Too busy to work

I’m very busy!” Ask a lawyer how they’re doing, what they’re up to these days, some sort of vague question like that, and they’ll almost certainly say “I’m very busy” or something similar, maybe even something more dramatic, such as “I’m going out of my mind with all the work, it just keeps pouring in” accompanied by a nervous shake of the head and possibly a wringing of hands.

Too busy to work
Philip Slayton
I’m very busy!”

Ask a lawyer how they’re doing, what they’re up to these days, some sort of vague question like that, and they’ll almost certainly say “I’m very busy” or something similar, maybe even something more dramatic, such as “I’m going out of my mind with all the work, it just keeps pouring in” accompanied by a nervous shake of the head and possibly a wringing of hands.

It’s a point of pride for a legal professional. To be in demand is to be successful. Never mind that some of the work is busy-work or complete junk and that your accounts receivable are in sorry shape, and that more than likely a lot of those receivables will have to be written off. Never mind that maybe it just isn’t true that you’re busy. Whatever happens, you can’t admit to anyone that you are idle. To have time on your hands is an admission of failure. Maybe, you muse, with your office door shut, your head in your hands, nobody loves you — not potential clients, not your partners, not anyone. That thought, particularly the bit about potential clients, makes you feel as if a cold hand is gripping your innards.

And it’s not just that nobody loves you. Since, in the legal profession, time spent turns into cash coming down the pike, you’ll likely suffer economic hardship (it’s all relative) if you’re not busy. The prospect of buying that BMW 7 series, maybe even the BMW i8, the car you really want, is receding well into the distance. Not being busy is a disaster not just to your pride but also to your wallet.

And, finally, the biggest point of all: If you admit you’re not busy, you’re letting your side down big time, existentially speaking. The admission of underemployment puts a dent in the Master of the Universe image that lawyers like to portray, the image of the heroic warrior who never sleeps, the jurisprudential goliath who stands astride the world. Maybe you’re just an ordinary, frail, nervous person after all . . .

But let’s say you’re not faking it, you really are “very busy,” you are working 60 or 70 hours a week, week after week and it’s good work, serious work, for real clients who will pay the crazy huge bill that results. Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that what you should be doing?

No, it’s not. Working hard is bad for you. Really bad.

The literature is clear: Overwork, generally defined as consistently working more than 40 hours a week, leads to chronic stress and anxiety, substance abuse, sleep disorders, a weakened immune system, depression, weight gain, hypertension, heart disease, chronic fatigue and diabetes. Also — a consequence not to be overlooked — working too hard can kill you. The Japanese have a word for it — “karoshi.” A recent study found that in 2012 more than 800 Japanese families were compensated by insurance companies for “karoshi deaths.”

Finally, of course, overwork is counter-productive. As a 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review said, “. . . the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.” As the famous proverb says, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” And the same thing, mutatis mutandis, applies to Jill. It’s a kind of moral bankruptcy.

These dire warnings apply to what we think of as traditional legal work — shuffling papers around, endlessly drafting factums or contracts or opinions, attending mind-numbing meetings.
There’s another kind of “work” that isn’t exactly work (you can’t bill for it) that has good consequences, activity that is calming, detoxifying, extraordinarily pleasant, enhances physical and mental health and, ironically, also increases our ability to do traditional work well.

In July 2016, Michael Shear wrote an article in The New York Times about how then-U.S. president Barack Obama spent his evenings in the White House by himself in his study, doing the traditional work kind of things a president has to do, for sure, but not just those things. Shear emphasized the contemplative nature of Obama’s time alone. “Mr. Obama calls himself a ‘night guy,’” he wrote, “and as president, he has come to consider the long, solitary hours after dark as essential as his time in the Oval Office . . .” Sometimes, Shear tells us, after dark, the president read novels. Books, Obama has said, allowed him to slow down and get perspective. His favourite novels include Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward.

George Shultz was former president Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state in the 1980s. He insisted on time for quiet reflection, what came to be known as the “Shultz Hour.” He told his secretary to interrupt him only if one of two people called — “my wife or the president.” In Michael Lewis’ new book, The Undoing Project, about the intellectual relationship between two Israeli psychologists, he quotes one of them as saying, “You waste years by not being able to waste hours.” Daniel Levitin of McGill University has written that daydreaming “is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that previously seemed unsolvable.” David Leonhardt reviewed these ideas and comments in The New York Times editorial pages this past April and urged wide adoption of the Shultz Hour. “Even before smartphones, this country’s professional culture had come to venerate freneticism,” he said. “How often do you hear somebody humble-brag about how busy they are?” Leonhardt argues that society needs more laziness and time for reflection. “They are the route to meaningful ideas in any almost any realm: personal relationships, academic papers, policy solutions, diplomatic strategies, new businesses.”

So, forget this “I’m very busy!” stuff. It’s no badge of honour or achievement. Be lazy. Daydream. It’s good for you. You’ll be happier. And you might also, strangely, be a better lawyer for it. Maybe you can have it both ways.

Philip Slayton is working on a new book about freedom in Canada.

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