Learn how to exercise more control and intention over your reactions.
Everyone in the legal industry works in a high-stress, fast-paced, demanding world. At times, this reality turns people into balls of stress and pressure walking down the halls of our firms. It is when we are present in those moments that we find ourselves reacting to things we would normally let roll off our backs, or, as I call it, “not being one’s best self.”
Unmanaged stress can have a negative impact not only on one’s personal sense of well-being, but also on one’s professional performance. The most effective leaders maintain control even in high-stress environments, because it allows them to make the best decisions. But how is it possible to have that control in law firms of all places?
Mindfulness is a handy tool to have in our tool chest during these stressful times. By practicing mindfulness, we can exercise more control and intention over our reactions.
Mindfulness is a way of thinking and living — it teaches us to increase the time between stimulus and reaction. While we have no control over stimuli in the world, we do have control over our reactions to it.
The times when we are under the most pressure in all aspects of our lives are the times when we need mindfulness the most. Just like any other exercise or skill, it takes time and practice to develop; we can't just read an article or a book or two and transport in a state of mindfulness. It takes time because we are not only teaching our brains to slow down, but also rewiring our brains.
My Personal Experience With Mindfulness
I have found that cultivating a mindfulness practice has helped me create more space so I respond to events the way I want to and stay inline with my core values.
In my day job at my firm, I manage our Firmwide Experience Management System. It’s safe to say when people call me, they are often experiencing a range of emotions. My mindfulness practice allows me the mental space to respond to these situations with: empathy and compassion for the person; the ability to step back to identify solutions; the commitment to a win/win approach for everyone; and the capability to reflect on what can be done to prevent future situations.
You're probably thinking, “I hardly have time for coffee each day let alone another entry on my to-do list.” I hear you. The good news about mindfulness is that you can do it at any time, anywhere, in a few minutes per day. I personally practice every morning while my dog is eating breakfast, he needs to eat every day and I need a few minutes to sit quietly. But if my experience doesn’t speak to your needs, here are a few additional reasons to practice:
- Reduced Anxiety. Employees that are more skilled at working with their internal anxiety triggers will be more content and more focused.
- Improved Reasoning. Brief mindfulness trainings significantly improved working memory and executive functioning.
- Reduced Distractions. Training the mind to focus and concentrate is becoming more critical than ever in this 24/7 world where our attention is being pulled in 100 different directions at once.
- Rational Decision-Making. Research has shown that concentrating on breathing can lead to more rational thinking when making business decisions.
- Happier Teams. Studies show that leaders who display mindfulness on the job result in happier employees and increased employee morale. Mindfulness training allows people to be more creative, more resilient and more attentive.
- Better Relationships. Mindfulness is associated with higher quality relationships.
- Expanded Creativity. Mindfulness is an effective tool for creativity because it changes how we think and experience events.
Given those tangible benefits, imagine working with a ton of people who are reaping the benefits of mindfulness. Sounds pretty awesome, right?
Where to Start?
The great news is that you can cultivate this in your firm, department or team. If you want to start at the firm level, the first step is to create interest and support by sharing the facts and benefits of mindfulness. It might help to name the many companies, several of whom are likely clients or target clients, that have formal mindfulness programs. Companies like: McKinsey; Procter & Gamble; Deutsche Bank; Aetna; Target; Intel; Goldman Sachs; Apple; General Electric; General Mills; Nike; Sony; Ford; IKEA — the list goes on.
Google describes their mindfulness program as “a workout for your emotional intelligence” and has a six-month waiting list to participate! Though, sometimes behind the curve, despite the great potential for benefit, there's a growing number of law schools and law firms teaching these tools for improved focus and concentration, emotional regulation and the many other research-supported benefits.
Mindfulness can be practiced at the individual level, or you can work it into the agenda of your meetings and programs. It is becoming more and more common to have a “lead mindfulness moment” at the beginning of programs and sessions. I recently completed a Organization Development program at Georgetown and we started every session for eight months with a mindful activity to help us be more centered and focused on the task at hand.
Once your firm, department, or team is on board, how do you actually implement a mindfulness practice? And where is the right place to engage in this practice? The answers are simple: anytime and anywhere.
Set a few ground rules for yourself and the group; this isn’t about emptying your mind; your mind will wander and thoughts will pop up. When you notice this, acknowledge the thought, and then guide your mind back to your breathe.
- find a good seat or stand,
- firmly plant your feet on the ground,
- sit up straight,
- relax your shoulders,
- rest your hand on your thighs,
- close your eyes,
- breathe, count maybe breathe in for the count of three or four, then try to exhale the same length of time,
- Repeat the breathing.
Breathe. Yes, it's that simple. Close your eyes and breathe deep. Breathe. Do this breathing 15 times or for the length of a song. Or try setting a timer on your phone to let you know when times up.
The trick here is consistency. It is better to do it for one minute daily, rather than 60 minutes once a week. This is not a pass-or-fail activity; you just practice.
It is normal to have thoughts cloud your mind; simply acknowledge them and move them to the side. If you need more help, there are apps with guided meditations, moving meditations, and a little something for everyone.
Tips to Help Cultivate a Habit of Mindfulness
- Take care of yourself first, so you can help with other things.
- Develop a mindset of gratitude and abundance.
- You don’t have to go to everything; there are enough people to share the responsibilities.
- Come to things with an open heart and open mind, particularly when it is a mandatory activity.
- Find your joy. Keep it close.
- Stop “should’ing” and “could’ing” yourself.
- Slow down.
- Be judicious about what you are agreeing to do. There is power in saying no.
Rachel Shields Williams is the senior manager of experience management at Sidley Austin. In her current role, she utilizes her 15 years of experience in marketing and business development to help lawyers and marketers understand how they can apply technology to their business development and marketing activities in order to increase their effectiveness, operational efficiency and get results.