Learning the Art of Compartmentalisation and Integration
As a practising matrimonial lawyer, I find it almost impossible to separate work from life. Perpetuators have no “working hours” – our clients may experience trauma, helplessness and violence anytime round the clock. Apart from having to respond to clients urgently when they need it, it is also hardly possible to “segregate work from life” on an emotional level. Unlike commercial work which generally tends to be purely transactional, matrimonial work tends to involve issues which are closer to the heart and which makes it more difficult to approach it with a detached mindset.
But still, we must try. We owe it to our clients to be focused, objective and undistracted. We owe it to our family members who give us their greatest support in our jobs to spend time with them and be present for them. We owe it to ourselves to navigate this oft-said and discussed yet still ever-important question of work-life balance/integration.
In my time as a practicing lawyer, I did realise what is important for me – to be present with the people I am sharing my time with. This includes my family members, my partner, my friend, my colleagues, my bosses. Oftentimes, I have seen other members of the Bar get negatively affected by e-mails and notifications during dinners/social gatherings/events that they fail to stay present in a conversation. The look of being distracted can be quite apparent. It may even make your guest/family member feel guilty for spending time with you. I know that this is not how I wish to practice.
As a lawyer entering her fourth year of practice, I most certainly do not claim to be extremely conversant on how to practise in a sustainable manner. It remains a journey for me where I am constantly learning, refining and figuring out what works for me and my line of work. But I will humbly share what I believe has worked for me thus far, hoping that it may provide some personal tips on surviving practice.
Being Prepared to Work After-hours
I have come to terms that working after hours is an inescapable reality, perhaps even a necessary evil. There are days where all that needs to be done cannot be squeezed between 9am to 6pm, and that is okay. Denying that I need to work after hours and striving to clear all my work before the workday ends actually caused me more mental anguish and stress.
Once I accepted working after-hours is okay, I also take steps to “integrate” my work with life. I invested in a lightweight, 16-inch touch screen laptop from Lenovo (nope, not an advertisement) that I bring along with me wherever I go. Ofttimes, I find that it is more conducive for me to simply carve out a short bit of time to deal with an urgent matter as doing so removes the weight from my mind. Afterall, as a lawyer who started her career in the midst of COVID-19, working out of office is my norm.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that you should work 24/7 or that you should think about work whilst having a night out with friends. Working after-hours should be reserved for when a work product is so urgent it cannot wait, or when dealing with a client who may be overseas and time-difference simply calls for an urgent call after-hours. I have come to accept that the nature of legal work (whether contentious or non-contentious) is that there may not always be generous timelines in our client’s favour and we sometimes must work with a time crunch. That said, this hasn’t stopped me from trying to plan work in advance, admittedly with wildly varying degrees of success.
Compartmentalise Work from Life
I recall when I first stepped into the profession as a fresh-eyed legal trainee, I would see almost every work as urgent and make the decision to work after-hours to complete the work. I would later realise that this would not be sustainable at all.
Many months into my career as a practising lawyer, I gradually learnt the ability to prioritise urgent work, and objectively decide how long I need to and when I would complete a piece of work. Slowly, I learnt to convince myself that my thoughts about work can be compartmentalised away when I have a concrete plan to start on the said work.
I vividly recall a recent discussion I had with a group of lawyers on the ability to “compartmentalise”. Try not to work during the weekends or when you’ve ended the workday. Compartmentalise your life away from work. Don’t think about work when you’re at a gathering/eating dinner.
Unfortunately, that advice may not always work for me. I am quite keenly connected to my Outlook; my clients can contact me over WhatsApp / WeChat / Line, and I am usually a phone call away for my colleagues, bosses and clients. Gone are the days when work remained only in the office. How can we, in reality, compartmentalise our work?
Here’s my solution for consideration. I ask these questions – how urgent is this piece of work? Can I start on it the next working day? If not, can I start tonight after my dinner and finish the task so that my boss can review it tomorrow morning? What documents do I need to review and do I already have them at home?
I would make a mental note to myself on how I would compartmentalise my tasks. When would I focus and start on the work product, when I will temporarily forget about work and focus on spending time with my friends/volunteer my time/exercise.
Compartmentalising tasks allows me to focus on what needs to be done more effectively. If I decide to skip dinner to work on the draft e-mail that is not same-day urgent, I lose my ability to enjoy life after work or what is more commonly referred to, balance work and life. If I mentally thought about drafting the e-mail during my dinner, I lose the ability to be fully present during dinner. Mentally thinking about the draft e-mail does not make the draft appear either. Once I tell myself that I will focus and complete the task from 11pm–12am, I compartmentalise my work and not think about the work until then.
How Do We Draw the Line?
I believe that integrating my work with my life and compartmentalising work away from my life may not be diametrically opposed concepts. Integrating my work with life allows me to compartmentalise work better, because I know that urgent matters are dealt with. I can plan the rest of my time by scheduling when I should be enjoying activities out of work, and when I need to make sure work is done on schedule.
It is most definitely a learning journey and experience, and continues to be. I too sometimes struggle to decide and prioritise my work. I too sometimes forget that I need to leave time for myself. I too sometimes give up my plans and reason that with “I have too much work”.
I think that it can be very tempting to decide, every time a work product needs to be done, that I need to work after-hours to complete it. It does seem more straightforward to finish every outstanding work by putting in those extra hours after work. But I try to consciously tell myself that it is probably not sustainable to continuously work without taking appropriate breaks. Take the breaks, feel recharged, and start afresh.
It may be that there are other reasons that may contribute to high stress levels, making it difficult to compartmentalise tasks. “My boss is chasing me for it / I can’t stop thinking about the work / I prefer to finish it before I go home”.
I have come to realise that there would almost always be outstanding work that needs to be done, and can be done (to prepare for future timelines). I do believe that learning how to compartmentalise tasks to reduce the stress and anxiety from work rests on an acceptance that it is okay to have outstanding work. Letting go of the anxiety that accompanies the act of not completing something is key. I accept and know that there will always be work. But not all work needs to be done right away. Take deep breaths (literally) and ask myself, can this wait? When can I do it – tomorrow at 9am?
Thinking about work all the time creates chronic stress and pressure that is unhealthy. Compartmentalising work allows me to focus and work efficiently, which is good for my practice and works in my client’s favour. I would try to make a conscientious effort to remind myself of what is important and to re-calibrate my priorities.
Pursuing Interests and Hobbies
Apart from learning how to create time outside of work, I found it beneficial to start engaging in activities outside of work. A few months after settling into work, I slowly restarted my exercise regime to take part in Tchoukball trainings and competitions with my friends. I signed up to volunteer during the weekend and picked up new hobbies. From time to time, I would take part in competitions and performances to fulfil that innate desire for a sense of fulfilment that is not work-related. Whilst it requires some time-management, I found it useful to take part in in things that are not related to legal work to lift my mind away from work and feel recharged to go back to work.
If new hobbies/interests do not excite you, perhaps planning for overseas trips would, or planning a staycation, or planning for a day-out with your loved ones or your partner. I find that these activities help me be excited about life and spending time outside of work. Work excites me, but it is not the only thing that does so.
Above all, I do believe that taking care of our mental health and creating a sustainable practice that suits you is important, and a service we are doing for ourselves. Nothing beats being alive, happy and excited for what is ahead of us.