Burning the Candle at Both Ends Backfires

There’s no getting around it—law is a high-stress, demanding profession. In a culture that measures drive and achievement in billable hours, many lawyers feel compelled to demonstrate their commitment by arriving early, working late, and being reachable around the clock. This 24/7, no-boundaries work ethic has been reinforced by technological developments that facilitate constant connectivity and firm policies that tie bonuses to face time and hours accrued.

But research shows that working longer is not necessarily working better. Rather, every marathon work session has a point of diminishing returns, where plowing forward becomes counterproductive, as cognitive resources are inevitably depleted and we become more prone to error. Some studies indicate that people who over-commit themselves to work ultimately end up underperforming, as they are far more susceptible to exhaustion and burnout.

Notably, this occurs even when people are deeply passionate about their work: According to Robert J. Vallerand, a leading scholar in motivational processes and optimal functioning, there are two distinct types of passion—“harmonious” and “obsessive”—which have markedly different implications for long-term performance. While harmoniously passionate people are able to disengage from work when appropriate (keeping their work in “harmony” with their other activities), obsessively passionate workers cannot help but to rigidly persist in their efforts, even when this creates conflict with other life domains. The end result is that, while harmoniously passionate workers enjoy increased positive emotions, flow states, and psychological resilience, obsessively passionate workers are more likely to suffer from emotional exhaustion and burnout (not to mention poorer health and lower life-and relationship-satisfaction).

In other words, it is simply not possible to consistently give your all when you are working all the time. Taking breaks, on the other hand, has been shown not only to replenish energy and promote focus, productivity, and creativity in the short-term, but also to foster long-term engagement, motivation, and goal-commitment. If you want to achieve lasting success and satisfaction in your law practice, it is in your best interest to take a little bit of time each day to relax and regenerate.

Of course, finding space in your busy schedule for daily breaks will not be easy—it will require dedication and planning. But if you are willing to apply the same level of diligence to self-care as you do in your legal career, the long-term benefits you will reap will be well worth the effort.

Here are some tips to get you started.