You know the feeling. As a hard-working lawyer and parent there are constant demands on your time and energy. It can feel relentless and samey, day after day – the pressure of putting on the game-face, closing deals, meeting targets, attending meetings – whilst at the same time trying to meet your family and personal obligations – frantically keeping the domestic plates spinning alongside the work ones. It’s no surprise, then, that although most of the time, you manage to keep all the plates moving, occasionally, you might feel that it’s all too much and you drop one. You might feel physically and mentally drained, demotivated, irritable and negative. Your performance might suffer. In other words, you might experience an ‘off’ day. But ‘off’ days are not acceptable for high-achieving lawyers, right? So how do you get rid of these ‘off’ day feelings that seem to stop you from performing to the best of your ability?
In short – you can’t!
What you are experiencing is entirely normal. Everyone has ‘off’ days – and you are particularly susceptible if you are combining a high-level, high-pressure job with other competing and equally important (and repetitive) obligations. A global survey of 2500 people by Happiness in the Workplace Academy Woohooinc revealed that a whopping 47% of employees admit to having an off day at least once a week or more, whilst only 6% say they never have them at all. And the super successful admit to having them too! All of my high-achieving corporate law clients, without exception – have described these regular periods of fatigue, stress and demotivation. A recent book by Alex Pang, “Rest – Why You Get More Done When You Work Less” documents how super achievers through history have managed their performance. Winston Churchill used to take daily naps to stave off exhaustion, Darwin and Dickens used to ‘work’ only 4 hours a day, whilst filling the remaining hours with exercise, rest and hobbies, – and Bill Gates takes 2 week retreats in solitude every year to ‘think’ and recharge his batteries. The only difference with these super-achievers is that they acknowledge that constant high performance is not possible to maintain 24 hours a day, 52 weeks a year. Rather than dismissing these feelings, they work out effective ways to mitigate their own personal ‘off’ periods or dips in performance, so that when they are working, they are performing at their peak.
So what’s going ‘on’ with your ‘off’ day?
Beyond your control.
Often, it’s a combination of factors. Sometimes it’s things you can’t control – hormones, external issues like high-pressure events (moving house, divorce, changing jobs, illness etc) – and even things as mundane as gloomy weather can have a big impact on your mood, physical health and attitude on a day-to-day to basis. Numerous studies have shown that a lack of sunlight and Vitamin D can have adverse effects on mood. So don’t beat yourself up if you feel lacklustre and unmotivated on a cold, overcast day, or irritable and stressed when confronting or experiencing challenging events you have no control over. It’s to be expected.
There are also other factors to consider. Some people may naturally have more energy than others but no-one is actually a superhero! Your body has its own clocks and rhythms which regulate how and when you need proper sleep or rest between activities (chronobiology is the scientific discipline that covers this topic and is fascinating. (Read more about it here). Nobody’s bodily rhythms keep them active, positive, and performing well 24/7 though. There are peaks and troughs/ebb and flow throughout the days and weeks. But our hyper-connected modern world doesn’t really allow for any of these natural rhythms. The corporate law working day doesn’t care whether you feel energised between 9 and 11 and need to rest and recuperate from 11-12 when you are due to give a presentation. When you yawn as it gets dark at 9pm, your circadian rhythm may be quietly suggesting that you go to bed – but you know you have work to finish before the morning and so stay up and work into the small hours. You were actually really hungry at 4, but ate a sugary snack to keep you going and then missed dinner when you were too tired to cook at 8. Your body yearned for a solitary walk in the fresh air, but you had to get on with cooking the kids’ tea and sorting out their homework instead. All this is fine and part of complex modern working and family life of course! But continually bypassing or ignoring your natural rhythms of activity and rest in this way will eventually have repercussions, cause problems, and yes, you’ve guessed it – ’off’ days!
How to deal with an ‘off’ day.
1. Firstly and most importantly – let yourself off the hook. Give yourself permission to have an ‘off’ day. Don’t recriminate yourself and remind yourself that other people have them and that they will pass – all the more quickly if you allow yourself some time for self-compassion and self-care. See an ‘off’ day as a chance to pause and set the reset button.
2. If you are able – take some ‘down-time’. If you can take a few hours/a day off work – do. If you can get someone else to do the childcare/drop-offs/cooking – do. If your ‘off’ day can really become a day off then let it be so. If not, plan something in for the near future.
3. Tune into your body. If you are tired or feeling run-down, is it trying to tell you something? (Have look at my recent blog – Your Body Speaks – Why Don’t You Listen?). Have you been getting enough sleep/exercise/time alone? Are you eating properly? If you identify any problem areas here – try and introduce some small changes. Research shows that a small amount of even low-intensity exercise can have a positive affect on mood and alertness and also on relieving stress. Likewise, Matthew Walker’s ground-breaking book, Why We Sleep, The New Science of Sleep and Dreams will leave you in no doubt whatsoever about the importance of quality sleep for physical and mental health and wellbeing – and even longevity. Try and get these basic physical things right, or at least better, and the rest will follow.
4. Be your own champion. It is tempting when you have an ‘off’ day to feel very negative about yourself. To blame and wallow. Try not to do this. Talk yourself up – even if you don’t feel like it. Research suggests that people who engage in positive self-talk have better health benefits – possibly because they develop the mental aptitude that allows them to problem-solve, think flexibly, and be more effective at overcoming hardship or meeting challenges. This can mitigate the dangerous effects of anxiety and stress.
5. Write things down.
“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” – Francis Bacon, Sr.
Writing things down on your ‘off’ days can help. It gives clarity and objectivity and can give you some insight into why you are feeling the way you are. If it helps, keep a journal (See my blog on this here.) – this can help you organise your thoughts and recognise patterns and rhythms in your mood and emotions. Sometimes getting it off your chest – and out of your mind and onto ‘paper‘- is all you need to make you feel less burdened!
6. Do something comforting. Whatever makes you feel calm and happy – be it snuggling in an armchair to read a trashy novel, sitting under a tree and listening to the birds or wallowing in the bath. Do what makes you feel good in the moment.
7. Get organised. Sometimes it’s sheer chaos and mess that makes us feel stressed and negative about our lives. However organised and ‘tidy’ we are, life, work and family often get in the way and mess and disorder can accumulate. A report in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, revealed that women living in a cluttered home showed higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. (I can well believe it!). Try some simple tidying/decluttering to help calm your mind (and see my blog on physical and mental decluttering here).
8. Do one thing. If you are having a seriously ‘off’ day – you may not feel capable of doing anything but staying in bed. If you feel this low then just try to make it to your minimum baseline – the thing you would automatically do to function – be it brushing your teeth and hair or walking the dog. Doing one ‘normal’ activity will keep you functioning and help to make you feel more ‘normal’.
9. Prioritise. What if your ‘off’ day is not an option? If you have a big presentation to give, or a deal to close? If you can’t hide under the duvet or take half a day off for a massage? In that case, be kind to yourself. Focus. Limit yourself to caring and worrying about that one important thing and forget the rest. Try to get a partner/friend or colleague to take up some slack on your other responsibilities. Before you know it, the challenge will be over and you will have come through the other side. Your ‘off’ day will pass – and you’ll live to fight another.
10. What if the one-off becomes a series? As I said earlier in the blog, ’off’ days are entirely normal and nothing to worry about. If your one-off ‘off’ day turns into a series of them though, it might be time for more serious reflection. If you are feeling continually low, lethargic or irritable, it might be a sign that you are depressed or need to do some deeper work on your life. It might be that your daily life is not aligning with your inner values or that you are not making sufficient progress towards your goals. Perhaps you haven’t even properly identified any inner values, deeper purpose or goals? In which case, looking into these areas could be of great benefit. Start by looking at my blog on how to identify your values (Finding Your Why). I can also help you identify your inner drivers through my Having it all coaching programme – contact me email@example.com for more information.
Tune into my podcast this week to hear more of my thoughts on why your ‘off’ days should become your days off. And remember – allowing yourself an ‘off’ day and actively deciding to take care of yourself when your body and mind are craving it – can only be good for your physical and mental health, energy, and performance in the long run.
Til next time!