The early days of my legal career at a big firm involved lots of late nights at the office. It seemed like I was routinely getting home around 11 p.m. — often later. It was a busy time, so late nights were required. But not always. Looking back, staying late all the time could have been avoided.
My nocturnal schedule was a choice — a result of my failure to make the necessary choices that could have helped me avoid exhaustion and burnout.
Staying Late at the Office Is a Vicious Cycle
You stay late, you get to bed late, then you get to the office late the next morning, at a time when the emails and phone calls start pouring in.
You never give yourself a chance to get ahead, get organized, and get the work done when you should. Instead, you do those things when you can — typically at the end of the day when “it’s quiet,” after your clients have gone home, and all the inputs have stopped.
The biggest problem is that the end of the day is the worst time to do the deep work that’s required to get ahead in your career. Instead of doing what’s most important, your day is spent doing what’s most urgent. Rather than playing golf, it’s like playing tennis, where all you do is return volleys, only to have them fired right back at you.
The truth is, for most people, early morning is the best time to get deep work done. You may not consider yourself a morning person, and the idea of getting in the office at 7 a.m. is anathema. But have you pondered the possibility that the reason the morning is such a drag is that you’re exhausted from all the late nights?
You can’t burn both ends of the candle. It’s unsustainable. So you need to make a choice.
Do You Want a Life, or Do You Want to Spend Your Life at the Office?
It wasn’t until I stepped away from my legal career that I came to appreciate the benefits of starting early. Keep in mind that change like this doesn’t happen all at once. I used to start working around 9 a.m. When I decided to make a change, I slowly started setting my alarm a bit earlier. Every month I moved my wake-up call back by 15 minutes. It wasn’t long before I was starting my workday at 8 a.m., then 7 a.m. Now I get up most days around 4:45 a.m., get a workout in, and sit down with a cup of coffee at my iPad around 6 a.m.
I’ve found that I can get more substantive work done from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. than I can from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. The fact that it’s better to do important work in the morning is a no-brainer. Literally. If you’ve been working all day in a stressful profession such as the law, by the evening your brain is likely fried, productivity sags, and it’s almost certain that you won’t be doing your best work.
Start Your Day with a Sprint
Perhaps more important than when you start working is what you start working on. To borrow from Mark Twain, you’ve got to eat that frog. Work is like fitness — it’s best done in short bursts of intensity, followed by periods of rest and recovery. So start the day with a sprint.
Working in this manner has an added benefit. If you’re like most people, your best ideas (just like building muscle) come during periods of recovery, when your mind is free to wander, and not in the midst of an intense work session. By taking the time to recover, you can then apply these “free range” ideas during your next period of work.
According to psychologist Ron Friedman, the key to productivity is leveraging the first three hours of your day. Friedman was quoted in the Harvard Business Review about this point:
“Typically, we have a window of about three hours where we’re really, really focused. We’re able to have some strong contributions in terms of planning, in terms of thinking, in terms of speaking well.”
Don’t save your most important work for the end of the day, whether that’s writing a brief, practicing a presentation, or strategizing a transaction. Do it first when your mind and body are fresh. Then get up, take a walk and have something to eat.
Reserve your afternoons for meetings, phone calls and email. The perfect way to wrap up the day — hopefully by 6 p.m. — is by spending 15 minutes planning the next morning’s to-do list. That way you can head home with a clear head and your next day already mapped out.
The “Face Time” Myth
If you’re a young lawyer you might be thinking: “Yeah, right. There’s no way I can leave that early every day. I’m expected to put in face time.”
Trust me, I understand this mindset. It’s what I thought for most of my career as an associate.
Only later did I learn that for most senior lawyers, the concept of face time is an irrelevancy. All that matters is results. If the lawyers who assign you work find you reliable, and have confidence that you’ll ask the right questions, exercise good judgment, and meet deadlines, then no one (at least no one that matters) will bat an eye if you’re heading for the elevators before the sun sets on a consistent basis.
Now Let’s Get Real
It’s foolhardy to think that you won’t have to work late once in awhile. Of course, the best-laid plans will go awry, and some days will be nothing but a chaotic mess. To paraphrase Cus D’Amato, who was one of Mike Tyson’s boxing managers and trainers, plans are great … until you get punched in the mouth.
I urge you, though, not to make it a habit. No lawyer should accept that each day in a law firm must end in a conference room littered with carry-out containers of half-eaten Thai food.
A legal career is hard. The work is stressful. Adversaries quadruple normal levels of anxiety. Don’t make things harder on yourself by working in a way that is unhealthy and unsustainable. Get up a little earlier. Get your work done. Then get out of the office and into the world. You’ll be a better lawyer — and person — for it.
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