Lawyers, Don’t Let Perfectionism Ruin Your Health

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Attorneys are smart folks. But knowing something isn’t the same as doing it. When it comes to health, that is especially true for lawyers.

Most attorneys know that diet affects health, yet according to a study by the Center for Creative Leadership, half of attorneys rate their diet as unhealthy. More than 60 percent of lawyers are also not happy with their fitness level; a whopping 42 percent do not engage in at least an hour of aerobic exercise weekly.


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Why the disconnect?

Perfect Is the Enemy of Good Part of the answer lies in lawyers’ predisposition toward perfectionism. I often encounter lawyers who can only envision doing something if they can be all in. Doing something less-than-perfectly is seen as failure. When it comes to exercise and diet, this kind of thinking can set anyone up for failure because they will try to make big, grand changes at once, be unable to sustain them, and quickly quit in disgust.

Instead, approach incorporating exercise and healthier diet in small increments. Set low, achievable goals. Instead of training to run a marathon try walking 4 miles a week for three weeks. Rather than do a grand cleanse and opt for a vegan diet, maybe try to eat three meals daily that aren’t fast food or from the vending machine, and include some fresh produce.


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Using a personal trainer can help, as well. Setting an appointment with an expert on fitness gives you both accountability, and helps you set achievable goals for exercise and diet.

If you decide to go the exercise route by yourself, pick an activity that you inherently enjoy. I hear that some people actually enjoy running, but that certainly isn’t my style. My preferences run more toward graceful motion, such as aquarobics or qi gong. The important thing is to pick a form of activity that will feel like a respite, rather than one more thing on the to-do list that you really don’t want to do.

When you choose, remember that exercise is a form of stimulation. As lawyer Susan Cain points out in her book “Quiet,” introverts – about 75 percent of all lawyers – cannot tolerate a high stimulation level. Walking might be a better bet than bungee jumping for most attorneys.

When Work Gets Nuts When the pressure is really on in work life, lawyers tend to let their personal needs slide. That’s a big mistake that puts you on a downward spiral into stress and bad health.


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A looming trial date or big deal closing mean that exercise and good diet are more, not less, important. No one, not even attorneys, works better when fatigued and illnourished. Yet lawyers often use their erratic, unpredictable schedules as an excuse for not eating well or exercising. Again, this reflects a perfectionist attitude: If I can’t do my usual workout, or eat all the right things, I won’t do any of it.

Rather than fall into this trap, develop action plans for stressful work deadlines, before they are upon you. Some ideas:

  • If you can’t get to your regular exercise routine, incorporate five-minute walks every 90 minutes. Going outside is best, but if the weather won’t cooperate, walking around the office or up and down the stairs is great.
  • Make or buy healthy meals in advance that are, or can be, frozen, including breakfast. Trader Joe’s is legendary for superb frozen meals, such as flavored fish, gyoza and chicken dishes. Maybe hiring a personal chef for a week, or subscribing to Blue Apron and cooking on the weekends, will get you over the hump.
  •  Adopt an immovable appointment mindset for including some kind of movement and break time daily during high stress times. Block it off as untouchable in your calendar, and treat it like you would an appearance in the Sixth Circuit – only severe injury or true crisis is going to make you miss that. Your anxiety about revising a draft wouldn’t.

Your schedule may not always be in your control, but you can choose how to adapt to it. When it comes to diet and exercise, remember that doing a little better during stressful times beats doing nothing. All marathons begin with one step. Jennifer Alvey

Jennifer Alvey

Jennifer Alvey is a Duke Law School graduate and recovering lawyer in Franklin, who coaches lawyers on creating work/life balance in their out-of-control lives. She can be reached at [email protected].

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