(Brought to you by the Number 5, and Sesame Street’s Count von Count.)
Here’s an incident to which almost every lawyer can relate:
Your out-of-town trial (or client meeting, or high-profile presentation) starts in three days. You’re packing files, luggage, and one last cup of coffee for the trip to the airport. You’re running a little late for the flight (because you had to make one last call – done on speaker-phone, of course, and you were packing your suitcase as you talked), so you want to get everything to the car in one trip. Suitcase in one hand, briefcase strap over your shoulder, and coffee and cell phone in the other hand, you get to your car, only to remember that your keys are in your jacket pocket. Rather than put anything down, you try to snag the keys with a couple of fingers on the hand holding the cell phone and coffee. I don’t have to tell you what happens next – but it involves keys on ground, coffee in your shoe, and a wet cell phone.
This scenario may seem overly predictable and simplistic. But ask yourself how often things like this happen – and how many extra minutes it takes to clean up the unintended mess. Mindfulness can help to avoid this type of dilemma.
If you were asked to list the top five things that you could do to increase your level of success in 2016, that list might include things like: working faster/more efficiently; attending industry-related seminars and “working the crowd” to meet potential clients; expanding your network by speaking, writing, and training; delegating more work to associates; and joining management committee to raise your profile within the firm. Very few lawyers would add to that list things like “take a breath” or “slowly count to ten” or any other technique regularly associated with mindfulness training.
The quantifiable effects of mindfulness:
Recent studies of the effect of mindfulness on business-related success have shown important – and unexpected – results. According to the Harvard Business Review, one company’s study showed that on average, stress levels of employees participating in a mindfulness program dropped by 28%. If that doesn’t impress you, that same study showed that participants gained an average of 62 minutes of productivity each week. (Do the math for the yearly gain, using your own billable rate.) Studies show that mindfulness actually changes our brains.
What is mindfulness? In essence, it consists of actively observing the world around you, one thing at a time, and being aware of that thing in its full context. The “thing” could be the car in front of you on the road, the face of your client in reaction to your explanation of legal strategy, or just the way your feet feel as you walk down the courthouse steps. Mindfulness keeps you in the present moment and allows you to fully feel that moment without worrying the about the next one.
Don’t confuse “motion” with “action”:
What isn’t mindfulness? Reading e-mails while you walk to your car on a sunny day; calling your stockbroker from your car while you head to the courthouse for a hearing; editing a brief while “listening” to a webinar; there are hundreds of examples that we, as lawyers, do every single day.
Most of us confuse “motion” with “action” – but the two are distinctively different, and it’s mindfulness that is at the core of that difference. Mindfulness keeps us in the present moment, puts things in perspective in a practical way, and allows us to save the energy of our thoughts for the important things when they happen. It allows us to navigate communication more effectively (which of us hasn’t half-listened to a spouse, child, or co-worker, and then felt remorseful afterward?), and to manage our own behavior by being more aware of what we say and how we act.
Five things to do now:
Start with these five things to begin your own mindfulness training:
- Stand still. No, really – just stand still. Stop where you are and look around you for ten seconds. Don’t speak; don’t text; just stand. You don’t have to accomplish anything in that ten seconds. The point is simply to be still.
- Take a deep breath. When is the last time you actually filled your lungs with air? Breathe in through your nose, fully filling your lungs from the bottom to the top (it’s harder than it sounds). Hold that breathe for a second or two, and then breathe it all out through your mouth. If you feel really adventurous, raise your arms while you breathe in and lower them as you breathe out.
- Stop answering the phone after the first ring. Lawyers are trained to be responsive. But grabbing the phone as soon as it rings means that you’re stopping something else in mid-track . . . being less mindful of that ongoing task than of the phone call. When the phone rings, use the first ring to focus on what you’re leaving in order to take the call. If you decide that the call is more important than the task, stop mindfully and answer the call on the second (or even third!) ring, so that when you go back to that task, you won’t have to re-do anything to catch up to your pre-call status.
- Eat real food. This one is a little less direct than the others. In essence, eating “real” food – as opposed to fast food made by others who have no connection to either you or the food – allows you to be more mindful of what you’re putting into your body, and how the food really tastes. It allows you to be fully aware of the time that you’re spending and of the purpose of eating, which is to provide energy to get through your day in a positive and productive way. Start packing your lunch – it doesn’t have to be fancy, but it will help you to give some mindful thought to what you plan to eat.
- Learn something new every day. We’re lawyers – of course we learn something new every day, whether it’s statutes, cases, or court rulings. I’m not talking about that. How about learning the capital of Australia (Canberra), the name of the dance move that would most embarrass your teen if you did it in public (the Dab), or the Prime Minister of Canada (Trudeau – Not that one. His son, Justin). Being mindful of things other than those familiar to you can help to increase your creativity, which is something that every lawyer should be thinking about.
In 2011, New York City instituted an unusual way of increasing mindfulness of its drivers, in an attempt to make them more aware of the dangers of driving without attention. Traffic warning street signs written as haiku/senryu appeared on poles around the five boroughs, posted by the New York City Department of Transportation. The poems and accompanying artwork were created by artist John Morse. My favorite – and one that I’ve saved since then to remind me to be mindful of my actions – is:
Imagine a world
Where your every move matters.
Welcome to that world.