A Lawyer’s Guide to Managing Distractions

Productivity tips

We are delighted to have Grace Marshall, Head Coach and Chief Encourager at Grace-Marshall.com and a Productivity Ninja with Think Productive, and the author of “How to be Really Productive: Achieving clarity and getting results in a world where work never ends” as a guest blogger on The Attic.

As a lawyer, delivering a professional service, it’s important to be responsive – to clients, to colleagues. But when each distraction can take up 15-23 minutes (depending on which study you look at) to recover, dealing with each individual query on an ad hoc basis can be costly.

Here are five strategies to help.

#1 Question Time vs Quiet Time

There’s a likely chance that while part of your work involves being responsive to other people’s needs, another part of it requires you to have your brain to yourself. When we’re always available to everyone we’re never fully available to anyone – and we can end up doing everything badly. 

Carving out some quiet time might involve some tactical hiding: working offline, working from home, or hiding in a meeting room from time to time; deploying a ‘do not disturb’ signal in an open office; creating ‘meeting free’ zones in the day or week; or just letting your colleagues know when you need to get your head down and focus. It’s amazing how much work you can get done in even relatively small windows of uninterrupted time. It’s also amazing how many questions get resolved when you’re not there ready to respond instantly. 

On the other hand, making yourself fully available at certain times for questions can be a good way of meeting the needs of others in a focused and dedicated way. Have a dedicated ‘question time’ or ‘clinic time’ or use team huddles or 1-1s to tackle questions, and encourage your team to batch up their questions, rather than rely on just-in-time responsiveness. Of course if it’s a genuine emergency, you can be fully responsive, but these tend to be far rarer than we think. 

#2 Turn off notifications

Most of the technology you install on your computer or your phone has notifications turned on by default, tempting us into a habit of instant response and instant gratification.  

Think about it, what do you genuinely need to be instantly notified about? What can wait until you’re ready to deal with it? Try turning off notifications by default, then only turning them back on when you actually want that level of notification.  

If you’re nervous about this, then experiment with it on a trial basis – a couple of weeks, days or even hours. It’s human to feel a certain level of FOMO initially, but more often than not, we find the world carries on just fine without us – and in the meantime we can make so much more progress on all fronts when we can give each task, problem or person our full attention.  

#3 Managing your own distractions

Sometimes our biggest distractions come from inside our own heads, when our brains come alive with ideas, thoughts, and reminders that have nothing to do with the task at hand. 

Having a good “Second Brain” system can help to take the mental load off your own brain by keeping track of everything you need to get done in work and in life, and reducing the number of times your brain reminds you of something else you need to do when you’re in the middle of trying to focus. 

Keeping a tangent log can also help if you’re prone to “shiny object syndrome” – coming up with brilliant ideas just when you’re trying to focus on something else. Use a notebook, post-it notes, or record a voice memo to capture that thought whenever you’re tempted to go off on a tangent. That way your brain can trust that it’s safe and captured, and you can come back to it and decide what really needs to be done about it. 

#3 Set clear expectations

We often think that serving means letting someone else take the lead, and responding or reacting as appropriate. Whether that’s providing good client service, serving our team or our boss. We ask them what they want and we endeavour to give it to them. But that places a huge amount of responsibility on the person we’re serving – to know what’s possible, what’s appropriate, and what’s going to achieve the best results all round. 

Sometimes we serve best when we take the lead. When we define what we have to offer and how we work best. When we do the hard work of working out the best way of meeting our clients’ needs. When we set clear expectations up front, and guide them through the experience, for example: 

  • Let’s check in on Friday and see if you have any questions (rather than call me if you have any questions)

  • Feel free to email me at any point. I’ll always aim to get back to you within XX days/hours. If you need me to see anything sooner than that, please do give me a call or send me a text.

  • My working days are: Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, so if you need anything from me by the end of the week, let me know ideally on Tuesday so I can carve out some time for you.

  • I’m going to be out of the office next week. Is there anything you need from me this week before I go?

#4 Aim for progress, not perfection

The biggest obstacle I hear when suggesting these strategies is “but I’m not sure that would work round here”. Culture is indeed powerful, but it’s also just a collection of individual habits. Being willing to challenge the status quo and to test assumptions is the first step to innovating in the way that you work.  

If you’re finding your fragmented attention frustrating, the chances are your colleagues are experiencing the same challenges too. Start the conversation by suggesting the changes as an experiment, then aim for progress, rather than perfection. You may not eliminate all distractions, but even if you reduce them by 1 per day, that’s over an hour saved over the course of a week. And there may still be fire-fighting involved, but if you’re not fire-fighting all the time, you’ll be better equipped and prepared to deal with the genuine emergencies when they arrive. 

#5 Recharge your capacity

As a lawyer you bill for your time, but what you really get paid for is your expertise, your judgement, your capacity to think well. Sometimes we see productivity as simply trying to squeeze in as much as possible – be more efficient with admin, take on more clients, squeeze more meetings into the day, bill more hours.  

However, just because you can physically fit it into the diary doesn’t mean you have the mental capacity. In fact, our ability to make good judgement decisions is like a muscle that gets tired. Be aware of decision fatigue and make sure you take regular, quality breaks to restore your capacity. Don’t pursue efficiency at the cost of a deficiency in the quality of your work and more importantly your quality of life – at work and outside of work.