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Vary While You Work

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No need to feel guilty about spending the afternoon working at the coffee shop, or taking a quick breather from an appellate argument prep with reading or writing a couple of blog posts. According to a bunch of new studies summarized in this New York Times article (H/T Volokh), turns out that study techniques like solitary confinement or exclusive focus on one subject matter are actually less effective ways to retain learning than shaking things up a bit. The article describes that:

Varying the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Likewise, varying study location or schedule also improved test results.

True, these studies involved students, but they apply equally well to lawyers. After too much time, blind focus on one matter – whether it’s a passage in a brief or a strategy for a case – produces increasingly diminishing returns. Indeed, that’s yet another reason why the billable hour makes for such a poor measure of value: because it fails to take account that the umpteenth hour that we spend on a project is far less productive than the first few.

So if you’re feeling burnt out, don’t feel guilty about switching to another matter, or picking up a project at night, away from your desk. You may feel lazy or unfocused, but really, you’re doing your clients a favor.