Do yourself - and your clients - a favor: don't sacrifice sleep

Shawn Healy, BridgeTower Media Newswires

The life of a successful law student and lawyer requires many sacrifices.

During the law school years, you had to sacrifice leisure time, hobbies, time with friends and family, and probably your self-care.

Working as a busy lawyer is not much different, except now there is no objective stopping point, like the end of law school. Depending on the setting in which you work, you might have the demands of high billable hours, unpredictable schedules, requirements to work evenings and weekends, or the need to be available 24/7 in emergencies.

And while there are some realities of various legal settings that cannot be changed, the fact of the matter is that we often sacrifice sleep unnecessarily in order to meet certain goals.

Now I suspect that no one reading this column would think that he was sacrificing sleep unnecessarily. Who would waste valuable sleep time? Everyone loves sleep. Everyone needs sleep.

Most lawyers would rebut that claim with a well-thought-out argument that included all of the reasons and justifications for sacrificing sleep for work in order to achieve a particular goal. Fair enough. There are in fact times when we do need to sacrifice sleep in order to address a more pressing issue. But those times should be rare, not the norm.

If sacrificing sleep seems to be the norm, then I recommend that you evaluate whether the issues truly require that sacrifice. For most of us, we develop a slowly increasing pattern of justifying the sacrifice of healthy habits — in this case, quality sleep.

It starts with a “just this once” mentality with the hopes of maintaining healthy habits right after the critical need has passed. Unfortunately, the reality is that once we have made this justification, it is easier to make it again. A precedent has been set.

Over time we stop seeing our healthy habits as necessary and start seeing them as obstacles to productivity. We stop thinking about how well we perform when we are well rested and start doing analyses about what the bare minimum is in order to function.

Once you are caught in that intensifying pattern, you typically don’t realize how much you need your sleep until you have noticed some significant effects from its absence.

Healthy, regular sleep is analogous to maintaining your computer with the latest operating updates and virus protection. Lawyers in a fast-paced practice would be wise to have a well-functioning computer system. Neglect in this area would seem counterproductive to a successful practice. It can lead to ignoring regular software updates; missing new cyber security issues; having a corrupted memory; or failing to back up data on multiple sources. This would result in a law firm environment fraught with inefficiencies and potential lawsuits. It is the type of working environment to actively avoid.

In terms of sleep and resulting functioning, our brains are not so different. Sleep allows our brains to function at their potential. Lack of sleep slows our processing speed, makes it more difficult to solve problems, increases the time that it takes to switch effectively between tasks, and negatively affects our communication skills.

Lack of sleep disrupts our memory storage and retrieval, making it difficult to recall information that once was easily accessible. Lack of sleep also affects concentration, which in turn impacts the number of mistakes we make and our ability to catch those mistakes before we have to deal with their consequences.

So, if you would not actively design your computer system to run at subpar levels, don’t accept your brain operating at subpar levels, either.

Here are some suggestions for improving your sleep:

• Protect your sleep time as if it were mandatory training time.

• Have a consistent routine for sleep that includes a regular bedtime and waking time every day of the week.

• Practice a winding down period prior to bed with no screens (no email, no social media, etc.).

• Maintain a consistent bedtime routine that includes the same order of events to prepare for sleep.

• Reserve your bed for sleep. Avoid other activities in your bed so that your brain develops a strong association between your bed and the act of sleeping.

• Turn your alarm clock away from view and put your cellphone/smart watch out of reach, so that if you wake during the night you don’t automatically look at your clock (this makes your brain do math, which wakes you up).

• If worries or anxious to-do lists keep you up, try writing your thoughts down on paper so you don’t have to keep repeating them in your mind in an effort not to forget them.

• If you wake up in the middle of the night and cannot fall back to sleep, get out of bed and practice some relaxation techniques to get your mind and body ready for sleep again. Doing so will help maintain a strong sleep association with your bed (as opposed to lying awake for hours in bed each night).

• If medical issues might be influencing your sleep pattern, consult with a sleep specialist to find out more about helpful options.

• Above all else, remember to value and prioritize your sleep. It’s really important. You will function better, you will be happier, and you will be more productive as a result.

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Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts. He also writes and presents on a variety of topics germane to the practice of law. He can be contacted at shawn@lclma.org.

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