We are a sleep deprived profession. Understandable, considering the nature of our work. Almost every lawyer I know works notoriously long hours. (A recent study showed that 82% of lawyers’ schedules are so demanding that their health is at risk. When you work that kind of schedule, sleep is the first thing you give up.) Additionally, the stress associated with practicing law is always present. We take our work home with us, and the endless to-do list loops through our minds long after we turn out the lights. Add to that mix the client dinners that don’t start until 8 or 9:00 (and involve copious amounts of alcohol) and you have all the ingredients for a sleep deprived profession.
Instead of talking about how we might be able to modify lifestyles that allow us to get more sleep, lawyers make exhaustion and sleep deprivation status symbols. We celebrate young associates who work through the night or we brag about getting up at 4:30 in the morning to get on the road for a deposition. In a culture that measures self-worth by productivity, we simply accept that lack of sleep is something that comes with the territory. We make Ambien a regular part of our diet and 3 a.m ceiling stares become routine. We tell ourselves if you’re going to practice law, you’re going to rack up sleep debt.
The irony of our glorification of sleep deprivation is that there is probably no single greater performance killer than lack of sleep. A recent blog post in the Lawyerist, quotes Harvard Medical School Professor, Charles A. Czeisler:
“We know that … a week of sleeping four or five hours a night induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .1%…We would never say, ‘this person is a great worker! He’s drunk all the time!’ Yet we continue to celebrate people who sacrifice sleep.”
There is amble science that demonstrates how lack of sleep undermines cognitive performance. And when you consider that cognitive performance is pretty damn essential to lawyering, it’s science we should pay attention to. Lack of sleep impairs your effective working memory. It makes it much harder to focus and pay attention to details. And it significantly diminishes our judgment and our ability to make decisions. (Not to mention lack of sleep makes us irritable and not much fun to be around).
The only way we’re going to add more sleep to our lives is by making a good night’s sleep a priority. We schedule time for those things that matter to us. We will schedule time for good sleep only when we begin to value it. So, the first step is to stop glorifying exhaustion, and begin to value a lifestyle that allows us to bring our best cognitive selfs to our work. In whose world would it ever make sense to come to work and perform your job all day as if you were drunk?
Knowing you need to make good sleep a priority is one thing. Figuring out how to actually get it is something else. Everyone is different. So what works for one person, might not work for someone else. But here are a few things that scientists and researchers tell us can help:
- Do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Even on the weekends.
- Develop a relaxing bed time ritual. Condition your body to know that it’s time for bed.
- Don’t make your to-do list just before you go to bed.
- Don’t read nonfiction prior to bed. (Nonfiction can be a little like drafting the to-do list. It results in mental planning and thoughts about the future. Instead, read fiction that requires present awareness attention.)
- Get the room right—turn down the thermostat, hang thick curtains that block out all of the light. Also, assess your mattress. If it’s 8-10 years old, buy a new one.
- The writer Tim Ferris has several posts where he discusses hacks for better sleep. Some of them sound a little crazy (like ice baths an hour before bed). But they seem to work.
The bottom line is sleep matters. Let’s stop glorifying the sleep deprived, and start valuing a lifestyle that allows for good restful slumber. We will be much better lawyers, and a lot more fun to be around.