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Busy, Slammed, Underwater, or Drowning?: Conversations in a Big Law Elevator

As a former Big Law litigator and current law clerk, I often need to make choices between two options that are both necessary: “Sleep or exercise?.” “Meditate or call my mom?” At the beginning, decision fatigue often won—meaning that, more often than not, I chose neither option. This eventually transformed into an endless loop about how I, by not setting aside at least some time each day for myself, was not being balanced enough, which inevitably transforms into actually being hopelessly imbalanced. At one point in particular, a specific conversation launched me into a self-discovery process and to step away from constantly being a victim of Amazon’s scarily-on-point recommendations for the latest stress-relieving non-FDA approved supplements in my most vulnerable states (Alexa, stop listening).

On a rare opportunity to go to lunch with some fellow associates who I admire greatly, our conversation in the elevator transitioned to an introspective debate about the difference between “busy” vs. “slammed” vs. “drowning” vs. “underwater.” Only in an elevator in a big law firm, right? Wrong. Although maybe more commonplace in an environment where your self-worth is tied to the number of hours you bill, this conversation is all too common, especially among lawyers. In fact, it took a group of junior associates to physically inhale true outdoor air to catch our breath and bubble to the surface in order to gain enough perspective to even have this conversation.

As a Big Law associate, and perhaps as a career-oriented human in 2020 generally, the response to “How are you?” is usually, “Busy,” or “Slammed,” or “Underwater.” And if things are really bad, maybe even “Drowning.”

But what is the difference, really?

The Different Levels of Busyness

Busy: We all say it in response to a courtesy, “How have you been?” It has become the new “I’m doing well.” However, “busy” is the least of our worries. When I’m “busy,” I still have time to have the conversation about how I’ve been. I can still make a morning workout. And, I still have time to go to lunch. I might even extend my meditation from 15 to 20 minutes. Busyness essentially is the new normal, the baseline.

Slammed: I do everything possible to get out of the “How have you been?” conversation ASAP. There is no time for chit chat. I definitely can’t go to lunch and the morning workout is questionable. At this stage, I rely heavily on my to-do list, and my days are rigidly scheduled, often causing anxiety if I have to deviate from my structured plan.

Underwater: I’m swimming with my head underwater, but I exist in the space where I’m comfortably holding my breath in, breathing out, and watching the bubbles surround me. Everything from being “slammed” is present—the rigid schedule, no break for lunch, and my morning workout decreased to twenty minutes (if at all). I have to be completely present on my task, and my meditation practice is key.

Drowning: This is where we seriously need to worry. My head is still underwater, but now I can’t breathe. I start to panic at the decisions I must make on how to spend every minute of my time. For example, deciding between taking a five-minute break to do a short mindfulness exercise at my desk vs. continuing to work. It takes all of my willpower to choose the former, with my only motivation being that it will make me more productive and efficient. But, hey, whatever helps.

For some reason—and maybe it is the nature of the billable hour—”drowning” seems to now be the new “busy.”

When Are You “Too Busy?”

This universe of synonyms for “busy” exists not only in a Big Law elevator but in firms of all sizes, companies across every industry, even inside the elevator leading to my yoga studio. Somehow, the amorphous being who defines success in our culture has linked it to being busy, though there is a line that dare not be crossed. On the one hand, the busier I am, the more efficient I become. Being busy leads to rigidly structured days and thriving off of crossing a task off of my to-do list. But, on the other hand, when the line of “too busy” is crossed, work quality suffers. There is a fine balance between reducing the frequency of checking my personal email or my social media (come on, let’s be real, we all do this) due to my motivation to plow through my to-do list in an effort to get my bare minimum of 6-hours of sleep and the moment where I want to crawl under my desk and pray for more hours in the day because there is no possible way I can get everything done. Truly setting aside time for yourself is crucial to maintaining this balance.

How to Reduce the Pressure and Still Get It All Done

Learn how to set time for yourself

Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting comfortable with setting aside time for yourself. Personally, ever since law school, I have always felt like I “could” be doing something work-related. Virtually the only time where this was not true was when I was in between my job at O’Melveny and my clerkship (albeit this only existed for four days). For me, I learned how to keep these “always could be doing” feelings in check by recognizing that I will be more productive and motivated by setting aside time to relax without feeling obligated to work during that time. Yes, I recognize the irony of getting comfortable with relaxing by knowing that I will be more productive afterward.

After becoming comfortable with the idea of taking time for myself, I had to learn how to actually take time for myself. To take off all the pressure to do work during that time, I consciously and intentionally set aside a certain amount of time—even if only 10 minutes—to not focus on working.

Find what relaxes you

The next step—and hopefully the most fun step— is understanding what activity (or non-activity) truly relaxes you. For me, I discovered that watching an intense, dramatic film likely will not leave me feeling warm inside (although it might help me shed some much-needed tears), but watching a comedy might. Alternatively, if I’m short on time, I’ve noticed that being in fresh air—yes, I mean, stepping outside—helps refocus my brain. Not only may this be because of the Vitamin D, but it expands my perspective from my office to the outside world.

Being a lawyer is, perhaps not surprisingly, an isolating profession (something I did not realize during law school). Lawyers spend many hours alone in front of a screen. It’s almost hermit-like, and if it weren’t for the basic human need for sustenance, I might never see the sun. And, although these hours alone in front of a screen might make my eyes implode, technology also allows me to find space to unplug in small ways more frequently by having accessibility virtually (no pun intended) anywhere and automating processes to ensure maximum efficiency. Regardless, intentionally taking myself outside of that environment reminds me of something larger than myself. Getting outside is literally a breath of fresh air. Sort of like when you step outside for the first time after surviving for six hours on recycled air on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. Fresh air when I’m underwater at work essentially serves as an oxygen tank connected to my imaginary scuba mask. I look on the bright side: as the feeling of drowning becomes more familiar, my gauge on when my oxygen levels are low becomes more precise.

Other activities on my relaxation menu include short meditations, connecting with my significant other or a friend over a meal without screens, listening to a non-law-related podcast or audio book, reading fiction, and being creative in some way (yes, I have an adult coloring book). Creating a “menu” of sorts helps remind me of all of these options during the times where my decision fatigue has reached its limit.

Being Less Busy May Help You Be More Successful in the Long Term

Purposefully engaging in activities that I’ve identified relax me helped me become a more successful associate when I was working at O’Melveny. Because I took the time to sip some oxygen and clean my brain (think about how important it is to shower—this is like a shower for your brain), I was able to approach my cases with more passion, intellectual curiosity, and care for the clients. I enabled myself to see the big picture—the whys behind the tasks that, from a different perspective, might seem draining and menial (i.e., writing a single section in a brief that will later get pieced together with many others or developing a document review protocol to use during review training). After taking time for myself, I am able to come up for air, be above water, and find some joy in the privilege of being a lawyer.