You’re Getting Sleepy: What Cognitive Science Tells Us about Common Advice to “Get Enough Sleep” Before the LSAT (and Your Future Efficiency as a Lawyer)

It’s common advice to LSAT takers to be sure to get enough sleep the night before the exam.  More often than not, it has the ring of “I don’t really have anything helpful to say, so I’ll say what you’ve known from your mother since you were three years old.”

Like most unhelpful advice (think, “Be happy”), it’s conclusory.  It tells you neither how to get to a point where it’s possible to reach the desired end nor what you can do if you can’t quite get there.  Unless there’s a guarantee of success, advice without taking into account a suboptimal case isn’t just useless, it’s counterproductive because you get agitated that you can’t do what you know you should.  When the advice is “get enough sleep,” that failure is likely to, well, keep you awake.

That’s why my own LSAT preparation—and that of every Advise-In client—is calibrated to increase the chances that you’ll get to the promised land of a great night’s sleep and includes a fail-safe in case you can’t.

To know how to make operational the probability of getting adequate sleep and instituting fail-safes, it’s important to understand the cognitive research on what getting sleep means, and when it’s important to get it.  A nice article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine yesterday is a great summary of some of that research.

A few basic data points.  First, there’s a lot of research that shows that eight hours (the older I get, the smarter mom gets) is what almost everyone needs to function at the top of their game.  Not 7, that’s too little, and 9 doesn’t really get you much of an advantage over 8.  Sorry, but that’s what the research says.

Function in what way?  Lack of sleep damages working memory, which is precisely the type of memory (as distinct from procedural memory) that one relies on in taking a test such as the LSAT (and in lawyering, for that matter).  That point is passed over far too quickly in the Times article.  But it’s important to obtaining your highest LSAT score; the failure to match or exceed your best practice score during the actual LSAT is due to interruptions in the normal process of working memory (for a lot of reasons, sleep deprivation among them); it’s just not enough to understand what you’re supposed to do on the LSAT if you can’t execute it precisely when it counts.

There are other important data points, among them that while working memory performance slips almost immediately at under 8 hours’ sleep, the decline in gradual for a few days and then, for the vast majority of us, performance falls off a cliff.  Conversely, it takes at least a few days for most of us to recover optimal performance.  It’s not good enough to get enough sleep just the night before.

Finally, it’s very important to recognize that most people don’t recognize the extent of their impairment in judgment and accuracy from sleep deprivation.  It’s a little like (actually, a lot like) a person who’s had a little too much to drink who thinks she or he still functioning at a high level.  I want to emphasize this point.  Most high achievers don’t get enough sleep—period.  I worked in a large law firm for a long time, and when a deal would heat up, no one got enough sleep—and we didn’t get it for extended periods.  Of the hundreds of people I dealt with during those times—colleagues, clients, the other side—there was one person who was a medical marvel, whose performance didn’t seem to slip no matter what.

Everyone else?  Not so lucky.  We and our clients got the job done, but it took longer, we revisited our decisions or checked them with colleagues more frequently and, in some cases, simply made mistakes that we otherwise wouldn’t have made (one benefit of large firms is that there are so may fail-safes built into the system that errors seldom made it out of the firm’s four walls).  Nor did those issues have serious consequences on our side.  What they meant more than anything else was that we took longer to do the job the right way than we otherwise would have—longer to draft, longer to strategize, longer for messages to sink in, longer to do everything.  This is one reason why law firms bill by the hour—if you want to keep a team of lawyers on 4 hours’ sleep for a long time, they’ll get less and less efficient and, if you’re a client, you’ll pay for that demand.  But if you’re just looking at the end product, everyone has a tendency to think their performance wasn’t impaired—you got it right.  But they key point here is that you took longer to do it right.

There were also lawyers who, like many students, would put time pressure on themselves by procrastinating, then finishing the task in single marathon sessions.  When you do that, if you want the work product to be pretty much perfect, you’re trading your time at the beginning for more time at the end.  I’ve talked about why procrastinating doesn’t make people happy before, and this is another reason—if you’re sacrificing sleep because you put something off, you’ve actually made a negative time tradeoff.   

But no matter what, the LSAT is different; you can’t make a voluntary time tradeoff.  You have the time you have, period.  The LSAT won’t give you extra time if you’re not at your peak.

This is why “get plenty of sleep” isn’t very helpful advice.  It isn’t concrete advice you can operationalize.  How do you increase the probability of having a nice, 8 hour snooze the night before the test?  The primary requirement is confidence and composure—if you know you’ve done everything you can to prepare, you’re more likely to be able to sleep the sleep of the just.  There’s also the knowledge that you won’t be able to do much content-related work the night before that will materially increase the understanding-based aspects of your performance; that helps, too, because it tells you that what you really need to pay attention to are the test-taking and working memory inputs to your performance.  Consequently, my own and my clients’ LSAT preparation schedule changes a bit in the last week of the program to be a bit more relaxed but still productive.  It’s a concrete, operational response to earned confidence in your LSAT preparation.

Still, that’s not enough.  I didn’t get quite 8 hours’ sleep the night before the LSAT; I had a few visions of parallel reasoning questions dancing in my head.  I can’t say that hurt me—I still got a 180.  I still could, because I knew that being a little short one night wasn’t going to hurt me very much, as long as I’d gotten plenty of sleep for the couple of weeks before the LSAT, and my body clock was (because of my practice schedule) set to perform at peak at exactly the time I’d be taking the LSAT.  Secure in the knowledge that I’d done those things, grid games soon stopped jumping over sheep-fences and I slept soundly, if not for 8 hours, then for close enough.

The general rule here is that the best LSAT preparation starts from the end game—taking the actual LSAT—and works backwards to structure each day of the 9-11 weeks prior to the exam to optimize performance.  A great LSAT review course, or even an adequate one, simply has to do that; that none did was one of the many reasons I didn’t pay a tutor or a big company to help me—they wouldn’t have helped because they weren’t focused on a huge part of what it takes to perform well on exam day.

Some optimal structuring is common sense, some of it is counterintuitive, and some of it is in the middle of those poles.  Sleep is in the latter category.  In the counterintuitive category, you have to recognize that your working memory capacity—the key to performing well on the LSAT—is impaired by fudging on sleep no matter how it feels to you.  If you’re serious about your law school admissions and financial aid opportunities, you want to do your best on the LSAT, not just “good enough.”

What’s intuitive about putting yourself in the best position to get enough sleep the night before is steady preparation that starts from exam day and works backward.  Less intuitive is working out a sensible schedule for that, a schedule that involves pulling back (but not too much) on the intensity of your preparation as you get close to the exam date, and introducing a fail-safe of sleeping enough well in advance of the LSAT (to be sure, that’s not just a fail-safe since it takes at least a few days of good sleep to return working memory to its optimum performance).  That’s hard to do on your own but you can (and I did).  It’s easier if you have an advisor who is attuned to the problem and has years of experience dealing with it, with all kinds of people.

These are details, of course, but they’re crucial details.  To make general advice useful depends upon knowing how to make it operational and to guard against the downside case in which you’re not able to make it fully operational.  That Advise-In does make it operational is one reason why my clients have an extraordinarily high average improvement of over 12 points and 30 percentiles.  If you and your advisor don’t find a way to concretize general advice like “get enough sleep,” you’re reducing your chances of obtaining your best LSAT score on the only day your performance counts—exam day.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on April 18, 2011.

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