For the past several years, the wellness industry has inundated me with the word “mindfulness”—something “good” that I “should” practice. But for many lawyers, the idea of turning off from the outside world and being entirely focused on one thing seems like a pipe dream. They balk at the suggestion, claiming to be “too Type A.” But, even the most ambitious overachievers can successfully practice mindfulness.
The Fallacy of Type A Success
So what does it actually mean to be Type A? According to the ever-so-reliable source Wikipedia (sorry, WestLaw is of no use here), “Type A” means a person who is “outgoing, ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management. People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving ‘workaholics.’ They push themselves with deadlines and hate both delays and ambivalence.” Notably, this Wikipedia editor also reports that “people with Type A personalities experience more job-related stress and less job satisfaction.”
Wikipedia could have shortened this definition to one word: lawyer. And importantly, Wikipedia also notes some of the pitfalls of being Type A, stating that “those with Type A personalities do not always outperform those with Type B personalities.” False. We outperform everyone. “Depending on the task and the individual’s sense of time urgency and control, it can lead to poor results when there are complex decisions to be made.” Eh, maybe true? Not only that, but “Type A people were said to be hasty, impatient, impulsive, hyperalert, potentially hostile, and angry.” And Wikipedia strikes again. To me, it seems like “Type A” personalities, including myself, could benefit more than most from practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness Through Meditation
The definition of “mindfulness” often revolves around meditation, quieting your mind, somehow pushing away the thoughts that emerge. I recognized the benefits of meditation in this respect. Focus. Presence.
When I first learned to meditate, I used an app on my phone. While it proved to be a fantastic introduction to the art, I found it frustrating to be told to swipe the thoughts away. Notice them, but don’t “think” about them. I continued with the app for some time but was on the search for something different. After learning a different form of meditation from my now-instructor, Emily Fletcher (author of the book Stress Less Accomplish More), I learned that not thinking is virtually impossible. Our minds are meant to think, and it is impossible to stop your thoughts. During meditation, however, the key is to notice that your mind has gotten off track. “What should I have for dinner tonight? Do I have anything green in my fridge? Ugh, I forgot to buy more vegetables at the grocery store. Do I have enough time to go get some before it becomes annoyingly late to eat? Oh, I just remembered that I also forgot more paper towels. Wait, I’m supposed to be meditating.” The act of bringing your mind back to a single point of focus is what strengthens it.
More Than Meditation: A Survey of How Young Lawyers Practice Mindfulness
The realization that meditation is not necessarily about quieting your mind helped me understand how to bring mindfulness into other aspects of my life. Before this realization, yoga was the only time I felt mentally present. Ordinarily, my mind was filled with anxious thoughts about the future, how much I had to get done that day, items on my grocery list, that “thing” I forgot to do, etc. But during yoga, if I lost my presence, I fell down. So I stayed present (for the most part…besides that one time in college when I fractured my wrist during a yoga class…I try to forget, but it’s impossible). I’ve realized, however, that while it might be meditation or yoga for me, there are a wide variety of practices Type A personalities (i.e., lawyers) use to strengthen their “mindfulness muscle.”
I spoke to several young lawyers in positions ranging from big law firm associates to in-house counsel to lawyers at small firms about how they practice mindfulness and bring presence into their daily lives. To most, mindfulness meant the act of staying present, which, in turn, helps you stay focused. Below are some of the insights I obtained from these lawyers:
- Find activities where you can be physically present. Two of the lawyers who graciously answered my questions both treat themselves to massages, take baths, and prioritizing exercise. All three of these activities involve tuning into your body, unintentionally focusing on the one thing that is happening, in a similar way that you focus on your breath during a meditation.
- Take a pause. Another lawyer expressed the importance of taking mini-breaks every hour. Her key was ensuring that the mini-break is a legitimate break by not looking at her phone or checking emails during the break. This allows her mind to be fully present on the task at hand when her mini-break is over. This response resonated greatly with me. I tend to create short term goals for myself, not only to psych myself into believing I’m being productive, but to legitimately move things forward with my day.
- Develop a morning routine. It also appeared that keeping the same morning routine was crucial to feeling productive. For example, one Big Law associate found that waking up while having coffee in bed and reading the news helped her start the day in a productive way. She made sure to make her bed immediately after getting up and she also sets yearly attainable goals for herself, such as committing to reading at least six books (not overcommitting to 25) and getting dinner with her husband at least once a week.
- Plan time for yourself in advance. A lawyer at a small firm—and a mom of a one-year-old—uses a specific planner (called a Panda Planner) to plan out her days each morning and keep track of her tasks. Using a planner also allows her to schedule time to exercise, set relationship goals with her husband, and prioritize friends and family as well. Her method of mindfulness brings her outside of her office and helps her prioritize other aspects of her life besides work, allowing her to more easily have deep focus while at work.
- Create a “schedule” for self-care that you can actually stick to. I personally struggle with making “self-care” commitments because work or other obligations often get in the way. Being realistic about your goals from the outset enables you to actually stick by your commitments. This lawyer (also in Big Law) said, “Whether it’s working out in the mornings, doing a face mask before bed, or just going for a walk, I try to schedule self-care time into my week each week so that I can both leave time for it, and make a commitment to myself to do it.” She also has a creative, non-work-related hobby to stimulate her creativity and inspiration. Winning.
How This Lawyer Achieves Mindfulness
For me, incorporating mindfulness into my day now transcends beyond meditation. I practice it while walking to get coffee, by focusing on the walk itself and bringing my mind back to the walk whenever it wanders. I practice it at my desk, by committing to 30 minutes of uninterrupted focus, putting my headphones in, and forgiving myself each time I’m tempted to do something else. Being mindful is about being present in the situation you are currently in. Luckily, the legal profession has started to have this conversation and the benefits of mindfulness are becoming more widely known. However, mindfulness is not just about learning how to meditate. Or practicing yoga. It is totally individual and may take some experimentation (and failed attempts) to learn what works best for yourself.