I went to Law School in the 1980’s when our hair was as large as both our fear of nuclear warfare and Sting singing patronising songs about it. Marks were un-bell-curved, jobs were plentiful and wellness in Law School simply involved staying away from the edge of the fountain during winter court-yard shows, lest you end up taking a dip courtesy of that drunk third year you’re dancing with (or so I’m told).
Fast forward thirty years and hair is flatter than the job market, fear of nuclear warfare is back and Sting is still writing annoying lyrics. But it’s the poor state of the job market that has made Law School more stressful than ever before. Although the practice of Law (or, indeed, working in any kind of professional capacity) has always been, - um, how shall I put this? - intense, the need for stress navigation skills arrives much earlier than it once did. So, although I missed some of that nerve-wracking aspect of university life, I didn’t miss out on the ‘working in a professional capacity’ stress. Here are my thoughts on how to help manage it.
Firstly, let me start with the boring practical stuff. It's a cliché but the first step to wellness really is looking after yourself physically. Taking care of the earthly vessel that carries you is important, and not just because you will need it for a likely (hopefully) 90+ year stay on the planet, but also because it makes life so much better while you’re here. My favourite teaching book, 'Naked Teaching" (**GOOGLE WITH CAUTION**) by José Bowen begins with a chapter on the importance of S.W.E.E.T. (i.e., Sleep, Water, Eating, Exercise, and Time). This sums it all up pretty well, I think.
The importance of sleep is getting increasing attention and we also know that, since the brain is about 90% water, drinking enough of it is crucial for good brain function. Keeping the crap food to a minimum helps, too. And we have to exercise to stay healthy and get the feel-good endorphins pumping. As Tim Minchin said in his wonderful UWA graduation speech a couple of years ago, the Human Movement people and their traffic cones were right, the pale, pasty, cigarette-smoking Philosophy students were not, as he exhorted everyone to ‘Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run!’ The final S.W.E.E.T. spot belongs to time. Regular breaks that allow us to re-charge are crucial. We're humans, after all, and humans are just not designed to keep going and going and going.
Maintaining physical health is important but is it enough? No way, José. It's just a starting point. To survive Law School it is also crucial to maintain mental health. So here are my tips for mental S.W.E.E.T.ness:
Stop trying to do everything all at once. When swimming about in a sea of overwhelm, it’s really tempting to skip around in a frenzy between ‘ALL THE THINGS TO BE DONE!!!!!!’ but multi-tasking is simply not effective – nothing gets done properly and you end up frazzled. It’s more effective to pick one thing, set a time limit to work on it, and focus only on that one thing. Rinse and repeat. It’s way more productive and less anxiety inducing. (I use the ‘Pomodoro technique’. So good. So effective. So tomato-y.)
What’s important to you? Make those things your priority. Remember that it is literally impossible to do everything perfectly and some things just have to take a backseat. Ask yourself what are the things that truly matter to you and try to do those really well. For the rest, say ‘no’ if at all possible or give them the minimum level of attention to meet basic requirements.
Empty – make sure you give yourself permission to enjoy empty time - whether it’s a brief five-minute meditation in the middle of the day, a weekly switch-off period from connectivity or a proper holiday – these thinking spaces in our lives are important.
Engage with the journey and try not to worry too much about the destination. You can’t control the future and there is no way of knowing what it will look like; all you can do is enjoy every day as much as possible. Incorporate joyfulness wherever you can (even if on some sucky days it’s just a really excellent cup of coffee).
Thankfulness – practicing gratitude is good for our mental health. Remember, the fact that you are in Law School and reading this means you are a) alive, b) literate c) not so worried about finding food to eat that you don't have time to read.This puts you in a very privileged position indeed. (And, if you’re born in the 1990’s, chances are you’ve never listened to a Sting album. Which already makes you luckier than a vast proportion of the world’s population.)
Stay well, S.W.E.E.T. Law students.
* Written for 'Blackbird 2017',the Blackstone Society's wellness magazine