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Perfect Timing!

Those of you have followed my blog for a while know that I am a huge Daniel Pink fan. I recently finished his new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Pink explores the latest research on how timing affects our lives, often in ways we do not consider. Pink’s book is not specifically focused on lawyers, but many of his insights have important implications for our work.

The Impact of When Things Happen During the Day

The first part of When examines how the time of day impacts our lives. Pink explores the latest science of how our moods and our cognition change as the day progresses. Researchers have found the time of day has a dramatic impact on how people receive information. People are more optimistic and positive early in the day. (When at 18.) As the day progresses they get increasingly negative. (Id.) People become a bit more positive again around lunchtime, after eating and having a break, but they quickly drift back into negativity as the day goes on. (Id.) As Pink notes, “Even sophisticated economic agents acting in real and highly incentivized settings are influenced by the diurnal rhythms in performance of their professional duties.” (When at 19.)

Our mental acuity suffers the same swings during the day as our emotions. “[M]ental keenness, as shown by rationally evaluating evidence, was greater early in the day. And mental squishiness, as evidenced by resorting to stereotypes, increased as the day wore on.” (When at 21.) The impact is often greater than we are able to self-assess. One study showed that our mental performance could vary by as much as twenty percent. (When at 22.)

Pink also offers advice for each of us to find our own body rhythms. While the majority of people follow the patterns described above, some do not. Some people really are natural night owls and their best work will not be done in the mornings. So in addition to evaluating when groups of people are likely to be more analytical versus more creative or emotional, we also need to self assess to understand when we will do our own best work.

This research has serious implications for lawyers. First, we need to be aware of how our own rhythms impact our decision-making. Every day lawyers make key strategic decisions for clients and for their own business. How often do we consider when we are making those decisions? Are we putting ourselves in a good position to exercise the best judgment?

For example, perhaps management committee meetings should be in the morning. Or, client phone calls to discuss file strategy may need to be scheduled early (or right after lunch) when both the lawyer and the client are in the best position to use good judgment.

These finding also impact how we try cases. Judges and jurors may be better positioned to evaluate evidence early in the day. However, Pink also notes that when our analytical brains are tired in the afternoon, we are also most open to creative thoughts. So, if you are arguing for a change in the law, or a new or novel application of the law, those arguments may be better received in the afternoon. And, we are emotional in the afternoons, so arguments based upon emotion may be better received late in the day. In other words, the closing argument you make may need to be tailored around when you make it.

Those personal patterns also have important impacts for how we run our legal teams. Does your firm offer some flexibility so that the true owls are able to give you their best work? Or, does the firm force the owls to fit into the more prevalent early bird pattern? And, if you are building a team to work on a specific project, how might you assign the work so that you take advantage of everyone’s best body rhythm? For example, say you are building a litigation team of one partner and two associates. If you select one associate who is an early bird and one who is an owl, you can then give the early bird analytical tasks in the morning and shift that work to the owl in the afternoon. The owl’s analytical peak will be hitting right when the early bird’s is fading allowing the team to capture more top quality analytical thinking over the course of the whole day.

Pink also offers that latest science on the power of breaks during our day. Breaks are a sensitive subject for many lawyers. If we are billing by the hour, breaks are lost dollars. Yet, the research shows how valuable breaks really are in our lives.

As we get tired, we suffer cognitive troughs. But, even short breaks remedy those cognitive troughs. “Short breaks from a task can prevent habituation, help us maintain focus, and reactivate our commitment to a goal…High performers…work for fifty two minutes and then break for seventeen minutes” (When at 61.) Perhaps even more challenging for the legal profession, breaks are better if they are social. (When at 62.) That means that more than one lawyer is taking a break at the same time.

Even beyond the basic break, there is growing science that naps are cognitive powerhouses. Naps “improve cognitive performance and they boost mental and physical health.” (When at 66.) While I know some lawyers who do take a quick nap each afternoon, it’s probably safe to say that most law firms would frown upon napping on the job. Naps carry a stigma of laziness or at least economically wasteful activities. Yet, “Nappers easily outperformed non-nappers on their ability to retain information. In another experiment, nappers were twice as likely to solve a complex problem than people who hadn’t napped or who spent the time in other activities.” (When at 67.) Pink says the ideal nap is 20-25 minutes.

Obviously breaks and naps are going to be controversial for any profession where people sell time. You can use your hourly rate to evaluate what it might cost your firm to implement some of these ideas. At a minimum, it is fair to say that doing some or all of this is very expensive! At the same time, implementing some or all of these ideas may produce better work product, more satisfied attorneys, and, by extension, better results for clients.

Lawyers often talk about time management, but they usually mean it in the sense of how to squeeze more into the day, and how to stay on top of a multitude of tasks. Pink is offering us important insights into a broader concept of time management. He is offering us the chance to think more clearly about how we structure our days to best capture peak performance in differing tasks. These are challenging ideas, but they are important to at least consider. Are there ways each of us could use these ideas to be more successful lawyers?

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