How to balance your work and life commitments as a woman barrister

Health & wellbeing
June 2022

Written by Anya Smirnova, founder of Smirnova Coaching.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” - Mary Oliver

I often coach smart and successful women who feel trapped in a cycle of perfectionism, trying to do it all instantly and flawlessly. These women fall victim to their own strengths – approaching things logically and with immense capability. Being a lawyer and self-employed only reinforces this behaviour of taking on more and more commitments and approaching all tasks with a self-imposed standard of excellence. Before too long this becomes a habit with the inevitable consequence that you lose the ability to discern what is impactful and fulfilling and what is trivial and draining. It doesn’t feel quite right, so you read wellbeing advice and create a list of things you *think* you need for a balanced life: flexible working, family time, meeting friends, exercising at 5am while still squeezing in me-time, and hoping to get enough sleep during your next holiday. Before you know it, you’re running around ticking off all those things from your “balanced life” to-do list and, in reality, you don’t feel at all in balance.

Sadly, many women reach burnout before they realise that things need to change. So let’s take stock before you reach that stage. A happy life is within reach, but you just need to stop and observe yourself.

Two fish are swimming along, and one happens to jump above the water and says, "Look at all this water!" The other one looks at the first fish and goes, "What the hell is water?" 

Firstly, step back from your relentless daily cycle and take the time to truly observe your life. Create a time and environment that puts you in a self-reflective mood and ask yourself:

  • What is my vision of a fulfilling life? Don’t confuse it with feeling good. Some very challenging things in life can also be very fulfilling. Fulfilment is about being fully alive and feeling whole.
  • What is my biggest fear?
  • If you were to imagine yourbirthday party and you’ve lived a fulfilling life with few or no regrets, who would be at your party? What would these people say about you? What would you be celebrating about your life? What had brought you the deepest joy and deepest satisfaction?

The second step is to start making choices. Finding that balance is not about becoming a time management ninja (though it helps) to get more things done, it is about how to get the *right things* done. 

  • Are you choosing to give your time to things that create the biggest impact in your life? 
  • Are you taking on matters and clients you enjoy working with? 
  • Reflect on the way you spend your time - what emotions and life memories does this time create? 

The same amount of working hours in an environment where you feel inspired and valued will uplift you, while a mundane job or one where you feel disregarded will exhaust you. Ten minutes of heartfelt play with your child will become the highlight of the day while an hour of educational activity that you carefully planned, but which holds no interest for your child will be draining for both of you.

You are your most important tool – hone it. I know from personal experience, that many women override their needs, starting from skipping a meal when you are hungry, compromising on your sleep even though you are tired, or always doing “the right thing”. By overriding what feels right for your body or ignoring your own intuition, you numb your internal compass.  In no time you become used to living with exhaustion and feelings of dissatisfaction. You even go on courses to relearn intuitive eating.

Your work might not suffer because you are smart and capable. The professional world tends to focus on performance, so you don’t therefore think there is much wrong with the personal downsides that come with that the negative impact on your health and happiness.

  • Every time you start something, ask yourself what is the most important thing I can do now? Listen to what your inner voice is telling you and trust yourself. 

For example, the other day Lori, my business partner, mum of two, lawyer and founder of Mindful Return, said that when she had a one-hour meeting cancelled, she had the choice to either tick off 3-4 things of her to-do list or join the Mindful Return community call I was leading to recharge, and she chose to recharge. Don’t override your internal signals.

The third step is to create structures to reinforce your new choices:

  • Define what is your new normal working pattern and defend it. Announce it, control your diary, block out time for lunch and take weekends off the table.
  • Start a mindfulness practice to reconnect with your internal compass – relearn to listen to that inner voice that knows exactly what is right for you.
  • Start every day with a question: “What is the most important thing I can do today?” I write mine the evening before on an index card.
  • Pause more and ask yourself this question: “Am I moving toward or away from my best life?” Create an escape and review practice, e.g. a monthly day of self-reflection alone or with a friend, or working with a coach. Coaching is a confidential safe space and coaches are trained to help you reflect on your life, make resonant choices, develop structures and hold you accountable.

Finally, a word of warning. Once you discover that feeling of living purposefully in balance with yourself, you cannot unlearn it. A voice inside you will be whispering when you are trading in your balance for fear of change, convenience, or money. (Interestingly, money is also a relative concept, ask any trader. What matters is not how much you have but what that money can buy.)

Now, go and live your biggest life of no regrets!

P.S. If you like books, these two are my favourite on the topic of finding balance: “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time” by Brigid Schulte and “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown.

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