I have two monitors on both my home and office computers. At any given time I have 6-15 tabs open in Chrome. I talk on the phone, review my calendar, and respond to e-mail at the same time. And, apparently, it is slowly increasing my stress, demolishing my productivity, and possibly hurting my IQ. It has gotten bad. I go through spurts of focused productivity, but quickly lapse back into my multi-tasking ways. Many of our readers are probably no better.

What’s that? You do it all the time? You’re “good at multitasking?” Peter Bregman at the Harvard Business Review points to a study which concluded in part that people who multitask regularly are often worse at it than those who do it once in a while.

The Problem

Clay Johnson wrote on Lifehacker that too many people focus on managing the information that comes to us daily. We use RSS feeds and other content curators to keep some of the overwhelming information tide at bay. But Johnson says the key to unlocking our productivity potential isn’t managing information. It’s managing our attention span.

It’s not a new idea. Nor is the research novel. In an article for The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr paints a picture that may sound frighteningly familiar:

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

For lawyers, this can be a big problem. We aren’t paid (usually) to quickly scan a document and come to an off-the-cuff conclusion. The appeal of this particular service industry is in our ability to digest, analyze, and think. It’s reminiscent of a conversation I had with Scott Greenfield when I first opened my law firm. He told me one of the things we can’t lose sight of as lawyers is our ability and duty to think. To really sink our teeth into a problem (my carnivore analogy, not his) until we have a solution. He later expanded on the idea.

But how well can we think if we’re constructing our thoughts in 140 characters? When our phone is constantly ringing how can we keep our mind on the task at hand? If we check our cell phones every six-and-a-half minutes, how can we ever bill a respectable .3? Of course what Carr, Johnson, and Bregman are getting at is that we cannot.

Fighting for a Solution

In his Lifehacker article, Johnson was really talking my language. He analogized training the brain to training for a marathon. Johnson implemented a system of “interval training” for his brain. He works for a certain amount of time, then takes a break. His general advice:

  1. Do slightly less than you think you’re capable of [in terms of setting a timer for sustained focus].
  2. Increase your capacity while staying under that bar (#1)
  3. You’re not going to run the attention fitness equivalent of a marathon today. Start slow.

In a way, I’ve already started. I found that unscheduled client phone calls were cutting into my productivity and stressing me out. So I turned them off. Even eliminating that one distraction has proved useful. But it isn’t enough. Like Johnson, I’ve come up with a plan to try and refocus my brain, and hopefully get more done in a day.

Eliminating E-mail

Some days I wish we could go back to oldie times. Letters, ravens, wax seals, the whole bit. Give me a week to respond to your letter. But that is not the world we live in. I don’t think many of my clients would appreciate it if I started responding to them on a weekly or monthly basis. Instead, following some advice in The 4-Hour Workweek I’ve turned off all e-mail notifications. No sounds, lights, or even push notifications on my phone.

In his book Ferris recommends checking e-mail only once or twice a day. I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’m shooting for once every couple hours.

Turning off Netflix

One benefit of being half boss is that there is nobody looking over my shoulder, except when my partner sneaks up behind me. I have no qualms about watching some internet video while I’m doing some data entry, going through mail, etc. But it probably isn’t great for me, as the research cited above suggests. So although it will cut into my ability to catch up on House of Cards, I’m putting the streaming video to rest for now.

Making the Breaks Worthwhile

During his breaks, Johnson prepares for his next burst of productivity by opening necessary files and websites. Forget that. When I’m taking a mental break it will be a proper break. During the off periods I will check my phone, do a bit of stretching, bang out some push-ups. Whatever I feel like. The trick is to keep the breaks short.

Breaking the Rules

If my marathon training program says I have a 6 mile run at race pace and I go .25 miles and feel horrible, I will change the plan. Similarly, I believe if one is trying to focus for an extended period of time, and it isn’t happening, it’s time for a break. So I don’t plan on beating myself up if I do 15 minutes when I had planned to do 20.

(image: Stress at work via SHUTTERSTOCK