Last September, 78-year-old Richard A. Posner retired from the United States Court of Appeals to focus on writing.  Even while serving as a full-time judge on the Seventh Circuit and part-time law professor at The University of Chicago, there is no question that Posner has been among the most productive writers ever.  Posner has authored more than 50 books and 500 scholarly articles.  As a judge, he’s heard oral arguments in over 6,000 cases and written more than 3,300 opinions deciding them.

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Photo by Nathan Webster for the New York Times

I met Judge Posner in 1995, when I was a first-year law student at The University of Chicago Law School.  He hired me as his research assistant, and I spent the better part of two years supporting his work.  Each week, he would give me a wish list of sources for whatever he was writing. In the days before the Internet, this meant scurrying between campus libraries, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures. I also cite-checked his articles and books—ensuring that his words accurately reflected the underlying sources.

A few days before my graduation, I asked Posner, “What is your secret to productivity?” His explanation was remarkably concise.  I’m going to share it later, but first, it’s important to acknowledge certain qualities (that he did not mention) contributing to his productivity.

  • Raw Intelligence. Over the course of my career, I’ve been blessed to know many brilliant academics and jurists.  These include Nobel Laureates Ronald Coase and Gary Becker, University of Chicago Professors Richard Epstein and Cass Sunstein, and U.S. Court of Appeals Judges Michael McConnell and J. Harvie Wilkinson III.  All of them were born with incredible intellectual firepower. At Chicago, I was able to watch them spar at Law & Economics Workshops. Even among such luminaries, Judge Posner stood out. But intelligence is like wealth.  It suffers from diminishing returns.  As Charlie Sheen’s character Bud Fox quipped in the movie Wall Street: “How many yachts can you water-ski behind? How much is enough?”  At some point, being more intelligent ceases to meaningfully increase productivity.  Although Judge Posner has boasted, “I am fast, I cover a lot of ground,” even he is limited by how quickly he can write.
  • Sacrifices/Discipline. Productivity requires discipline.  Human beings cannot manufacture more time, and productivity is a function of time management.  As Judge Posner has explained in many interviews:

“I don’t do much.  I don’t take vacations.  My wife and I don’t go out often. Sometimes for dinner or the theater, but not often.  So I work weekends, nights.  I have lots of time and I write.” “When you’re just talking with your friends about trivia, what’s the point?” “I don’t go to cocktail parties.”

Sacrificing such leisure activities helped Posner create time for writing.

  • Structure. Structure also advances productivity.  The Posner I worked with liked his routines.  He got up at the same time every morning, went to the courthouse, and either heard cases or wrote judicial opinions.  Afterwards, he often met with his research assistants or taught courses at The University of Chicago Law School.  Then he went home and wrote until dinner, followed by more writing until 11:30 at night, when he would take a walk with his wife before going to bed. On the weekends, he’d exercise and keep writing. He wrote seven days a week.

But none of the above was mentioned in Judge Posner’s answer to my question. In fact, he expressly disavowed having any routine.  Posner does not have a quota of pages to write each day.  Nor does he block off specific times for writing.  Rather, Judge Posner said the secret to his productivity is integration.  He integrates writing into the very fabric of his life. Writing fills every gap when he is not doing something else.  Writing is the background default, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

I remember being surprised by his answer.  It’s funny how a few words can change how one thinks.  Until then, I viewed time as being walled off between work and leisure. I had been more of a separator than an integrator.  Once my day’s work was done, I disconnected from it.  I didn’t work when I was on vacation.

But Posner’s answer changed me, and I transformed myself from a separator to an integrator. Twenty-three years later, I continue to benefit from Judge Posner’s advice.  Not having artificial boundaries has increased my productivity. When I have extra time, I fill it by working on client matters or writing books and articles.  The extra hours earned from integration have added up over the years.  Counterintuitively, integration also can be liberating.  I don’t worry about going on vacations, being out of the office, or getting calls on the weekends—because I expect to be working at some point.  Instead of work stacking up, it gets addressed on a continuous basis.

Ultimately, productivity is all about time.  A television miniseries about Henry VIII recently showed the King, late in life, having dinner with his closest friend, the Duke of Suffolk.

King Henry VIII: In these last days Your Grace, I have been thinking a great deal about loss. What loss Your Grace, is to man most irrecoverable?

Duke of Suffolk: His virtue.

King Henry VIII: No, for by his actions, he may redeem his virtue.

Duke of Suffolk: Then his honor.

King Henry VIII: No, for again he may find the means to recover it.

Their conversation could go on and on.  Fortunes can be lost and recovered.  The same is true of health.  While people are irreplaceable, there can be new loves, friendships, children, and grandchildren.

Duke of Suffolk: Then I cannot say, Your Majesty.

King Henry VIII: Time, Your Grace. Of all losses, time is the most irrecoverable, for it can never be redeemed.

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Curious about whether such a conversation actually took place, I consulted Alison Weir and Margaret George, authors of Henry VIII biographies.  Both confirmed there is no such historical account.  Even so, the story does resonate.  Think of how careful we are to protect our loved ones, health, bank accounts, homes, and reputations.  Are we as careful about our time?

Maybe you do not want to spend your background time as Judge Posner does, writing books and articles.  But when minutes or hours become available, how do you want to spend them?  Perhaps the universal lesson from Judge Posner’s secret to productivity is that we need to make a conscious decision about how we spend the margins of our lives.  If we fail to do so, we risk letting time irretrievably slip away.

About the Gaille Energy Blog.  The Gaille Energy Blog (view counter = 70,158) discusses issues in the field of energy law, with periodic posts at www.gaillelaw.com. Scott Gaille is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School, an Adjunct Professor in Management at Rice University’s Graduate School of Business, and the author of three books on energy law (Construction Energy Development, Shale Energy Development,and International Energy Development).

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