Needing Movement

  • August 14, 2023

Dear Advy,

Any tactics or strategies you can recommend for a busy lawyer with no time to exercise? I feel like my mental health is in-check, but diet and exercise routine are heavily impacted by my crazy work schedule.

Needing Movement

Dear Needing Movement,

Uh, hello? You sound like me!

Please allow me to do one of the things I love to do, which is to challenge the untested assumptions. So we are “busy lawyers with no time to exercise.” Busy? Check. Lawyer? Check. “With no time to exercise”? Mmm.

Speaking for myself only, I can absolutely confirm that I currently make little time to exercise. I find time for many other things, including, in no particular order: checking emails, negotiating limitation of liability clauses, putting my son to bed, drafting cease-and-desist letters, cooking, checking emails, advising the CFO on financing issues, checking social media, reading to that little monster (my son, not the CFO, although I have done that too), eating, walking to a store to buy things I either really need or don’t need at all, checking email – oh, and did I mention checking email?

Anyhow, the point is – I decide what I have time for. And I know exercise is important to me. For years, I worked out daily; until a few years ago, where I just stopped. New job, pandemic, whatever the reason was – I stopped. Whether that was a deliberate choice or a thing that just happened, I stopped.

The fundamental suggestion here is to remind ourselves of one important fact: We have agency. We decide. Not our client; not our colleagues; not even our significant other. We decide. And as we do so, we should strive to balance competing pressures on our time from all these people who are not us with our own needs. And there can be a lot of joy in that.

Let’s play this out. If we assess that something fundamental to our existence (i.e., the health of our bodies, and in particular, as you put it, our diet and exercise routine) are “heavily impacted by our crazy work schedule,” then perhaps we can strive to balance those competing pressures. Are we willing to sacrifice our bodies for our work schedule? If so, then let’s make that a deliberate choice, and move on. (Many people do! As I write this, I am realizing I do not wish to be one of those – but that is just dear old Advy.)

If we are not willing to make that trade-off, then let’s look at what we can do about it. Here are a few select tips I have heard, which may or may not work for you:

  • Change your mindset about what constitutes exercise. Exercise isn’t limited to time at “the gym”. Getting into small simple habits can make a tremendous difference before you know it: printing to the farthest printer in the office, parking a little further away from the grocery store, walking to a meeting instead of driving, taking the stairs instead of the escalator, or asking a colleague to chat about a file while you walk. All of these things are readily available forms of movement.
  • Replace wearing pyjamas with wearing clean workout clothing. That way, I wake up in the morning and am already dressed for exercise. It’s amazing how the signal your body sends to your mind (“I’m dressed for X, so I guess I’d better go do that”) works to put what Daniel Kahneman labeled the brain’s “System 1” into service for fulfilling rather than obstructing your life plans.
  • Frame exercise in my mind as “listening to a podcast,” or if I’m going to a gym with television/streaming services available, “I’m going to watch that show I like to watch. It isn’t quite a lie because all the while that I’m enjoying said entertainment I also happen to be exercising, but it allows you to look forward to that time. To evoke Kahneman again, because I’m always curious what the next part of a story is, tying exercise to finding out what happens next in a story yokes System 1 into fulfilling, rather than obstructing, a good habit.
  • Incorporate exercise by attaching it to another habit you do without thinking. What if, every time you brushed your teeth, you did 10 squats? Or, before you got in the shower, you did 5 sit ups? Try putting a post it note on your toothpaste: that’s 10 squats you wouldn’t have done otherwise. Or maybe that’s a terrible idea and it will only create guilt: in which case, lose the post-it!

Let me underscore this last point about guilt. Whatever we decide, whatever strategy we implement, if it results in guilt, then we should revisit our decision. Guilt is the result of our realization that we have betrayed our own standards. Punishing ourselves for that “betrayal”, which is likely to be our impulse, will not help on the long term. What is helpful is to connect with the actual purpose of that emotion, which is to take care of our private identity. In other words, what will help is the fundamental suggestion I started out with: we have agency, we decide.

If something is not in alignment with what we want for ourselves (whether that’s not working out at all, or working out in a way that results in guilt or some other undesirable state), we can also remind ourselves that we have agency, and we can choose to adjust.

A couple months ago, I decided to take up yoga again, and aimed to go twice a week. So I should have gone… 9 times by now. I have gone only 6 times. And I feel guilty about it. What will I do? I will rethink whether this particular type of yoga, in that particular location, is what I need. Perhaps I can do yoga and something else. Or perhaps I can just do something else entirely. The bottom line is, I am able to find a way, if I so choose… and if I need the support of a family member, a colleague, a mentor, or anyone else, to keep me on track, I can seek that too!

Be well,

My friend’s invitation to challenge the assumption that “we don’t have time”: How to make the most of the time you have

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