Bar News - May 4, 2007
Why Being Selfish Isn’t Just a Good Idea; It’s Essential
By: Betsy Black
“In the event of loss of cabin pressure, put an oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others.”
I invite you to consider the broader meaning of this mantra commonly heard by passengers on airplanes. Airlines use this statement to remind people to set aside the charitable impulse to help others before taking care of yourself. This self-sacrificing quality is noble and is often very helpful for living in a civilized society, rearing children, and following moral or religious precepts. The reason the airlines make the pronouncement is obvious; if you try to put the oxygen mask on your child first, you may not have the ability to save yourself; therefore, you will be unable to help anyone else.
This principle of self-preservation is fundamental, and yet it trips many of us up again and again. For example, spending your time at 4 p.m. Friday afternoon planning thoughtfully for the following week and reviewing your accomplishments for the current week is arguably a wise and strategic use of your time.
What happens though when your child calls and says she wants to go over to a friend’s house but needs a ride, what do you do? The impulse may be strong to help your child and you may say to yourself your duty to your child is most important here. But is it? Is it an emergency? Is there another option for your child? Do you encourage your child to continually make such demands rather than to plan ahead or to make other arrangements?
Or, consider a client who presents unreasonable demands that you consistently work to meet without thinking of the consequences to your work flow, your family responsibilities, your rest and—ultimately—your overall effectiveness. Is always being responsive and helpful the most effective response? Do you have boundaries with this client about when you’ll respond to him or when you’ll complete tasks?
Observe whether you always, or too often, choose to help others at the expense of your own needs, whether that means being effective at work or having time to go to the gym at the end of the day. Part of the seduction involved in saying “yes” to others is that it may seem that you are being of the highest service. However, if you examine this premise you may find you are not being of the highest service.
There are no absolutes here. You must always balance the particulars of any given scenario. The act of choosing is key.
We have often heard an overstressed lawyer colleague saying “I can’t go on this way.” She reports consistently having too much work, with the result of working long hours at the expense of her health, her productivity, and her manageable stress level. If she begins to focus on the most essential work, focusing on activities which are the most important for her clients and delegating and re-prioritizing work, she will be more productive and have more time to devote to personal activities.
Author Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talks about these choices in terms of four quadrants. Quadrant one activities are those which are important and urgent. Typically, taking a call from a client or returning calls in a timely fashion fall into this category. Quadrant two activities are those which are important and not urgent. Planning and strategic thinking fall into this category, and typically require significant self-discipline and focus. Responding to people demanding your immediate attention can be very distracting quadrant three activities, which are urgent and not important. Quadrant four activities are neither important nor urgent.
Most simply, quadrant two activities are self-driven, long-term investments in your productivity, while the other three quadrants are the demands constantly placed on you from the outside, which may or may not comprise the best use of your time.
Best-selling author Cheryl Richardson puts it this way: “Put yourself at the top of the list,” (Take Time for Your Life). Richardson promotes a term of art—radical self-care. By this she means that your happiness and success as a human being are in direct proportion to the degree of excellence with which you take care of yourself. When I use the term self-care, I mean activities which support you, such as healthcare, exercise, rest, relaxation, strategic use of time, spiritual practices, creativity, spending time with loved ones, pleasant times with friends, hobbies, doing nothing, and anything else that makes you glad to be alive.
Another way to look at self-care is to ask: If you looked at yourself from a third-party perspective, are you proud of the way you treat yourself? Would you treat a loved one the way you treat yourself? If the answer to either question or both is “no,” I urge you to take better care of Number One. You’ll be happier, more successful and a whole lot more fun to be around.
Betsy Black, J.D., A.C.C., is an accredited life coach and lawyer who’s left the practice of law. Contact her at email@example.com or call her at 603-228-6195.