• Cynthia Sharp

A Mindful Approach to Productivity

Focus on being productive instead of busy.—Tim Ferriss


Nowadays, many attorneys report that they are not only getting less work done overall, but that it’s taking them longer to do it (a telltale sign of burnout). We interviewed one solo practitioner who decided to take action to improve her efficiency after she recognized her productivity was not where she wanted (or needed!) it to be.


Meghan started tracking her workday after growing frustrated that she wasn’t getting her work done in a timely manner. She quickly discovered why her productivity was waning. Throughout the day, Meghan found she faced constant distractions that took away from planned projects. For example, throughout the day she would immediately respond to any incoming phone call or email. Filings that weren’t yet due would get pushed back to deal with the inevitable “fire drills” that popped up during the day. With a mindset of “too much to do and too little time to do it,” Meghan would always take lunch at her desk while multitasking on case files. She also experienced frequent interruptions from staff when her sign-off or approval was needed.


Despite being busy all day, every day, 5:00 pm would quickly arrive, and it was like she had hardly anything to show for it! Meghan’s overall productivity and efficiency fell victim to some of the common efficiency obstacles that lawyers face on a daily basis. Below we outline some of the common pitfalls that can negatively impact our legal work, as well as proven law practice management strategies to improve your productivity.


Why Lawyers Lose Focus


Do you find yourself multitasking or constantly switching gears throughout your workday? Most attorneys do. Did you know that “multitasking” may actually be a myth? In reality, our brains are designed to focus on a singular task at hand. It is a very rare person who can actually do two things at once without negative impacts on their performance; according to one study, only 2.5 percent of people have this ability! Indeed, studies confirm that switching between separate tasks (especially complex ones) makes us more prone to unforced errors and hampers our overall efficiency.


As Meghan’s story illustrates, task-switching is all too common, as many attorneys will redirect their attention away from whatever they are working on to instantly answer incoming phone or email communications. Indeed, the modern practice of law has a host of things that can take us off task if we are not careful. Below are a few of the common obstacles that can crop up in our daily practice and ultimately hinder our work performance:


Constant connectivity. The pressure of constant connectivity makes many attorneys feel they need to be available at all times. As such, many will immediately respond to phone calls or incoming emails—regardless of how important the communication actually is or when it was received.


Law practice management. Have you ever wasted time searching for a particular case file? A lack of organization and formalized office management system can be a recipe for inefficiency that not only eats up our limited time but may even increase our client’s bill.


Work environment. How our office space is set up can greatly help or hurt our overall productivity. As many lawyers continue doing fully remote or hybrid work, they may face additional distractions and challenges during the workday. For example, when working from home, we may have children, pets, or others vying for our attention.


Interruptions. Have you ever been fully engrossed in a project only to be interrupted by a staff member or colleague? Unpredictable interruptions—whether in-person or by phone or email—may unduly take away time from our planned commitments and ultimately hamper our work performance when we do return to our previous task.


Burnout. The additional stressors and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic left many lawyers facing full-blown occupational burnout. Overall, burnout and unresolved stress can degrade our mental clarity, lower our ability to focus and concentrate, and leave us with low energy and motivation. Further, many lawyers rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms such as social media or drugs and alcohol to self-medicate this chronic stress, which can further exacerbate their underlying burnout symptoms.


After tracking her activities for two weeks, Meghan found that, on average, she got more than 150 email notifications, 20 calls, and ten in-person interruptions a day. It was evident that these distractions were taking a toll on her focus and efficiency. With newfound awareness of how this unfettered workday was negatively affecting her performance, Meghan made the conscious decision to mindfully assess her productivity “problem areas” and make changes where necessary. Indeed, actively adopting a mindful approach to our everyday practice can help us nix unhelpful habits and ultimately strengthen our overall productivity and efficiency.


Working Toward Mindful Productivity


Even though Meghan wasn’t sure where to start, she dedicated herself to research and quickly learned that mindful productivity can be achieved by consistently focusing awareness on the present moment and concentrating on the task at hand as opposed to bouncing from thought to thought. Like most people, Meghan did not know that it was possible to harness her thoughts, believing that she was destined to suffer from “monkey mind” for life.


Early in her productivity journey, Meghan learned that an effective way to gain control over her mind was through mindfulness meditation. Initially, she was a bit skeptical but was convinced to give it a try when she ran across a National Institutes of Health study demonstrating changes in brain structure of participants in an eight-week meditation program. She experimented with meditation methods until she found several that resonated with her, including box-breathing and alternate nostril breathing, which are simple, science-based practices proven to deliver fast results. If you don’t believe this, why not try one of these techniques right now?


Using mindfulness as a foundation, Meghan began to consciously shift her mindset—as well as her habits. She realized that the distractions holding her back from optimum performance could be strategically managed. If you wish to dedicate yourself to positive change, why not consider implementing one of the following approaches today? Keep in mind that small actions taken consistently and persistently can lead to huge results.


Strategies to Manage Distractions


In her quest to attain peak performance, Meghan began trying to give each task or project laser-focus attention. As the idiom goes, “easier said than done.” Real life is filled with both external and internal distractions, but if you make a plan to avoid and control them, performance will definitely improve. Consider the following strategies to set yourself up for success in your day-to-day practice:


1. Take charge of your day by making a plan. Before leaving work each evening, ask yourself the following question: “What must happen tomorrow in order for me to consider it a day well spent?” Take a few minutes to identify your priority projects and make a short “must-do” list. Organize your work right then so that you can hit the ground running the next morning instead of spending time on “the setup.” When scheduling your day, take into account your body rhythms. For example, if you are more creative in the morning, schedule administrative and routine tasks (such as deleting emails) toward the end of the day.


Instead of being faced with a morass of uncertainty, having a written plan will help you enhance productivity and also reduce anxiety because you have a concrete map of the day in front of you. When an urgent project hijacks a lawyer from the matter at hand, the plan serves as a guiding light to help the attorney resume work.


2. Take control of your projects by establishing time frames and benchmarks. Beginning projects well ahead of time allows creative juices the opportunity to flow and increases the chances of meeting deadlines without undue stress. Upon being assigned a project (or getting a new case), immediately make a plan for its completion and calendar artificial deadlines that will lead you to a relaxed and creative conclusion of the project on time.


3. Create a fortress that protects you from external distractions. Begin by identifying common interruptions that interfere with your work day. Two common interrupters are people and technology:


People. Explain to loved ones, clients, and colleagues that you set aside a certain number of hours each day to work without interruption. Tell them that you will be fully available for them outside of those time frames (but, naturally, they should contact you if an emergent matter arises). Put a “do-not-disturb” sign on your office door during times you wish to work alone. Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones can also be effective in helping you create your own distraction-free environment. As an aside, realize that some supervising attorneys may not respect your request, which is a topic for another day.


Technology. Technology is an external distracter only if we allow it to be. Let this be a reminder to mute alerts and reminders on all your devices unless you are expecting a time-sensitive communication. A recent study demonstrates how these random noises can create chaos in your mind, as well as in the minds of those around you. If you are interested in additional information on this topic, check out our articles “How to Mindfully Take Charge of Your Digital Life” and “A Mindful Approach to Email.”


4. Manage internal distractions. An internal distraction is also known as a thought. Because we have 50,000 to 90,000 thoughts per day, our inner landscape will fall into absolute havoc unless we learn to harness random thoughts. As Meghan’s study of mindfulness progressed, she learned tools to help snap herself back to the present moment as her mind wandered. Even the minds of experienced mindfulness practitioners go astray; however, they are equipped to note the “wandering mind” quickly and to dismiss the unwanted thought. One technique is to treat the thought as a cloud that is floating through your consciousness. When the thought is noted, say to yourself, “that’s interesting,” and give it no further energy or regard. With practice, you can quickly recognize and dismiss internal intrusions and quickly carry on and refocus on the task at hand.


Moving Forward


Improving your focus and concentration will yield many benefits in the legal world. You will stand out as an efficient, productive professional and be rewarded financially as a result. This worthwhile objective can be attained by those who mindfully manage distractions and make strategic use of their time. Ask yourself, am I managing my time, or is my time managing me?

In our next column, we will explore the positive role that gratitude can play in the professional context.


Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (legalburnout.com), a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers.


Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, November 2022 Issue (Vol. 12, No. 4) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.


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