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Saturday, December 30, 2006

"This Is Your Brain on Law School...": Stimulants vs My "30-Hour Day" Plan

On Conglomerate, Vic Fleischer had an interesting post about the phenomenon of law students taking stimulants to try to enhance their exam performance.  One aspect of the discussion that interested me (in part because I may well have gotten something dead wrong) went as follows:

  • Vic asked, "is there any empirical evidence that Adderall enhances concentration or exam performance for students without ADHD?"
  • I suggested, "this [pill phenomenon] is another argument against the traditional short, rush-to-finish, closed-book law school exam, which places a premium on (1) speed, (2) memorization, and (3) intense short-term focus -- traits that really aren't at the heart of most lawyering (and certainly not at the heart of legal academic work)." 
  • Josh Wright disagreed: "not sure if I follow why pills which keep students up and able to concentrate for longer would yield less benefit in a longer exam rather than a 'normal' 3 hour final (btw, pills like these and others are alleged to be fairly popular in the poker tournament world where concentration and endurance are at a premium). "

Josh may well be right, but let me disclose where I got my intuition: a weird little medical experiment I once performed on myself.  As a fall 2L in 1996, I was hopelessly behind on finals studying, and I somehow decided this would help: I spent 3 weeks living 30-hour days, alternating 7-8 hours sleep with a 22-23 hour caffeine-induced stupor.  I did get an awful lot of studying done, but several problems arose:

  • If I happened to be up at hour 23 or 24, I was near collapse -- literally.  One day, I was studying at a coffee shop (caffeine!) 5 minutes from home and lost track of time; it turns out I was approaching hour 24.  I almost couldn't finish the 5-minute walk home.
  • My social life got complicated because every day my bedtime moved 6 hours later.  I took to putting a graph paper chart on my door for my roommates showing when I'd be sleeping each day (I'm not kidding).  I'd just started dating someone new, and it wasn't wonderful to have to respond to a dinner suggestion with, "unm, tomorrow I'm scheduled to be asleep 2 pm to 10 pm; can we make it an early lunch, which will be my dinner?"
  • Some days I was nocturnal (e.g., sleeping 8 am to 4 pm), which was creepy and depressing.
  • As I entered weeks 2 and 3, I still was getting a lot done, but I was getting dumber.  My ability to focus remained, but I was getting... slow....  It was like I was living Flowers for Algernon.  This is confirmed by the fact that my grades on my four finals were in the exact order I took them; the last of the four finals was the easiest but was my worst grade.

Ultimately, I concluded, the 30-hour day would be great for a few days but was close to a disaster, on both a personal and an academic level, when extended into weeks.  The human body often can survive pushing its limits for a short time, but not for that long.

Posted by Scott on December 30, 2006 at 03:50 PM | Permalink


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Yes, it would just be a cautionary tell of what not to do.


Posted by: Mark Polson | Jan 2, 2007 3:58:23 PM

Feel free to mention this (as long as you don't imply that I, as a law professor, endorse your or any other such good or service) -- given that I'm the one who wrote this post, I certainly have no problem laughing at myself for this (or encouraging others to laugh at me for it), and if anyone can treat this as a cautionary tale that might actually be useful, all the better!

Posted by: Scott Moss | Dec 31, 2006 10:42:52 AM


This is a classic story! I realize you don't know me, but I have spent the last year and half of my free time working on website that would essentially help prevent this sort of extreme burnout. The site is called Gradefix.com. We have had a lot of law student sign up for it. Gradefix is a site that a student can enter in their homework and the site has a smart algorithm that calculates the optimal path to getting their work done within the constraints the normal student has. The students who use our site and enter their homework enough ahead of time have a clear path to staying on top of it all before it turns into a cramming nightmare. I realize this might offend you, but I would like to know if I could post your story as an example of what a nightmare law school can be like if one does not budget out their time.

Glad to hear that you made it through that semester. We agree with you that top performance is not found by using stimulants and cramming too much into the end.

Best Regards,

Posted by: Mark Polson | Dec 30, 2006 5:51:23 PM

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