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Health and wellbeing: Rest and reflect

Health and wellbeing: Rest and reflect

By Emily Knowles

Health Wellbeing 


Many lawyers have spent a lot of time in the survival zone this year so it’s important to take stock and recharge.

  • Use the upcoming break as a time to build up your personal war chest for meeting future demands.
  • Think about what’s worked this year – and what hasn’t. 
  • Be sure to implement the rest practices you know work for you and consider which new ones you’d like to start. 
  • Acknowledge your personal triggers and thresholds for dipping in and out of the performance zone. 
  • Build in more opportunities for rest in 2021 so you can steer clear of any long stay in the survival zone and minimise any visit to the burnout zone.

Polarising. That seems to be an accurate description for 2020. For some of us there’s been a slowing down – for others, a speeding up. You may have had more on your plate than ever before – or more time with your own thoughts to focus on just being. Whether it’s in the professional or personal spheres of your life, you’re likely to have been impacted. So how do we digest the year that was and prepare for the year to come? 

Here are some ways to reflect, make the most of the moment, and focus on the future.

Looking back

Neuroscience scholarship says our brain craves certainty, and for most of 2020 we haven’t had much of that. So, if certainty isn’t available to ease our brain, what else is? 

Reflection is an opportunity for “cognitive reappraisal” – a kind of reframing. The research tells us reflection can calm the activation of our limbic system – the part of the brain that houses emotion and memory and where we encode and store events. Typically, this process involves certain stages: reinterpreting an event, normalising the event, and repositioning the event in your mind (where you look at the event from another person’s position, or from your own perspective at another point in time).

If you’ve been “on the field” during 2020, what about stepping up to the metaphorical balcony and looking down on the field? The vantage point of perspective and psychological distance can be useful in guiding reflection. Reflecting with a framework is generally encouraged. (Harvard Business School published its recommendations on this earlier this year.)

Here are some structured questions you can ask yourself.

Reflection tips

  • What behaviour from 2020 can I stop/start/continue to better align myself with my goals or my values?
  • What went well? What didn’t go well? What could have gone even better?
  • What are the lessons I learned from 2020? 

Reflection can also promote metacognition – that is, thinking about thinking – which has been linked to psychological wellbeing, and also what it is to think like a lawyer. 

When used deliberately, reflection is a powerful tool. It’s a way to make sense of the past to increase our strategic self-awareness. Being able to reflect with purpose also provides a gateway to deeper zones of rest, recovery and reset.

To make the most of the holiday ahead we’ll need to switch gears. Making that switch requires a deliberate pause. Rest and recovery practices allow us to do just that. Getting the most out of time in the pause is the best preparation we can have for our next intentional role or environment. 

The impact on performance

We know that performance and wellbeing are intertwined. This connection is best summarised by four wellbeing zones: performance, survival, rest and burnout. Many of us have spent a lot of time in the survival zone this year (and the burnout zone too perhaps) so the rest zone is a vital space to visit and spend some time in over the break. But this vacation-based rest and recover strategy is not enough. Evidence tells us taking vacations should not be a person’s main restorative energy management strategy. Studies show that going on vacation does not have enduring effects on wellbeing. We also need to have rest practices that are an integral part of our regular lives.

The importance of recharge is also acknowledged in the law. And the rest practice of your choice is more about the psychological experience during recovery, rather than the activity itself. The psychological literature tells us that pursuing relaxation, mastery and/or detachment are what will create the optimum experience. A balance of movement, stillness and mindfulness is also recommended.

The positive psychology research shows that those practising in the legal profession have a natural tendency for pessimistic thinking that can be reinforced during a crisis. While this may have a professional advantage, as it’s linked to high prudence, it operates as a double-edged sword because it’s also a well-documented risk factor for both unhappiness and depression. Learned optimism has been offered as an approach to address the downside of this thinking style. Flexible optimism can be taught and studies have explored what this looks like in a legal environment. ■

Emily Knowles is a practising psychologist at The Human Link with a passion for lawyer wellbeing, having worked in the legal profession earlier in her career. For references contact

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