Steer Clear of Needless Interruptions in Your Law Firm

legal research toolsThis post is an excerpt from “Simple Lessons To Improve Your Law Practice And Your Life” by Nora Bergman.

Nowadays, most of us – not just lawyers – suffer from a bit of self-induced ADD. We are constantly bombarded. Years ago, the focus was on email interruptions. Now we’re inundated with updates, sports scores, and stock tickers. On top of that we have Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, all of which are a constant bombardment on our brain.

The truth is: when we try to pay attention to everything, it’s very, very difficult to pay attention to anything. When everything is important, nothing is important.

You may notice that it’s very hard to stay focused on any one thing for any length of time. That is due to, at least in part, the number of interruptions that we deal with throughout the day.

The Unprecedented Cost of Recovery Time

Recent studies in neuroscience show that the average knowledge worker — like an attorney —  is interrupted every eight minutes. Another sobering statistic: It can take your brain up to 20 minutes to recover from an interruption. This includes stopping whatever you were doing when you were interrupted and dealing with the interruption — whether it’s an email that catches your attention, a staff person, another lawyer standing in your doorway waiting to ask you a question, or a phone call. Whatever it might be,  after dealing with the interruption, it takes up to 20 minutes for your brain to recalibrate.

Think about the math: a needless interruption three times a day adds up to one hour a day. Over a 48-week year, that’s 240 hours or six 40-hour weeks that may be lost to interruptions.

Task completion suffers

Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, they make up to 50% more errors. Even if the work that you’re being interrupted with is billable, the likelihood is you’re going to have some problems getting that work done.

Keep in mind that interruptions are a two-way street. Oftentimes you’re the person interrupting your paralegal, assistant ,or associate when they’re trying to get work done. Interruptions are prevalent in every law firm both up and down the chain of command, whether it’s assistant to attorney or attorney back down.

Billable interruptions aren’t exempt either. See if that’s not true for you. You get interrupted with something. You deal with that interruption. You want to get back to what you were doing, and you completely forget to even make note of what you were interrupted with. 

The truth is, there’s a much, much more effective way to work – and that is to strive to limit needless interruptions.

1) Eliminate Interruptions with a Time Template

Time templates let you determine what emergencies are. Let’s presume you have a window of a few hours in the afternoon blocked off as production time wherein you’re not to be interrupted. If something isn’t a true emergency or fire that you have to put out immediately, it’s safe to say that it can wait.

Emergencies worth an interruption could be:

  • A call from a judge.
  • A call from opposing counsel on the very matter that you’re working on in that production time.
  • An emergency with your children or family.
  • A call from one of your best referral sources.
  • An A+ client whose call you always take.

The goal is to have a short emergency list. That way you won’t leave your team guessing about whether or not they should interrupt you. You need to clearly communicate to them that when you’re in production time, these are the only calls that I will take and these are the reasons you can interrupt me. If it’s not on this list, it can wait until I am out of my production time.

2) Keep an Interruption Log

So how do you start to get even more control over needless interruption? First, identify the interruptions at their source by keeping an interruption log. You can do this on a legal pad. The goal is to grasp the severity of your interruptions as well as where they’re coming from.

Keep an interruption log for three days. They don’t have to be consecutive days. In that log, note whether interruptions are internal or external.

External interruptions act on you rather than vice versa. This could be a phone call coming in that you weren’t expecting or someone walking into your office unannounced to ask you a question. It could be an email or a text.

What are internal interruptions? Think of them more as distractions. Have you ever been in a situation where you’re not very focused and boredom gets the better of you so you check your email or Facebook just to mix things up? Those are both external and internal because you’re distracting yourself.

In your interruption log, note the following:

  • External or internal.
  • Time of day.
  • When did this interruption occur?
  • What time of day did it occur?
  • How long did it last?
  • Was it a true emergency, or was it something I would call a needless interruption?

Pay attention to when these interruptions are happening throughout the day. You might begin to notice some patterns, especially with internal interruptions. For instance, it may strike you that every day at 3 pm you’re either checking email or you’re going to the kitchen to get something to drink. Your body may be telling you that you need a break at that time, so pay attention to those cues. 

If you have writer’s cramp by 10 in the morning on the first day that you’re keeping an interruption log, you’re probably dealing with too many needless interruptions. But you can learn a lot from that log about where your interruptions are coming from. And by homing in on that you’ll begin to really start taking control again.

The key word here is control. Make sure to schedule focus time when you will be interrupted, unless that interruption is something that you have identified in advance as an exception to the rule.

Interested in learning more about getting a handle on interruptions and increasing your productivity? Find out more tips here.


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