Solving the Multitasking Problem?

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


  1. As attorneys, we are finely tuned to the cost of time. Unfortunately, like most business people we somehow convince ourselves that there is, and always will be, an abundance of it! A recent McKinsey & Co. survey reported that this mismatch of reality and perception is a root cause of unproductivity and career dissatisfaction in the business and professional worlds. (See, “Making Time an Organization’s Priority, McKinsey & Co., January 2013)
    My work with lawyers and legal professionals focuses on “time management,” but my perspective is to help clients make the best use of the time they have. My method is called QuietSpacing because that is the core objective – to quiet down our internal and external spaces so we can be more focused. Increased focus results in more things getting done – increased productivity.
    We enjoy what we do more when we’re getting things done. Accomplishment is a cornerstone to success, and success is a feeling not a result.
    The math of my work is simple: A six-minute increase in productivity each day aggregates into twenty-four additional hours of accomplishment each year. Depending on how you want to value that added productivity, it’s either $7,000 in increased billings (at $250/hour) or three eight-hour days of work off your desk. How do those sound to you?
    Here are my top three time making suggestions, extracted from my book “Focus Pocus: Twenty-Four Tricks for Regaining Command of Your Day” (Amazon):
    1. Turn New Message Alerts Off/Periodically Check Inboxes. Professionals receive around 100 emails each day. Being interrupted every time one hits the inbox destroys concentration. Turn off the alerts and check the inbox frequently – even three or four times per hour. That way, you are deciding when to focus on email instead of the email deciding for you.
    2. Create a Designated Workspace. Our peripheral vision never stops scanning the 120 degrees that the average human eye sees. Everything within that scope is constantly being assessed as friend or foe. Designate an area – the entire desk top – as a “quiet space” in which to work by removing absolutely everything from it. Place only the one thing being worked on in that space and see how your mind is able to get laser focused on it.
    3. Face Away from Traffic. Turning your desk so it doesn’t face the door is a good way to double down on the peripheral vision concept. Have the door off the back of one shoulder so that those passing by don’t catch your eye. Make this suggestion even more effective by mostly closing your door. Now, when people walk by, they can see you are in the office and you’re busy working. If they have questions, they’ll still knock, but for those who don’t the message is clear – keep on walking.
    Hope those help! PHB

    • Avatar static says:

      Cool infomercial, bro. And it doesn’t brand you as a total douchebag loser to pump and dump yourself in the comments to someone else’s post. Not at all.

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