Category Archives: The Ethical Lawyer – Legal Ethics Blog

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 2 – Blurred Lines

To survive and thrive as a remote worker, you need to know how to overcome the obstacles and reframe them as benefits. When you are faced with a crisis — such as the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions — the ability to shift your mindset becomes even more critical.

As Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, an effective path to dealing with a crisis is to turn adversity into an advantage, a trial into a triumph, and an obstacle into an opportunity.

In part 1 of this 3-part article, I discussed Asynchronous Communication as the first obstacle to thriving in remote work.

The second obstacle to overcome is Blurred Lines. Commuting to and from an office provides transitions that you do not have with remote work. When the commute goes away, there is no physical switch to know when the work day starts and when it ends. You also might not have a dedicated room or separate space for work, which makes it harder to draw the line between personal stuff and professional obligations.

If you were thrust into remote work or didn’t plan for it, your kitchen, living room, or other personal space might now be your makeshift workplace. When you can’t physically leave the office, it’s harder to shut your computer off and call it a day. The work day doesn’t seem to end because your office is right inside your home.

On the flip side, the lack of clear lines between work and home makes it easier to succumb to distractions. There is the refrigerator in the kitchen and the TV in the living room calling for your attention. The computer you’re using to do work is probably the same tool you use to watch YouTube videos, hang out on social media, and binge watch Netflix shows.

If you’re new to remote work, you will need to start with physical boundaries. When I lived in a smaller home, I carved out a spot in the corner of the living room for my desk, chair and computer. I moved to this dedicated space to work. During my breaks, I went to the kitchen or on the back porch.

After I moved into my current and bigger home, I called dibs on a spare room with windows overlooking the backyard. This has served as my home office since I started my own business as a solo lawyer and productivity coach. I use it to do focused work on client matters. The closed door is a signal to my family that I’m at work and should not be disturbed. Although this doesn’t stop my two young children from calling out for my attention, I routinely go to this office when playtime or family time is over and work needs to begin.

For long-term remote work, it’s good to have a well-functioning desk and comfortable chair for ergonomics. A desk that allows you to easily adjust the height for typing, writing or reading, while standing or while seated in a chair can be pricey, but worth the benefits.

To create good feng shui and improve energy flow, you arrange your work equipment so you face into the room and have a wall or screen behind you. This gives you a clear field of vision and helps you feel protected from behind. This is known as the commanding position in that you have a view of the door or room when you’re at your desk.

Although it might be tempting to place your work surface facing a window, this can be quite distracting. Instead, place your workstation perpendicular to the window or opening so the view is within your scope of vision, but not directly in front of it. This gives you access to natural light but makes you less drawn to the outside world when you need to do focused work.

If you don’t have a spare room to serve as an office, you might need to place your work station against the wall so you have a visual separation from your home life. If you have to face a wall or expose your back to the entryway, you could hang a mirror to have a view of the room and see people coming into your space. You could place a small bookcase, table or file cabinet behind you to serve as a physical barrier. You could also partition your workspace from the rest of the room with a shoji screen or other moveable divider.

Your preference for silence or sounds in your background also affects your work-from-home productivity. The good news is you typically have more control over this in a home office. When you’re in a traditional office setting, you can’t keep telling your colleagues to stop talking in the hallway or to quit laughing in the lunchroom.

I know some people who actually work better with the TV on in the background because they find it comforting and less isolating. (I don’t know how they do this, but they do.) White noise machines or apps can also serve as audio signals for work mode.

Personally, I tend to go with silence when I’m doing high-cognitive work, such as writing a legal brief. But in some situations, I use apps like (to which I subscribe) and Focus at Will, which are designed to get you into focus mode, quiet the mind, and increase productivity.

I occasionally play tracks on Coffitivity and Hipstersound to recreate the sounds of a cafe in brainstorming and creative thinking sessions, or when it has just been too quiet for too long. Instrumental music like contemporary piano or the Monument Valley soundtrack are other favorites.

On the other hand, if you have unwanted sounds at home, you could use active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones or earphones. If you have small children around, outside your view, you could arrange to have another responsible adult address their needs while you’re tuning them out. (I regularly use my TaoTronics, Model TT-BH085, ANC headphones to drown out background noise, such as kids playing, singing and chatting.)

If certain scents and aromas make you more productive or less stressed, then go ahead and burn that candle or use the essential oil that does the trick. There are no coworkers with allergies and fragrance sensitivities to worry about.

In remote work from home, you have more control in designing your workspace based on your physical, visual, audio and olfactory preferences. You can have your dog napping by your feet or kid doodling next to you while you answer emails. You don’t have colleagues and clients walking into your office and making judgments about what’s appropriate and what’s not.

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For more information on overcoming obstacles to thriving in remote work, read part 1 (Asynchronous Communication) and part 3 (Competing Priorities) of this multipart article.

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Dyan Williams is a productivity coach who helps lawyers, small business owners and other busy people reduce overwhelm and make time for what truly matters. She is also a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at

Overcoming Obstacles to Thriving in Remote Work: Part 1 – Asynchronous Communication

I have worked exclusively from home, in my own business, as a solo lawyer and a productivity coach since October 2014. Previously, I had flextime and did some remote work during my last two years as a full-time employee. Because this was an exception, and not a core part of the team culture, I did not fully embrace remote work until I went independent.

With intentional practice, I’ve developed habits and skills to work successfully from my home office. With no daily commute and the freedom to design my work day, I am better able to synch with my natural rhythm, focus on the top priority, get into the zone, and take deliberate breaks. Remote work also cuts overhead expenses and allows me to be more selective with my clientele and projects. But this setup also has productivity obstacles, especially when you’re new to it.

The first obstacle to overcome is Asynchronous Communication. For the seasoned remote worker, an asynchronous approach to collaboration or teamwork is preferred because it reduces interruptions, protects focus, and improves decision-making. When you send an email, for example, you don’t expect an immediate response. You allow the person to reflect on the information and reply with more thought. The response can take a few hours, a day or two, or several weeks, unless there is a strict deadline or time-sensitive opportunity that needs more urgent action.

But for those who like to get impromptu reactions to an idea, drop in on a colleague to ask quick questions, or engage in spontaneous chats in the lunchroom, the loss of synchronous communication is hard to take. Real-time communication is less common when you’re not co-located with your team.

Remote work can feel isolating, especially in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, when physical distancing is being mandated or encouraged. To maintain social connections and increase accountability, you can start your day or end your day by checking in with a work-from-home buddy. A telephone call in which you share your setbacks and wins can bring a sense of calm and joy in a virtual workplace.

Employers might also worry about not being able to keep a pulse on their remote teams. To combat this problem, companies often try to recreate the traditional workplace by requiring remote workers to be online and available during normal business hours, such as 9 am to 5 pm. They might expect the employee to respond immediately to emails, messages and telephone calls, irrespective of what they are doing in the moment. They might also use productivity-monitoring and screen-logging software or have employees turn in minute-by-minute accounts of their work day.

Such tactics reduce the sense of agency that a remote worker would otherwise have. In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink points out that autonomy is a key component of intrinsic motivation. It affects your ability to control what you do and when you do it. More autonomy builds trust, improves innovation, and encourages creative thinking.

Having the team in one office doesn’t necessarily amount to higher productivity. Sure, a manager can walk around workstations and ask employees what they’re working on and check on their mood and energy levels. But it’s also possible for a person to escape real work by showing up for meetings, responding quickly to emails, and looking busy at the office. Remote workers, on the other hand, have their output and results to show productivity.

In-person meetings are frequently overused and many serve no real purpose. They tend to force people to make decisions, react to information, and share their perspectives on the spot. Outgoing, talkative or higher-paid team members also tend to dominate the discussion. So in-person meetings and other forms of synchronous communication lead to quicker but not always better solutions.

With today’s technology, it is possible to have synchronous communication when this is truly needed. You can use video conferencing either for one-on-one meetings or group discussions to build rapport, connection and engagement. Some popular software tools for this purpose include Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout Meet (G-Suite), GotoMeeting and WebEx.

You can also use communication apps like Slack and old-fashioned email exchanges and telephone calls to get real-time communication or have urgent and important conversations.

In remote work, there is less oversight and more autonomy. While you can have set hours for synchronous communication and collaboration, be flexible with work schedules rather than attempt to recreate traditional office hours remotely. If you have important milestones and delivery dates to meet, schedule check-ins to confirm progress.

You don’t need real-time communication to share knowledge and provide status updates. For instance, there is a wide variety of project management software like Asana, Trello and Basecamp for team-based work. There are also industry-specific document case management programs, such as Clio, MyCase and RocketMatter for lawyers.

You can write things down, disseminate the information, ask for what you need and when, and provide time for review and reflection. Written communication or records on your processes, procedures, policies and action items allow others to access the information without needing to be at a specific meeting at a specific time and place.

While real-time communication and in-person meetings help with relationship building and team bonding, they are unnecessary to do real work, make great things, and meet big objectives. Asynchronous communication is really a benefit when you know how to use it to your advantage.

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For more information on overcoming obstacles to thriving in remote work, read part 2 (Blurred Lines) and part 3 (Competing Priorities) of this multipart article.

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Dyan Williams is a productivity coach who helps lawyers, small business owners and other busy people reduce overwhelm, and make time for what truly matters. She is also a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at

Staying Present and Productive in the Face of Uncertainty

Staying present and productive can be especially difficult in the face of uncertainty. At the time of my writing this article, many of us in the United States are hunkering down at home to help slow the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019).

We each have different ways of coping with challenges and when conditions are largely outside our control. We could feel confident and sure-footed one moment, and then unsure and shaken the next. We might have mixed feelings and conflicting thoughts about the restrictions being imposed by our national government and local authorities to address the COVID-19 situation.

Self-isolation is meant to protect our personal wellness, flatten the curve for the coronavirus transmission, and reduce the impact on the health care system. On the other hand, it has serious, long-lasting repercussions on schools as well as businesses, such as restaurants, coffee shops, bars, theaters, museums, gyms, and recreational centers that rely on in-person attendance and patronage.

For the last 5+ years, I have worked remotely or virtually as a solo lawyer and productivity coach. I communicate with clients and prospects, all around the world, mostly by telephone calls, video conferencing and emails. In-person meetings are rare and usually non-essential. I did not have to adjust to a new setup like others who shifted to remote work in response to COVID-19. In that respect, I am fortunate.

Keeping grounded, sticking with healthy habits, practicing daily routines, getting high-quality sleep and maintaining real connections are just as important, if not more so, in times of uncertainty.

As a person who consciously limits news consumption and social media use, I initially took a head-in-the-sand approach to COVID-19. But as the travel restrictions increased, events got cancelled, schools closed, and certain businesses were ordered to shut down, I began to stay informed.

The trick is to refrain from constantly checking for updates. Once a day in a limited time block is more than enough, and certainly not first thing in the morning or around bedtime. Consuming information is not the same as taking real action.

Just a week ago, I was at the USCIS Field Office in Minneapolis representing clients at their green card interview as a U.S. immigration attorney. My client offered a handshake to the adjudications officer to thank him for approving his case. The officer politely refused and explained the staff was instructed to avoid such contact due to the coronavirus.

After I said goodbye to my clients, I took a walk through Downtown Minneapolis and noticed hand sanitizer dispensers at front desks and elevator doors in office buildings.

Then later that day, I learned that President Trump issued a proclamation restricting entry into the U.S. by most travelers who had been in the Schengen area of Europe for the last 14 days.

Then on Friday, I went to my local Target store and saw many empty shelves, with no toilet paper, facial tissues, hand sanitizers or canned soups available for purchase. (Luckily, these items were not on my shopping list.) People seem to be stockpiling much larger quantities than what the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends, i.e. a 14-day supply of food, water and other necessities for every person in the household in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

That same day, President Trump proclaimed a national emergency and the Governor of my state, Minnesota, declared a state of emergency to combat the novel coronavirus. It was around this time I started to hear more and more about “social distancing,” which the CDC and other experts say is a key step to preventing the virus spread.

By Monday, March 16, Minnesota schools were closed and I had not only my toddler at home, but also my 1st grader who is now being “homeschooled” and my husband who switched to remote work. Later that day, the Governor ordered all restaurants, food courts, coffeehouses, bars and other places of public accommodation to close, except to offer delivery, take-out, or drive-through service.

We need to acknowledge the current reality, evaluate risks and strengths, and respond effectively to ongoing developments. My productivity is not at its peak. My focus is not as sharp. This is normal in the midst of a global pandemic that touches on daily life.

Still, I am staying present with client matters and keeping track of next steps, targeted completion dates, and deadlines. Although USCIS offices have closed temporarily to the public and some U.S. Consulates have suspended or canceled visa interviews, due to COVID-19, I continue to make steady progress, with the awareness that no crisis is permanent or affects everything.

Many businesses are functioning well and using online technology and other alternatives to fully provide services while limiting in-person contact. As a remote worker, I am operating on the virtual office platform I have held since I started my firm in October 2014. Drop-offs and delivery of mail and packages continue to be accepted and processed at my Downtown Minneapolis office location.

Most people recover from the illness through self-care at home, many with the virus have relatively minor symptoms and a few are asymptomatic, and children are not particularly vulnerable to it. Nevertheless, this global pandemic is expected to be here for a while and brings health risks, emotional angst, and financial challenges.

In the midst of uncertainty, there is unique opportunity to appreciate the privileges we often take for granted, build necessary resilience for setbacks, reassess our priorities, deepen or expand valuable skills, and live more intentionally.

Stay healthy, stay well,
Dyan Williams

Founder & Principal Attorney
Dyan Williams Law PLLC
(612) 225-9900

Key Ethics Rules to Consider When Your Older Adult Client (or Potential Client) Has Diminished Capacity

Working with clients in various stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and with their families and caregivers, poses unique ethical issues for the attorney. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, which involves memory loss and other cognitive impairment that affects daily life. When clients suffer from a mental impairment, this generally reduces their capacity to communicate with their lawyer, understand critical issues related to representation, and make informed decisions.

Here are key ethics rules to consider when your older adult client (or potential client) has diminished capacity:

Rule 1.1, Competence

A lawyer shall provide competent representation, i.e. legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

Rule 1.1, Comment 2 states, “Perhaps the most fundamental legal skill consists of determining what kind of legal problems a situation may involve, a skill that necessarily transcends any particular specialized knowledge.”(emphasis added).

When working with a client with diminished capacity, lawyers not only need to know the nuts and bolt of their practice area. They also have to apply the legal standards of diminished capacity, which include ethical guidelines for assessing client capacity, as outlined in Rule 1.14, and standards of capacity for specific legal transactions.

A finding of incapacity could nullify or present obstacles in transactions such as wills, contracts and estate plans.

For example, at the time of making a will, the testator must understand the nature and extent of his property and the claims of others on his bounty, and be able to connect them sufficiently to form a rational plan for disposition of property. This is known as Testamentary Capacity.

When entering a contract, the person needs to understand the nature and effect of the act and the business being transacted. If the act of business being transacted is highly complicated, a higher level of understanding is usually needed. This is called Contractual Capacity.

Rule 1.2, Scope of Representation and Allocation of Authority Between Client and Lawyer

A lawyer has a duty to abide by the client’s decisions concerning the objectives or goals of representation and reasonably consult with the client about the means to accomplish such objectives. When a client lacks capacity to fully participate in the representation, this creates multiple ethical issues.

Rule 1.2, Comment 1 states the client has ultimate authority to determine the purpose and objectives of the representation. The means by which to accomplish objectives is generally left to counsel, after consultation with the client. Comment 2 adds that when there is a disagreement, counsel must attempt a mutually agreeable resolution. “If such efforts are unavailing and the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement with the client, the lawyer may withdraw from the representation. See Rule 1.16(b)(4).”

Rule 1.4, Communication

Rule 1.14(a)(1) states the lawyer shall promptly inform client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which client’s informed consent is required.

Rule 1.4(a)(2) requires the lawyer to reasonably consult with client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished.

Rule 1.4(b) notes the lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding representation.

Comment 6 states, “Ordinarily, the information to be provided is that appropriate for a client who is a comprehending and responsible adult.” But “this standard may be impracticable” when the client suffers from diminished capacity.

In any event, the lawyer should confirm the client understands key elements of legal action and available options, and the client has made a choice and understands the consequences.

Rule 1.7, Conflict of Interest: Current Clients

The lawyer needs to watch out for conflicts of interest, particular in joint representation of married couples in wills and trusts formation, estate planning, contracts and other similar matters.

The lawyer shall not represent a client if representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest.

Concurrent conflict of interest exists if representation will be:

(1) directly adverse to another client, or

(2) materially limited by responsibilities to another client, former client, or a third person, or from lawyer’s own interests.

Comment 1 states that loyalty and independent judgment are essential in attorney-client relationship. Comment 2 explains that to resolve a conflict of interest problem, the attorney must clearly identify the client(s) and decide whether representation may continue and, if so, consult with affected client(s) and obtain informed consent in writing.

Rule 1.16, Declining or Terminating Representation

Rule 1.16(b)(1) states the attorney may withdraw from representing a client if it can be “accomplished without material adverse effect on the interests of the client.”

Rule 1.16(c) states the lawyer must comply with applicable law requiring notice to or permission of a tribunal when terminating representation. A tribunal may order the lawyer to continue representation despite good cause for termination.

Comment 1 explains the lawyer should not accept representation in a matter unless it can be performed competently, promptly, without improper conflict of interest and to completion. In effect, if the lawyer reasonably believes the person lacks capacity to make informed decisions, he may decline representation without necessarily seeking reasonable protective action.

Comment 6 adds that before representation is withdrawn, the lawyer should make special effort to help the client — with severely diminished capacity — consider the consequences of a discharge and may take reasonably necessary protective action as provided in Rule 1.14.

Rule 1.14, Client with Diminished Capacity

Rule 1.14(a) states the lawyer must maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship, as far as reasonably possible, even with the client has diminished capacity.

Comment 1 notes, “The normal client-lawyer relationship is based on the assumption that the client, when properly advised and assisted, is capable of making decisions about important matters.” It adds that when the client “suffers from a diminished mental capacity, however, maintaining the ordinary client-lawyer relationship may not be possible in all respects.”

Rule 1.14(b) allows the lawyer to take reasonable protection action when the lawyer reasonably believes the client has diminished capacity, is at risk of substantial physical, financial or other harm unless action is taken, and cannot adequately act in his/her own interest.

Comment 5 specifies that protective action includes consulting with family members; using a reconsideration period to permit clarification or improved circumstances; using durable powers of attorney; and consulting with support groups, professional services, adult-protective agencies, or other persons and entities available to protect the client.

In certain situations, the lawyer may seek guidance from an appropriate diagnostician. Protective action may involve seeking assistance from third parties in determining whether to seek the appointment of a guardian ad litem, conservator or guardian.

Rule 1.14(c) states the lawyer may reveal confidential information (protected by Rule 1.6) to the extent reasonably necessary to protect the client’s interest, when taking reasonably necessary protective action.

Comment 6 states, “In determining the extent of the client’s diminished capacity, the lawyer should consider and balance such factors as: 1) the client’s ability to articulate reasoning leading to a decision; 2) variability of state of mind and ability to appreciate consequences of a decision; the substantive fairness of a decision; and 3) the consistency of a decision with the known long-term commitments and values of the client.

Undue influence from a family member, caregiver or other third party should not be confused with diminished capacity, although the two are sometimes intertwined. Through manipulation or isolation, a stronger person might convince the weaker person to do something he would not otherwise do without the undue influence. This is a major factor for financial exploitation that the lawyer needs to consider when working with elderly clients with diminished capacity.

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Most lawyers – especially without special training — will find it very difficult to determine whether a client with diminished capacity can still make “adequately considered decisions.” Rule 1.14(b) subjects the lawyer to the standard of reasonableness and requires only that the lawyer “reasonably believes” the client has diminished capacity, which may be inferred from the circumstances.

As part of the normal attorney-client relationship, lawyers may not substitute their opinion or judgment for that of their clients, even when the client has diminished capacity due to mental impairment (e.g. Alzheimer’s or dementia). In appropriate situations, lawyers may consult with a medical or mental health diagnostician or other professional for help in evaluating a client’s capacity to act in his or her own interest. They may disclose only enough information reasonably necessary to take contemplated protective action in cases where the client is at risk of substantial harm.

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NOTE: On Monday, February 3, 2020, I will co-present the ethics session at Minnesota CLE’s live in-person seminar, A Lawyer’s Guide to Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Wills & Estate Planning attorney, Stuart Bear of Chestnut Cambronne P.A., and I will discuss Ethical Issues for Attorneys: How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Competency, Conflicts, and More.

To register or learn more, click HERE.  


This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 


Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do What – Step 2 (Match Your Chronotype with the Task and Time of Day)

Doing the right kind of task at the right time of day is key to peak performance. At any given hour, your circadian rhythm affects your concentration, energy and mood level. Is your focus sharp or scattered? Are you alert or tired? Do you feel up or down? Your internal body clock largely affects how much sleep you need, your ideal wake up time and bedtime, and your mental acuity and emotional state throughout the day.

In his book, The Power of When, Dr. Michael Breus notes that your sleep chronotype affects the secretion of hormones, which are crucial for specific activities. Cortisol makes you more alert while melatonin makes you sleepy.

Dr. Breus distinguishes the sleep chronotypes into four categories: Lion (morning type), Wolf (nighttime type), Bear (middle of the road type) and Dolphin (difficult sleeper with often erratic sleep schedules). Meanwhile, in his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Daniel Pink uses the more familiar-sounding chronotype categories: Early-riser Lark; late-night Owl, and in-between Third Bird.

You achieve peak performance when you know your chronotype and match it with the task at hand and the time of day. In the related article, Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do What – Step 1, you can read more information on the different chronotypes and how to discover yours.

Three Categories of Tasks

Once you have determined your chronotype, your next step is to organize your tasks into categories. As described in Pink’s book, there are three:

Analytic Tasks

Analytic tasks involve heads-down work that demands high focus, mental sharpness and vigilance. Examples include learning and processing new information, doing legal research, analyzing documents and records, writing a legal brief, solving a difficult problem, making an important decision, actively participating in a strategic meeting, and presenting at a trial or hearing.

Insight Tasks

Insight tasks involve creative work that requires a wider focus, curiosity, imagination, and a good mood. Examples include outlining an article, brainstorming solutions, tackling novel problems with new ideas, asking better questions, and holding meetings to build relationships and rapport.

Administrative Tasks

Administrative tasks involve busy work or routine work that is fairly easy to complete and do not need a lot of brain power or heavy lifting. Examples are processing emails, making and returning telephone calls, responding to inquiries, updating case notes and progress reports, entering expenses, scheduling meetings, tidying up, and organizing files. Generally, these tasks can be automated, delegated or deferred with minor consequences.

Three Stages of the Day

On any given day, there are three stages where our energy peaks, dips and recovers. They are Peak-Trough-Recovery. Larks and Third Birds (most of us) experience our Peak in the morning, our Trough in the early-to mid-afternoon, and our Recovery in the early evening. Night Owls, however, experience a reverse pattern, i.e. Recovery in the morning, Trough in the early-to-mid-afternoon, and Peak in the late afternoon and into the evening.

When to Do What

For peak performance, you need to align your chronotype, task and time of day. The table below summarizes the best times of the time day to perform certain tasks, based on your chronotype:

Use your peak period to focus on deep, important work and analytic, cognitively-demanding tasks. When you’re in your recovery period, switch to insight, creativity-driven tasks. Avoid administrative work, like processing emails, and time-wasters like reading online news, at peak hours or recovery stages of the day.

How to Protect Peak Hours

Each day, you need to leverage your peak hours by reserving them for analytic, focused work or insight, creative-thinking work. There are two main things you can do protect your peak hours.

1. Prioritize your most important task (even when it’s not urgent) through time blocking. This involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch or stack of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.

A priority doesn’t always have to be handled first thing in the morning or at at the start of the work day. Just make sure you set an appropriate time to take care of it. Be sure to match the task with your energy level, personal circumstances, and external environment.

For example, do your deep work when your mental clarity and attention span are at its peak, you have the fewest interruptions, and you have access to a quiet workspace (or can at least choose your background noise).  Do your administrative tasks when your energy is low (e.g. afternoon or after lunch), you are more distraction-prone, and your workspace is noisier and more chaotic. 

High-cognitive tasks

In a time block, focus on a single high-cognitive task, like writing a legal brief. Refrain from multitasking — such as handling questions from your paralegal or responding to emails from clients — during this time block. To encourage focus, you can theme your days or theme the hour.

Theming your day could look like this: Monday – client communications; Tuesday – client work and assignments; Wednesday – internal meetings; Thursday – client work and assignments; Friday – brainstorming or solo thinking session.

Theming your hour could include: 9 to 10 am: client communications; 10 to 12 pm: client work and assignments (e.g. writing a legal brief); 1 to 2 pm: internal meetings; 3 to 4 pm: client work and assignments (e.g. editing a legal brief); 4:30 to 5:30 pm: brainstorming or solo thinking session.

Focusing on just one task is important because the human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is not possible when (1) at least one of the tasks requires focus or effort to complete, and (2) the tasks involve similar types of brain processing. Performing two or more tasks at one time can only be done by “switch tasking” (switch back and forth between two or more tasks). This leaves a cognitive residue that takes about 15 to 25 minutes to clear up so you can refocus on the initial task.

Low-cognitive tasks

When it comes to similar, low-level tasks that do not require much mental focus, you can use batch processing. This means performing then sequentially and quickly after each other in one time block. For example, you can return all your telephone calls or respond to email inquiries in one time block.

For routine or habitual, low-level tasks, you can use stacking. This means performing one task while the other operates in the background. Examples include walking with a colleague while you discuss a work issue during your lunch break; listening to an educational podcast while you commute to work; or playing classical music or ambient sounds of a cafe (like on Coffitivity or Hipstersound) while you update your case notes. Stacking is a great way to boost your mood when you’re dealing with mundane work. (SIDE NOTE: Stacking can also work very well with insight work.)

2. Schedule and take real breaks that allow you to fully detach from your work. Breaks may be solo (e.g. meditation, reading a calming book) or social (e.g. chatting with a colleague about the upcoming weekend; having lunch with a good friend). Getting outside is better than staying inside. Movement (e.g. walking, stretching, going to the gym) is also preferred to being stationary, especially if you have been working at your desk for hours.

In chronobiology, our ultradian rhythm is the wake-rest-activity cycle that repeats throughout a 24-hour day. This involves alternating periods of high-frequency brain activity (roughly 90 minutes) followed by lower-frequency brain activity (approximately 20 minutes). Take a 20-minute break for every 90 minutes of work to take advantage of the daily ultradian rhythm cycle.

The Pomodoro Technique is one way to concentrate on a task for a set period and take necessary breaks. First, you identify the task to do. Second, you set a timer (typically 25 minutes).  Third, you work on the task only until the timer goes off.  After the timer rings, you check off your task. And if you give in to interruptions and distractions (e.g. checking emails, getting a snack), you reset the timer. 

If you have fewer than four check marks, take a short break (5 minutes), then go to step 2. If you have at least four check marks, take a longer break (20 to 30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, and do the steps all over again. 

Another way to take a good break is to have a Nappuccino or Nap a Latte, when you’re in the Trough. The steps are (a) Close your door, turn off your phone, and wear eye mask and ear plugs to help block light and sound; (b) Drink a cup of coffee or tea (100 to 110 mg of caffeine); (c) Nap for 10 to 20 minutes (set timer for 25 minutes).

Caffeine takes about 25 minutes to kick into the receptor sites of your brain, so by the time you wake up from your nap, you will not only feel refreshed but also energized. Be sure to wake up within 25 minutes because you want to avoid getting into deeper stages of sleep – unless you go for a full 90-minute sleep cycle.

Naps, however, are not ideal for everyone or for all chronotypes. If you suffer from insomnia or have trouble sleeping at night, you could make the problem worse with daytime naps.

How to Maximize Peak Hours

Maximizing your peak hours involves practicing habits that will help raise and sustain your energy levels. They include:

1. Limit your to-do list. Set boundaries and clarify expectations to reduce the interruptions and distractions. For example, inform your clients at the outset as to when they may expect to hear back from you in response to an inquiry. Is it within an hour, within 24 hours, or by end of business day? Do not give them your cell phone number if you do not want to be contacted whenever and however they please. If your boss or manager assigns you more work while you’re focusing on a major project, remind them of timelines and deadlines and discuss what actually takes priority.

2. Keep a consistent sleep schedule that aligns with your circadian rhythm. Dr. Breus notes that having the same wake up time and bedtime every day, including on weekends, is the single most important thing you can do for your circadian rhythm.

Here is his Bedtime Sleep Calculator to maximize sleep quality:

a. The average sleep cycle is 90 minutes long.

For Lions and Bears, a typical night of sleep includes 5 full sleep cycles, i.e. 90 x 5 = 450 minutes, or 7.5 hours. Dolphins and Wolves tend to get 4 full sleep cycles, i.e. 90 x 4 = 360 minutes, or 6 hours. Add an extra 20 minutes for Lions and Bears, and 40 minutes for Dolphins and Wolves to fall asleep.

b. Starting at your wake time, work back 7.5 hours to find your bedtime.

Ideal bedtime for Lions and Bears is calculated as follows:

90 minute sleep cycle x 5 cycles + 20 minutes to fall asleep = 470 minutes or 7.8 hours

Lions: up at 6:00 am – 470 minutes = 10:10 pm

Bears: up at 7:00 am – 470 minutes = 11:10 pm

Ideal bedtime for Wolves and Dolphins is calculated as follows:

90 minute sleep cycle x 4 cycles + 40 minutes to fall asleep = 400 minutes or 6.7 hours

Wolves: up at 7:00am – 400 minutes = 12:00 am

Dolphins: up at 6:30am – 400 minutes = 11:50 pm

3. Practice an energizing morning routine

Design a morning routine that works with your personal preferences and internal rhythm. Key ingredients you may incorporate into your morning rituals are:

Hydrate with water. When you wake up, drink 8 to 12 ounces of room temperature or lukewarm water.

Soak in bright light early in the morning, within first half hour of waking up. This lowers your melatonin level and provides vitamin D, which helps you sleep at night. Go outside and walk around the block or sit by a window to get direct sunlight in your face. Aim for at least 5 to 15 minutes and preferably 20 to 30 minute of sun exposure.

If you wake before sunrise or live in a place where there is little sunlight in certain seasons of the year, try using a bright light therapy lamp.

Have a high-protein rich and good-fats breakfast, such as a fruit smoothie, Greek yogurt, protein shake, or eggs/omelet with avocado.  Avoid carbohydrate-rich foods, which help produce serotonin and make you drowsy.

Get moving. Stretch, walk, run, dance, jump on the trampoline, or do a quick workout to wake up your body and boost your mental energy.

Take a cool shower. This stimulates blood flow, releases endorphins and triggers wakefulness. You could start with warm water and gradually turn down the water temperature. Still too much? Wash your face with cold water for similar effects.

4. Stick to a relaxing bedtime routine

Create a bedtime routine that allows you to wind down, relax and prime your mind and body for sleep. Key tips for nighttime rituals include:

Do not drink alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime. One alcohol beverage takes 1 hour to process, so give your body time to process it well before your bedtime. While alcohol might help you fall asleep more quickly, it prevents you from moving into deep sleep and reduces Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which are stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle.

Fast for at least 3 hours before bed, and preferably 4. Food tells your circadian rhythm to wake up and be alert. Have space between dinner and your bedtime for optimal functioning.

Practice relaxation methods, including meditation, gentle/restorative yoga, tai chi, stretching, or foam rolling (self massage).

Do light reading (few pages) or journaling (up to 2 to 5 minutes), but not on your computer or other electronic devices. Avoid blue light from screens at least 1 hour before bedtime because it hinders production of melatonin, the hormone needed for good sleep.

Get warm. Drink warm bedtime tea or water with lemon + honey. Take a lukewarm shower or bath, preferably 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime .

These self-care habits will help boost your energy levels, heighten alertness, and improve your mood. Peak performance results when you match your chronotype with the task and time of day and synch with your natural rhythm.

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For more information on the different chronotypes and how to determine yours, read the related article,  Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do What – Step 1 (Know Your Chronotype)


This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as specific advice for any individual case or situation.  

Dyan Williams is a solo lawyer who practices U.S. Immigration Law and Legal Ethics. She is also a productivity coach for lawyers, consultants and other professionals who seek to reduce overwhelm and make time for what truly matters.  She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at