  Work is endowed with passion and purpose and emotion and logic and humor and relationships and all the other things that make life lively.

Most importantly, no one has to spend hours at the office, slugging through the slew, waiting for 5 PM or 7 PM (or later) to begin living again during precious non-work hours, and no one has to attach an ill-fitting mask to survive.  When work and life are integrated, we’re reasonably authentically who we are, whether at home or at work, and rewards flow in both places.  Of course, there will be times when we’re eager to leave the professional focus at work and to turn to the personal focus at home, or vice versa, but there’s life in both places.

So.  How integrated is your WorkLife?