A few months ago, at a restaurant in Houston, I overheard a manager interviewing a job candidate for an open position. The conversation went something like this:
Manager: “Tell me about your ability to multitask.”
Candidate: “I single-task. In my opinion multitasking doesn’t produce effective results.”
Manager: “I completely agree. Multitasking is a joke.”
The men continued what appeared to be a successful interview.
The conversation reminded me of a quote from Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son (Letter 37 – 1747): “A man is fit for neither business nor pleasure who either cannot, or does not, command and direct his attention to the present object…”
But how does Lord Chesterfield’s 270 year-old wisdom relate to attorneys today? With the endless stream of tasks and interruptions demanding attention at any one time, surely managing a single task at a time would doom any busy attorney to a date in malpractice court.
You may be surprised to find that it’s resisting the siren call of multitasking that can save attorneys from missed deadlines and poor-quality work.
Giving yourself time to fully complete one task before moving to the next frees you to give each job the deep attention required to do it well.
Some call it single-tasking, others mindfulness. Whichever phrase you prefer, it needs to become part of every attorney’s vocabulary.
According to Earl Miller, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT: “People can’t multitask very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
“What we can do,” he said, “is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.”
Multitasking… Task-shifting… Does it really make a difference? If you’re measuring the success of either in terms of real accomplishment, the answer is a resounding NO.
While your brain may shift focus incredibly quickly, research from the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that those shifts actually decrease efficiency and result in more mistakes, a potentially disastrous combination for almost any attorney.
A 2016 article in Bigger Law Firm by Dipal Parmer – New Science Reveals the Myth of Multitasking – expands on the APA research:
“The brain takes an average of 25 minutes per switch when transferring
attention from one task to another. Moving back and forth between several
activities means an individual wastes their attention on the act of switching
gears rather than truly focusing on any single activity.”
At the risk of piling on, Dipal Parmer’s article also cited research by Neuroscientist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, whose work suggests yet another reason why your work may suffer from multitasking, not to mention your health:
“Constantly switching tasks depletes the brain’s levels of glucose, which is
required for effective thought and action. In response, the brain releases
the stress hormone cortisol, which clouds thinking and leads to an endless
cycle of higher stress levels and less productivity.”
The best solution is to free yourself from the multitasking delusion and put your focus on being more mindful of one task at a time. Complete tasks one at a time and when ready to release that task – either because it’s done or because you’re at a good stopping point – move to the next task.
It will take some practice, but you can become an even better attorney than you already are by doing the following steps:
- Be more efficient by concentrating on becoming a great single-tasker.
- Celebrate being excellent one task, one client at a time. Repeat many times throughout the day.
- Make working on yourself the one task that, if managed well, will lead to better management of all other tasks.
- Remember the ageless wisdom of Lord Chesterfield, which I’ve paraphrased here for brevity: Be attentive to the task or enjoyment at hand, but not both for which all will surely suffer.
Posted by: Jeff Skott
Jeff Skott works for LexisNexis as a Lead Solutions Architect – a technical consultant who focuses on legal operations management and better outcomes for Fortune 500 law departments. He has worked with and around lawyers, paralegals and legal operations professionals for the last 18 years as a product manager and consultant, and has focused on how technology and process makes for better overall legal outcomes. Jeff’s studies included Applied Psychology / Communications, and a focus on Computer Information Systems.