Stop Chasing Squirrels: Top Tips for Managing Time & Distractions

Guest Author: Paul Unger, Affinity Consulting Group

150 emails, … 50 instant messages, … 20 telephone calls, … 15 walk-in interruptions, … 25 social media notifications, … 50 internet curiosity breaks, … that totals over 300 digital interruptions.  Most lawyers are interrupted every 2-3 minutes!

In a 2007 Microsoft Corp. study, researchers concluded that it takes 15 minutes to return to the work that computer programmers were performing at the time of an electronic-based interruption.  If we get interrupted every 2-3 minutes, and it takes 15 minutes to return to the work we were performing, how do we get anything done during the course of the day? This is why we look at our timesheets at 5 pm and see only 3-4 hours of billable time, but we feel like we put in a 14-hour day.

The reality is that we live in an age of information overload. Do you ever wonder why your head is in a constant fog and you are unable to focus? Experts call it Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) and it is a world-wide epidemic.

ADT is a relative to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), but it is very different in that ADT is purely environmentally induced, where ADD or ADHD has a genetic etiology that can be triggered by ADT.  In today’s age of information overload, those environmental factors are technology-based.  In other words, ADT is a condition that is in large part caused by the technology and connectivity that we love so much. Yes, the very technology that we love so much is causing us to walk around with foggy brains and causing us to underperform.  The scary part is that no one knows the long-term effects of information overload. However, some shorter-term studies suggest that the problem is getting worse. More recent studies show that it takes slightly over 23 minutes to return to the work we were performing at the time of a digital interruption.

What can we do about it?  We need to rethink and realign the way that we live with technology.  We combat ADT and overcome our inability to focus by attacking ADT on three fronts:

  • Personal & Workplace Health
  • Attention Management Skills
  • Learning a Time, Task & Email Methodology

Personal Health is important on two fronts – Physical and Mental.  Physically, we know that when we are well-rested and healthy, we feel like we can conquer anything.  When we are ill and/or sleep-deprived, every situation sometimes seems to be much more difficult.  As an example, we know that we cannot eat a foot-long sub sandwich, a bag of chips and piece of pie for lunch and come back and expect to stay awake or concentrate.  From a mental health perspective, we also know how difficult it is to concentrate and be productive when we are depressed, or when we are focusing on a personal relationship that is suffering.  We can’t ignore these two important areas of our personal life.

Workplace or Organizational Health is also very important.  We know how difficult it is sometimes to focus in an environment that is toxic.  We need to focus on ways to improve workplace health.  I am not a subject matter expert on this, but a great starting point that I recommend would be two books – Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage, both by Patrick Lencioni.

Top 5 Attention Management Skills

Attention Management Skills is the second front that we need to address to combat ADT.  As it relates to this, here are 5 Attention Management tips today that are easy, practical, and will make a big impact on your ability to focus:

  1. Turn Off Notifications. Notifications are over-used. Why would we give the entire world a hotline to our brain?  Turn all notifications off!  In Outlook, email notifications can be turned off by navigating to File > Options > Mail and deselecting the four different methods of notifying you when a new message arrives.  On an iPhone, go to Settings > Notifications and go through and turn off notifications by App.
  2. Practice Single Tasking. It is not enough to say that multi-tasking is bad.  We need to practice single tasking.  We need to clear our desks AND our multiple monitors of information that is not directly relevant to the task that we are executing.  For example, you should minimize Outlook on your second monitor while you are drafting a document.  Email is one of the most chaotic distractions known to man in the 21st century.  That is insane if you think about it.  Email feeds our fires every 30 seconds to 5 minutes.  How can we possibly focus if we see those fires land in our inbox?
  3. Pomodoro. Pomodoro is an easy technique that utilizes the 25-minute tomato timer.  We single-task (preferably deep-thought work) for 25 minutes and then take a break and do whatever we want for 5 minutes.  In other words, we work in intervals and then we give our brain a rest and reset.  The human brain functions very well maintaining attention to a single task for 25 minutes.  After 25 minutes, we begin to lose focus.  Many, including yours truly, go longer than 25 minutes.  I usually Pomodoro for 55 minutes and then take a 5-minute break.  This technique will make a huge impact on productivity and will also help combat procrastination.  Once we get a little momentum going and we get immersed in the project, it becomes a lot easier.
  4. Tackle Deep-Thought Work Early in the Day. Dive into deep-thought work, writing, and other projects early morning.  There is little question about it … our brains function better following quiet time or sleep.  We also know that we can be highly productive while the rest of the world is sleeping because there are far fewer (if any) interruptions.  This can be one of the most productive times of the day.
  5. Create Rituals. Rituals are small checklists or short rigid schedules designed to execute the same desired tasks during a set period.  Rituals keep you on task.  They are extremely helpful because they help us form positive habits and prevent us from checking email or taking internet curiosity breaks.  As an example, I have a morning administrative ritual from 7:30 am until 9:00 am that looks something like this:
      • Eat breakfast at my desk (Oatmeal) and take my vitamins
      • Reach out to one new organization for business development (speaking)
      • Ask a potential client or existing client to grab coffee in a city where I am speaking
      • Review my potential new client report
      • Check in on recent client projects
      • Check LinkedIn
      • Send birthday wishes
      • Check in with my partners
      • Check in with my team
      • Other administrative tasks

Rituals also remind us to do things that we frequently forget … things that we commit ourselves to do as New Year resolutions or annual goals.  By adding rituals and checklists into your life, you can greatly enhance your ability to focus and do those things that seem to always fall off our radar.  I discovered an awesome App for the iPhone/iPad called Simple Checklist to organize all my rituals and/or checklists.

Learning a Time, Task and Email Management Methodology is the third front that we need to address.  We need an effective way to (1) process the hundreds of digital and human interruptions/tasks that we receive during a day, and (2) organize the tasks, digital information, and paper information that hits our desk.  In other words, we need a digital methodology to get organized … and stay organized.  If we don’t have system in place, we will operate in state of chaos.  Studies show that if we do not have an effective task management system to capture our tasks and file away that information, we continue to worry about those things, which has an enormous impact on our ability to focus.  I am an advocate of using and customizing tools like Microsoft 365, our smartphones and other technology to process this information.  I also think that legal document management systems can be extremely helpful to legal professionals.

I have shared my Tame the Digital Chaos methodology in a webinar hosted by LESA in spring, 2023. The on-demand program, How to Better Manage your Workload and Time: Distraction, Email, Task & Time Management for Legal Professionals is now available. Learn how to make technology your servant, instead of you being a servant to technology!

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Paul Unger ([email protected]) is a national speaker, author and thought leader in the field of legal technology. He is the author of Tame the Digital Chaos, a book dedicated to helping legal professionals with distraction, email, task & time management. It is available on Amazon here.

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