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February 17, 2015 article

Why You Should Sleep under Your Desk

By Kate Mayer Mangan

Practicing law in the twenty-first century is exhausting. Clients' needs are as intense as ever, but now we must also confront a nonstop flow of information and distractions. For most of us, "the way we're working isn't working," as Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, wrote. Tony Schwartz & Christine Porath, "Why You Hate Work," N.Y. Times, May 30, 2014. We're working harder than ever, but we're also more exhausted than ever and our to-do lists never seem to get any shorter. One of the keys to reinvigorating your work—and yourself—is counterintuitive: take more breaks, make them longer, and make them count.

Get More Done by Working in Sprints

A growing body of research indicates that people get more done and are less exhausted when they work in focused sprints interspersed by restorative breaks. In one recent study, Julia Gifford of the Draugiem Group used a time-tracking app to reveal the work habits of the most productive employees. Jessica Stillman, "The Magic Numbers for Maximum Productivity: 52 and 17," Inc. (Aug. 18, 2014). The study produced a surprising result: People who take a 17-minute break about every hour get the most done. You read that right. Taking a whopping 17 minutes off every hour may help you get more done.

The study suggesting the value of 17-minute breaks is not a fluke. Other studies also show that our brains need breaks to function well. See, e.g., "Brief Diversions Vastly Improve Focus, Researchers Find," ScienceDaily (Feb. 8, 2011). Our brains are like muscles, which get fatigued and need breaks. Phyllis Korkki, "To Stay on Schedule, Take a Break," N.Y. Times, June 16, 2012. Our brains are becoming increasingly stressed, as we are bombarded with the equivalent of 174 newspapers' worth of information every day. "Give Us Our Daily Data: 174 Newspapers in Your Inbox," Guardian (Feb. 11, 2011). Not only does this information assault tax us, it also makes us less creative and less productive—especially if we don't take breaks.

To be sure, it's not always practical to stop what you're doing every 52 minutes. Frequently, it's better to stop your project at a natural breaking point. The takeaway isn't the exact timing; it's that we have limited reserves and we need to replenish them in order to continue functioning at high levels.

Quality Check Your Breaks

The quality of your breaks matters. Before the Internet, a break necessarily was a break. Farmers and factory workers were either working or they were not. Not so with modern attorneys. Now we can easily take a phony break, staying seated at our desks and surfing the web. The problem with these false breaks, warns Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, is that daydreaming mode, the mode of a true break, happens only when you really let your mind wander and rest. When we tweet or post to Facebook or read CNN, our brains are still processing information. We need to hit the "neural reset" button by taking a walk, listening to music . . . taking a real break. Daniel J. Levitin, "Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain," N.Y. Times, Aug. 9, 2014.

When we take real breaks, we not only stave off fatigue, but we become more creative, something for which clients pay big bucks. When the brain enters daydreaming mode, it makes more connections between ideas and information. Levitin, supra. That's why people often have their best ideas in the shower or while walking the dog: they let their minds wander.

Naps, counterculture though they may be, are especially restorative. A nap can improve your memory and focus even more than a good cup of coffee. Ioana Patringenaru, "Take a Nap! Change Your Life," This Week @UCSD (Mar. 16, 2009). If you're a solo practitioner, you can implement the latest science on napping—even if traditional bosses would deem you lazy or unproductive. If you don't have an understanding boss, consider taking short, stealth naps. It's unlikely the boss will know, but your clients might appreciate the difference in the quality of your work.

Practicing law is strenuous cognitive work. You solve high-stakes problems, put together complicated deals, and process hundreds of pages of ideas. This work demands that your brain function at its highest level. And brains work best through alternating periods of focus and rest. Perhaps we should, to borrow from Thoreau, saunter a bit more each day. Henry David Thoreau, Walking (1862). We'd undoubtedly feel better, and science suggests we'd get more done at a higher quality, too.

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, productivity, creativity, cognition, rest, neural reset

Kate Mayer Mangan is with Donocle in San Diego, California.

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