chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


The Most Important Hours of Your Day

James Martin Truss


  • Research has shown that going 17 to 19 hours without sleep affects people as much or more than having a 0.05 percent blood alcohol content.
  • Six hours of sleep is widely cited as the bare minimum for optimal health in average adults.
  • Attorneys are among the most sleep-deprived groups of professionals.
The Most Important Hours of Your Day
anastas_ via Getty Images

If you ever pulled a true all-nighter to finish a project in college or law school and you didn’t have the luxury of sleeping the entire next day to recover, you know just how heavy a toll one night of sleep deprivation takes on your body and mind. Research has shown that going 17 to 19 hours without sleep affects people as much or more than having a 0.05 percent blood alcohol content. Motor-response speeds were shown to be as much as 50 percent slower for some tests, and accuracy measures were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol consumption. A M Williamson & Anne-Marie Feyer, Moderate Sleep Deprivation Produces Impairments in Cognitive and Motor Performance Equivalent to Legally Prescribed Levels of Alcohol Intoxication, Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 57(10), 649–655 (2000). Though all-nighters in the practice of law are exceptionally rare for most of us, even moderate sleep deprivation can seriously affect cognitive function and physical performance, making an already demanding job just that much more so. In addition to the immediate physical effects of sleep deprivation, practicing law also becomes riskier with the increased likelihood of mental errors or fatigue-induced neglect. 

Although many sources suggest seven to nine hours of sleep for adults to achieve peak performance, six hours of sleep is widely cited as the bare minimum for optimal health in average adults. For many lawyers, getting fewer than six hours of sleep is a periodic and unavoidable reality of the demanding practice of law. For others, it is much easier to count the days in a week with more than six hours of good sleep, with regular sleep deprivation being the norm and not the periodic exception. Ultimately, as anyone who wears a sleep monitor (such as a Fitbit watch) can attest, quantity does not necessarily beget quality when it comes to sleep. For those of us who have learned to live with frequent sleep deprivation, it is important to realize that while “certain parts of our brains can function fairly well on little sleep, the prefrontal cortex—the ‘executive functioning’ part of our brain that does our lawyering (reasoning, organizing, planning, and problem solving)—struggles greatly with sleep deprivation.” Laura Mahr, Getting Down to Business About Sleep in the Legal Profession, North Carolina State B.J. (Fall 2019).

A 2021 study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine analyzed the consequences of sleeping fewer than six hours for eight consecutive nights and found a pattern of sharp deterioration in mental and physical functioning. Published by Dr. Soomi Lee, assistant professor at the University of South Florida’s School of Aging Studies, the study analyzed data from nearly 2,000 middle-aged participants who recorded their sleep patterns, any deprivation from normal routines, and the resultant mental and physical consequences of the deprivation. The study’s participants recorded a variety of mental symptoms such as increases in frustration, irritability, anger, and nervousness and a host of adverse physical symptoms. Dr. Lee found the most significant increase in negative symptoms appeared after just one night of sleep loss, with the number of mental and physical problems steadily increasing to an initial peak on the third day of sleep deprivation. The participants reporting prolonged sleep deprivation levelled out temporarily after the third day but then reported a pronounced elevation in negative effects on day six. Dr. Lee noted that habitual sleep deprivation becomes increasingly difficult to recover from, resulting in a cycle of deteriorating wellness and performance. The only way to effectively recover optimal health and mental acuity is to sleep no fewer than six hours per day consistently.

Many lawyers succumb to a sleep-deprived existence during the workweek and try to “catch up” on sleep on the weekend. But this strategy is bound for failure long term and is generally only successful in securing a rested and effective Monday until the workweek sleep deprivation cycle kicks in again.

Attorneys are among the most sleep-deprived groups of professionals. And while many attorneys take pride in being able to thrive under considerable pressure and demanding schedules, the effects of sleep deprivation compound over time, affecting the mental acuity and physical stamina often required when practicing law. The deleterious effects of insufficient sleep include a diminished ability to maintain focus, slowed motor response times, increases in mental errors, the diminished ability to absorb and retain new material, and an increase in the effort required to maintain desired behaviors. Laura Mahr—a lawyer, coach, and consultant and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds—observes that “when we work when we are sleepy, we are more prone to distraction, such as surfing the web or checking our phones. Therefore, tasks that would otherwise take only a few minutes may drag on because we lose our focus.” See Mahr, supra. Obviously, this mental and physical state can be disastrous for any professional engaged in stressful and demanding work. Sleep deprivation diminishes your performance and effectiveness in representing your clients and increases the likelihood of committing errors of a magnitude warranting a grievance or malpractice claim.

So, we know what the problem is, but what’s to be done about it? Caseloads and client demands can be unrelenting. While the practice of law recently has seen an increased focus on lawyer well-being, driven in part by demands of younger lawyers and stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, the “tyranny of now” can too easily tempt us to back-burner wellness issues. Sleep seems to be one of the easiest things to compromise because we believe we can “get it back” once the immediate work crisis passes. However, this mindset is a dangerous trap.

Sleep experts offer a few behavioral modifications to help encourage healthier sleep habits and therefore better work lives. Many of these tips are extremely simple and effective but can require a rewiring of default modes and habits. The first and most obvious is simply to go to sleep earlier. Do you zone out or decompress at night in front of the television or watching reels on Instagram? Establish a hard limit on how much time you dedicate to these behaviors at night. Set an alarm for 30 minutes with the idea that you will then go to bed. Better yet, try to replace vegetative decompression with meditation, deep breathing, stretching, or just reading a book. Set a goal for your sleep. Commit to dedicating at least seven hours to sleep and dare yourself to stick to it.

Another simple idea to promote better sleep habits is to establish—and jealously defend—your personal time. Many lawyers begin their careers without setting healthy boundaries for when clients and colleagues can expect a response. As a result, they routinely check their emails from the minute they wake up until the moment they go to sleep. This “always on” mentality threatens a night of meaningful rest because your brain usually can’t abruptly stop juggling work issues. Create a buffer zone by setting a firm time after which you will not check emails. Carve out time to allow yourself to relax enough to promote good sleep. Tell your colleagues that you do not check emails late at night and, if they absolutely must get your attention at those times, they should call your cell phone. If you are in a leadership position in your workplace and can affect work culture, suggest that the enterprise adopts a policy of not expecting after hours responses to email. 

Developing a healthy sleep routine takes effort and sometimes requires a shift in one’s priorities. Your body and mind are more effective instruments when given adequate rest. Vigilantly guarding your sleep does not mean that you’re lazy; it means that you’re smart and that you care about being your most effective and productive self for you and your clients and colleagues.