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)