Your Best Time for Thinking

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Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

Before I was a lawyer, I had a regular office job for several years. And, in many ways, skills I learned in that first job have translated to my lawyer job. For example, working in an office is working in an office—it involves getting along with people, navigating office politics, figuring out who can help you resolve technical difficulties, and finding the secret stash of the best pens. One of the most profound differences, however, has been the amount of time I now spend thinking. Thinking is hard work, and I can’t engage in intense thinking without breaks. For this reason, I now plan my daily schedule around key thinking time (with breaks).

Know when you’re at your best

I have been a morning person my entire life. For years, I was the first kid to fall asleep at every slumber party. Now, if I need to draft a brief, analyze a legal issue, or draft a thoughtful letter, I know that I will be speedier, more effective, and even more creative if I carve out morning time for these tasks. And, it turns out that research is backing up my intuition. The Wall Street Journal recently reported: “A growing body of research suggests that paying attention to the body clock, and its effects on  energy and alertness, can help pinpoint the different times of day when most of us perform our best at specific tasks, from resolving conflicts to thinking creatively.”

In fact, disrupting your body’s normal rhythms (like, say, pulling an all nighter) is linked to all sorts of problems including diabetes, depression, dementia and obesity.

To cater to my body’s preferences, I schedule my most difficult tasks for the early morning (between 7am and 10am) and schedule less intensive tasks (including meetings and organizational tasks) for the afternoon when my brain may need a rest. Exercise needs to go at the end of the day when I don’t need to think. Of course, your schedule may be different. My husband functions most effectively between 7 and10 pm each evening. I maintain, however, that peak performance requires planning around your body’s ideal schedule.

Take breaks

I find that my ability to concentrate intensely has a half life. If I really need to focus, I get up early and can work hard for four hours, then I need a break. After some food or a walk, I can focus again for about 2 hours, then I need a second break. One last hour is usually possible, but then I usually need a night’s rest to reengage the little gray cells. Of course, in litigation, this schedule isn’t always possible, but I know that it’s my ideal. And, with a little advance planning, it is usually doable.

In law school, I was amazed when friends would study for 12 to 14 hour stretches. Before exams, I would study for about 7 hours a day, and then see a movie at night or enjoy a dinner with my husband. I knew that my brain needed time to absorb the work I’d put in. Even now, I know that I will have new insights about a brief or a legal issue if I walk away for a while. Sometimes a new organizational structure or argument will hit you when you least expect it. The trick is to leave time for the latent processing.

Get enough sleep

When I do not get enough sleep, my brain feels like a giant old theatre in which the lights of different sections (the orchestra, the balcony) are slowly being turned off. The reported dangers of not getting enough sleep are not new. But recent studies are honing in on those dangers more precisely: a new 2012 study confirmed that not getting enough sleep increases the risks of diabetes and obesity. And, of course, not getting enough sleep affects job performance. It can result in bad decision-making and a lack of productivity—two of very reasons that our clients engage us.

I love my job because it requires intense thinking, but thinking is hard work, and the brain needs periods of rest to perform. Litigation schedules sometimes demand quantity at the expense of quality time. While this is inevitable, it is also helpful to know and identify your personal ideal work schedule.  Trying to walk the line is better than not knowing where the line is. 

(photo: Hand under blanket reaching out for alarm clock from Shutterstock)

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  • menachem

    As a 2L I pinpointed my optimal time to study and got great results. Yet we don’t alwas have the luxury of choosing when we really need to focus. In any case what do you think the role of stimulants play, assuming you use them? Should they be used at peak performance time, or when the productive window is closing?

    • Sybil Dunlop

      Good question, and I’m sure people have different answers that work for them. Coffee is pretty much the only stimulant I use. I rely on coffee when I need to work in the evening and would otherwise fall asleep. The problem with coffee late in the day, however, is that it can keep me up all night. If I know that simply working until 10 pm will solve the issue, I will try to hold off so that I can get my good night’s sleep.

  • Sybil: Excellent recommendations. An additional resource on this subject, and related areas, is John Medina’s book “Brian Rules.” In the book, Mr. Medina provides a huge amount of actionable information regarding how we work best. Though his intent in writing the book was to sway the educational and corporate worlds into different ways of doing things, I found the information very pertinent to how lawyers work.

    I’ve also written on the subject. My most recent post titled “10 & 2: The Rhythm of Productivity” recommends slicing the day into three segments – morning for productive efforts, mid-day for collaborative efforts and late afternoon for administrative efforts. The idea is to align your state of mind with the things that need to get done. The post can be read at http://www.quietspacing.com/organizational-skills/10-2-the-rhythm-of-productivity/