Effects of lack of sleep
In addition to being linked to an increase in diabetes, obesity, heart disease and depression, studies have shown that lack of sleep affects performance in a comparable way to alcohol impairment. After being awake for 17 to 19 hours, performance levels are similar to those in subjects with a blood alcohol level of 0.05% in hand-eye coordination, speed and accuracy performing tasks. Sleep deprivation impairs focus and concentration and negatively impacts alertness. Insomnia can also cause memory loss.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, not getting enough sleep can cause trouble with learning and focusing, making decisions and solving problems, as well as accurately judging other people’s emotions and reactions. Sleep deficiency can take an emotional toll, resulting in irritability, frustration, difficulty controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change. It may take longer to complete tasks, or to complete them accurately.
In short, lack of sleep, particularly over extended periods of time, will certainly have a negative impact on lawyers’ ability to perform crucial job functions and serve clients well.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have made things worse. In February 2021, the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published a paper in which they concluded that 40% of the general population suffered from sleep problems during the pandemic. Law firms and other legal organizations are still wrestling with what work will look like in the future, while lawyers continue to struggle with setting boundaries and separating work and home responsibilities.
How to get better sleep
If you’re one of the many lawyers not getting sufficient sleep, all is not lost. There are steps you can take to improve your sleep.
First and foremost, set a regular sleep schedule—and that includes weekends. Having a consistent bedtime helps create a stronger circadian rhythm and helps you to feel more alert. It also helps your body to produce melatonin, which helps you to fall asleep.
Develop a pre-bed routine to get your body—and your bedroom—ready for sleep. Make sure the room is quiet, dark and cool. Do some relaxation or deep breathing exercises or put on a white noise machine. Ban the screens from the bedroom; smartphones, tablets and even televisions emit blue light that can interfere with sleep. Develop a habit of stopping screen use at least 30 to 60 minutes before bed to signal to your body that you’re ready to go to sleep.
Stay away from the snooze button. It may feel like you’re getting extra sleep, but those short 10-minute bursts between snooze alarms aren’t enough time to provide quality sleep—and may end up making you feel groggier than if you had just gotten up at the first alarm.
Light has a significant effect on your sleep quality. Making sure the room is dark for sleep is only half of the equation. It is important to get light during the day. Exposure to bright light when you first wake up is another way to influence your circadian rhythm. If possible, get outside during the day to benefit from vitamin D.
What you eat and drink during the day—and when—can influence your sleep quality. Regular mealtimes can also help your body to produce melatonin. Finish eating two to three hours before bedtime to allow your body to digest so it can focus on sleep when you go to bed. Limit alcohol consumption, which can help you fall asleep but interfere with sleep quality. Drinking caffeine first thing in the morning can inhibit your ability to benefit from the natural cortisol your body produces when you wake up to help you feel alert, and you should limit or eliminate caffeine after 3 p.m. The best time to drink caffeinated beverages may be in the late morning when you start to feel an energy drop. Drinking more water throughout the day can also help improve your energy levels and make you feel more alert.
Work with your body’s natural cycle. The human body was designed to work on a cycle of rest and activity; it wasn’t designed for extended periods of concentration and productivity. Build breaks into your day. Get regular exercise (but don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as it could interfere with sleep). Pay attention to the times of the day when you feel most alert and focused and when you feel the most lethargic, and try to schedule focused work at the times of day when you feel the most energized.
No matter how hard you try, sometimes it is impossible to get a good night’s sleep. For example, if you have a newborn at home, have a different sleep schedule than your partner, or if you simply must work late some nights, you may not get sufficient sleep. Before that lack of sleep affects your performance or service to your clients or you fall asleep in court or during a client meeting, try working a nap into your day. It may be easier if you are working from home than if you work in a traditional office setting, but if you have a comfortable chair, can shut your office door and turn off the lights during the day, or if you can retreat to an unused office or conference room (or even your car), you may be able to avoid some of the more severe effects of lack of sleep.
One more thing to consider: Whether you think you get enough sleep or not, you may want to consider getting a sleep tracker to make sure—especially if that tracker can also track sleep quality. Most adults are bad at estimating how much sleep they actually get every night. One study showed that chronic restriction of sleep to six hours or less per night produced cognitive performance deficits equivalent of up to two nights of total sleep deprivation, and that “even relatively moderate sleep restriction can seriously impair waking neurobehavioral functions in healthy adults.” Perhaps more disturbing was the finding that the subjects of the study “were largely unaware of these increasing cognitive deficits.”
It’s time to change the mindset around sleep in the legal profession. Lawyers who make getting a good night’s sleep a priority aren’t lazy, and they aren’t failures. That good night’s sleep may just make them better lawyers.