Now be honest with yourself. When did you last have a proper lunch break? Me? As a self-confessed workaholic I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t remember. What’s more, spending the past 18-odd months working from home has made the situation a whole lot worse. With lockdown resulting in the boundaries between my personal and professional life vanishing in one fell swoop the idea of quality down time felt like a luxury. Well, that’s what I thought until my GP ordered me to slow down or risk burnout.
Breaks are far from luxurious or nice to haves. And that applies equally to lawyers notwithstanding your billable / chargeable hours targets. Though it may feel counter-intuitive to take more and / or longer breaks, powering on through your weariness won’t necessarily make you more productive. Indeed, it’s now widely acknowledged that you’ll achieve more if you pace yourself by having periods of proper downtime between bursts of churning out work. What’s more, stepping away from a task and giving your brain time to re-charge will also help to boost that all important lawyering skill – attention to detail.
Incorporating deliberate pitstops into your routine takes planning and prioritisation. Next time you’re tempted to schedule back-to-back video calls or meetings consider whether any can be diarised for 15 or 30 minutes rather than the usual 45 or 60 minutes. Where appropriate, trimming the length of meetings or calls and having a short gap between each one will give your brain time to re-charge. Related to this, discipline yourself to finish meetings on time – this can easily be achieved by letting the other participants know from the outset that you need to be wrapped up by X O’Clock. Also, if appropriate, circulating an agenda in advance helps to keep participants stay laser focused on the purpose of the meeting and avoid going off piste.
Meanwhile, with regard to lunch and coffee breaks, plan to do something you enjoy. Whilst working from home my breaks used to be taken up doing household chores. Thankfully, I’ve put a stop to that and now spend my downtime outdoors either meditating or doing some gentle exercise. And as soon as I come out of Covid hibernation and start travelling into London for work again my plan is to meet clients for lunch.
Incidentally, if as a busy lawyer you’re balking at the idea of full hour-long lunch breaks it is worth knowing that a series of microbreaks can also be beneficial to your body and mind alike. Whether it’s stepping away from your desk to give your arms and legs a stretch, looking out through the window to spy on your neighbours or watching an amusing TikTok video, taking a pause from repetitive tasks will boost your productivity and alert you to typos and other howlers.
Saying that, be sure not to overdo it, particularly when reviewing or drafting complex and lengthy documents. Indeed, before downing tools consider whether it’s preferable to delay your break by a couple of minutes to enable you to finish reading the relevant chapter or section. Trust me stepping away from a document between sections / chapters will save you a lot of time because upon returning you can just jump straight to the next page rather than being forced to work backwards, trying to figure out where you’ve got to.
Granted, if you’re a trainee solicitor or junior associate you are less likely to have full control over your working day. However, better managing others’ expectations of you should help you to regain control. Similarly, learning to say no should also help to practice the three Ps – planning, prioritising and pacing yourself.