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Are You a Law Warrior Burning the Midnight Oil? Research Says Stop

Sept. 28, 2021, 8:01 AM

“I’ll bang my memo out the weekend before it’s due.” “I’ll work all night on this deal.” “I’ll do nothing but work this weekend so I can bill enough hours.”

If that style of working sounds familiar, then it’s time to find a new approach that improves your efficiency and productivity.

Unfortunately, because you’re not a machine, working twice the hours won’t give you twice the output. Research shows your brain can only take so much focus at a time. That means you can’t sit in focused attention hour after hour just because of a looming deadline.

Parkinson’s Law suggests that your work will expand to take up as much time as you give it. Unfortunately, your brain can only handle a certain cognitive load before your memory suffers, your stress level spikes, and you start making errors. At that point, continuing to work will result in a tired brain and body, leaving you unprepared for the next day’s tasks. Connect enough of those bad days together, and a burnout cycle commences, often culminating in troubled sleep patterns.

But you have a ton of work to get done, right? And I understand that in a Big Law firm you may face incentives to work more hours at a stretch and less productively to reach a billable hour requirement.

Here are some tips to help you become more productive while facing those challenges.

Schedule Your Time

Create and use a detailed schedule including not only time for work, but also things like snack breaks, walks around the block, stretching or other exercise, healthy meals, and a specific and reasonable time to end your workday.

When it comes to scheduling, maybe you picture a joyless, Type A project manager whose life is scheduled down to the minute. You might think: “What kind of person needs to schedule a break to walk to the store to buy a Kind Bar?” The answer is: you.

Things like exercise, sleep, and meal planning are not self-indulgent luxuries—in fact, there is a direct correlation between them and the good cognitive health needed to succeed at work. Commit to these activities the same way you commit yourself to work and your productivity will benefit.

Put Your Cell Phone Away While You Work

I know, I know—you’re expected to respond to supervisors or clients immediately. Well, presumably those people want you to be efficient. Putting your phone in another room while you deeply focus on a task will allow you to accomplish that.

Every time your mind wanders, whether you pick up the phone or not, you are not focused on the task at hand.

Work for 50 Minutes

Research shows that 50 minutes is roughly the amount of time our brains can focus deeply before a short break is required. You can use one (not all) of your breaks to check email and social media. It may sound counterintuitive, but those breaks are essential to clear focus.

Not All Breaks Are Created Equal

Attention is restored through targeted breaks—even if they’re brief—activities like walking in nature. Physical movement unleashes creativity and problem solving because moving your body helps you think better.

If your “breaks” all involve sitting at your desk and checking email while you eat, you’re not reaping any cognitive benefits.

Choose a Time to End Your Workday; Stick to It

Avoid the warrior mentality of constantly working deep into the night. Working or even checking emails until you go to bed doesn’t allow your unconscious brain time to make connections or solve problems.

And, unless you put a hard stop to your workday, you won’t have time for family, friends, and activities that restore you. If you have a big deadline then consciously extend your workday; but don’t do so lightly.

“Humanity breaks” are critical for people in high-stress, demanding environments. We have to make conscious choices about work and all of the things that make us whole. So, where are the new productivity champions? Taking a walk.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owner.

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Author Information

Shailini Jandial George is a professor at Suffolk University Law School where she teaches legal practice skills. Previously, she was an attorney at Ryan, Coughlin & Betke LLP in Boston. She is the author of a new book, “The Law Student’s Guide to Doing Well and Being Well.”

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