Every journey starts with a first step and here we offer some practical ideas for getting the process of change under way.

Set your destination

Identify your destination before you start your journey – what do want? How will you know when you have it? What will it look and feel like? Take time to identify what you want your life to be, how you want to be working, what you want the outcome of the change to look like. Picture it mentally with large, sharp, bright and colourful images. Sense how it will feel. Keep it in your mind.

This will help you build your strategy to achieve your desired outcome. Understand that your subconscious mind is like a homing device, and once you have shone a spotlight on the destination you want to arrive at, your subconscious will guide you there. If you need support, techniques such as NLP and hypnosis are very powerful in supporting people to achieve their desired state, because they are able to harness the subconscious as a powerful resource to guide behavioural change towards a particular destination.

Whatever approach you take, identifying where you want to get to is essential.

Acknowledge what works when

All patterns of behaviour serve a purpose, but the context will determine whether that purpose is helpful or not. For example, some people are people pleasers and easily compromise. This can be helpful in team work or other situations where compromise has a positive value. But in other contexts it can be harmful, such as when the individual finds themselves unable to set firm boundaries and say ‘no’ to being over-worked because the pattern of compromise is too ingrained (we address the origins of this kind of behaviour below).

In our last article we listed some ‘rules of the tribe’ that barristers are taught to follow – not turning away work, burning the midnight oil, and so on. It is essential that you recognise and acknowledge the value that these rules have in supporting the growth of your practice, maintaining high standards, ensuring that clients’ needs are well-served, and so on. But following these rules in all contexts – such as when you are unwell, or when your diary is already full, or when it is your wedding anniversary – can be detrimental.

To change patterns of behaviour we therefore need to acknowledge the purpose that a particular behaviour serves, and to understand the contexts in which it is helpful, and when it is unhelpful. By acknowledging our behaviour as helpful in some way we can successfully integrate it into positive change.

So take time to understand when the rules of the tribe work well and support you, and when they do not.

Manage your time

Take control of your work diary. In our experience this is probably the single most important change that you can make, because much of the pressure of work at the Bar has its root in not having sufficient and appropriate time to undertake the work. Having appropriate time is important. You can create an additional eight working hours to finish writing an advice by not sleeping, but that is hardly appropriate if you want to perform at your best, deliver quality to your client, and stay well.

Try booking out in your diary, within the time given by the normal working day, every professional commitment – case preparation time, opinion writing time, preparation for meetings, time for practice development, time for thinking, and so on. This has a number of advantages:

Both you and the clerks can see the full extent of your commitments. Work clashes or other intrusions are less likely to happen.
Diarising time imposes discipline and focus without the stress that comes from consistently working against a deadline. Planned work is more likely to be successfully completed, and if commitments change, you are more likely to be able to control this successfully.
When work is allocated a future time slot for its preparation and completion, you do not have to worry about it in the present time. Your mind will know that the work has been diarised and it will be taken care of when the time comes. In the meantime you can forget about it. This can greatly reduce stress and anxiety.

Finally, if your practice allows it, block out every Monday morning. That way you can normally keep your weekend free, even if there is some overspill of work from the previous week.

Set clear and achievable goals

A common error in time management is to be over-ambitious and unrealistic about what you can achieve. You may feel that setting yourself challenging goals will motivate you, but if the goals are not achievable the opposite will be the effect.

If you have unclear or unachievable goals for your day, then the day’s work is never done. Work then gets taken home, or it spills into another day and interferes with other commitments. The result is a cycle of disappointment, feelings of inadequacy, and work can soon start to feel as though it is spiralling out of control – because it is.

"You can create an additional eight working hours to finish writing an advice by not sleeping, but that is hardly appropriate if you want to perform at your best, deliver quality to your client, and stay well"

By contrast, if you set clear and achievable goals every day, then there is a defined end to your day’s work, an end that you will reach. When you reach it, you can enjoy the feeling of satisfaction and achievement. You can relax.

Maintain good relationships

Good relationships are essential to wellbeing and hence the ability to maintain your performance in times of stress and pressure.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked the wellbeing of over 700 men, one group who were graduates of Harvard between 1939-1944, and another group who were growing up in the poorest areas and among the poorest families of Boston in 1939. Over that period, the subjects answered regular surveys, had their blood taken, their medical records assessed, and even – in more recent years – their brains scanned. Parents, wives and children of the subjects were also interviewed. The group reflected all walks of life, from factory workers to a US President. A good many of the men are still alive and still participating in the study to this day.

The study’s results are revealing. The key factor that determined people’s wellbeing was not status, money or fame; it was how satisfied they were with their relationships. According to Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study, good relationships make us happier and healthier. Good relationships support us in times of stress. Bad relationships add to our stress.

Many at the Bar find themselves regularly placing their work before their private lives. This is often said to be an inevitable consequence of being self-employed. Putting work before friends and family is also considered by many to be necessary to support a sustainable practice. But over time, the contrary is the case: not only is the practice of cancelling social engagements itself symptomatic of a stressful and uncontrolled work habit, over time it weakens the social ties that we need to support and protect us from being overwhelmed by the pressures and challenges of the work itself.

A healthy social life and strong, intimate relationships are ultimately supportive of your work.

Steps can also be taken within chambers to enhance the support between members. Some chambers have a room allocated for chambers lunch each day where everyone who is in can congregate for an hour to eat and talk, to look out for each other. Others have a pot of tea in one of the conference rooms every day at 4pm. A smile and a few words from a colleague can make all the difference, so why not try it. Sounds old fashioned? Maybe, but then dining at one’s desk is a painfully modern phenomenon.

Examine your personal patterns of behaviour

When you leave for work you carry with you the patterns of behaviour learnt from childhood. For example, the people pleaser referred to at the start of this article may well have learnt this pattern of behavior as a child in order to cope with a harsh and controlling parent: it was safer to go along with what the parent wanted rather than assert themselves and suffer the consequences of doing so. A colleague who is defensive and argumentative and takes feedback as a criticism may well have deep seated feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. This may be the result of an upbringing where they were made to feel that they were not good enough, perhaps by ambitious parents who were constantly pushing them to do more, and who could never fully acknowledge their child’s achievements or let them feel loved for who they are. As adults, these people become reactive and defensive as a means of protecting themselves, and they respond the same way as an adult in the office as they did as a child in the home.

Many of the stumbling blocks to change have their root cause hidden within these learned patterns of behaviour which have nothing to do with the workplace. If you find yourself unable to implement change and you are unsure why, you may find it helpful to work with a coach who can help you understand the wider system which influences your behaviour, and give you strategies to overcome the obstacles you face.

Change will bring wider change

We are each responsible for ourselves, and while we cannot and should not try to control others, our own behaviour resonates within the systems that we live and work in. As a lawyer you are part of the legal system. When you change, those around you will necessarily change, and in this way the system changes.

As Gandhi is famously quoted as saying: ‘As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him… We need not wait to see what others do.’

Gandhi was, of course, a barrister.

Contributors James Pereira QC and Zita Tulyahikayo