Can it be that we secretly like to be interrupted? That we love the chaotic environment of a law office with plenty of distractions? Work — especially detailed legal work, can be tedious. Isn’t it more interesting to deal with the distractions that the day presents?
As a matter of fact, it is! The constant influx of notifications, messages, and alerts from smartphones, social media, and email have created a dangerous new addiction. Research has shown that interruptions of all kinds trigger the brain’s reward system, to release dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, essentially training us to crave interruptions. Because of this positive reinforcement, the more we’re interrupted, the more we want to be interrupted. We fall into a pattern of switching tasks every ten minutes or so because we crave the new and different distractions that give us dopamine.
This addiction can have devastating short-term effects on your productivity, as it disrupts your ability to focus for extended periods and engage in deep, productive work. If all or part of your compensation is based on your production, this effectively reduces your take-home pay.
According to the 2023 Clio Legal Trends Report, utilization (the percent of time in an 8-hour workday that’s devoted to revenue-producing work) is up to 37 percent. While this is a significant increase over the prior year, it still indicates that over 60 percent of the workday is not being used for revenue production. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most pervasive is the inability of many individuals to focus. One of the tools Atticus has created to combat this problem is called the Daily Focuser, which compels the user to plan and prioritize their day (available for download with our online Interruptions Advantage course.)
If you relate to this problem, we can help. For practical tools and strategies to help you break your addiction to interruptions, click here.
A recent UC Irvine study determined the average length of an interruption is now up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds. Three good interruptions occur, and you lose an hour. Six interruptions and you’ve lost two hours. Many of you have ten or more interruptions on an easy day.
We’ve covered the cost in time and money, but what about the personal costs? Many of you don’t start serious production until after five in the afternoon when the office is quiet and you can concentrate. You work late night after night, feeling good that you’re meeting your production goals, but bad about not spending time with family or pursuing life outside your practice. Achieving a good work/life balance is possible, but not when you have to use your personal time to make up for being distracted at the office.
Most of you will get stuck in this bad habit loop and never successfully manage your time until you develop proactive strategies for managing interruptions. In our new course, Interruptions Advantage: How to Make Interruptions Profitable we present strategies for avoiding interruptions altogether, give you tips for handling them and help you identify the sources of the interruptions in your office. (Hint: the source of your worst interruptions may be closer than you think).
A big part of your problem might be that you’re a “self-interrupter.” This is more likely if you:
- Live for adrenaline rushes
- Have always had a short attention span
- Are driven by deadlines – but are otherwise unmotivated
- Believe you’re a great multitasker
- You’re easily bored
Studies show that only 20% of the external interruptions you experience are valid, time-sensitive, and truly important enough to displace what you’re working on. The remaining 80% of the interruptions aren’t truly urgent and should be handled at other times and in different ways.
To help you get a handle on the interruptions in your office, here are two things you can do right away:
- Create standards for what truly constitutes a valid interruption.
- Create a short list of people that are allowed to interrupt.
Create Critical Interruption Criteria
Start by creating, with your staff, a list of typical client crisis or emergency scenarios that deserve your attention when and if they occur. This triage approach can help them distinguish the real emergencies from the false ones. Staff members who are not
seasoned may believe that every issue must be immediately elevated to the attorney, instead of tactfully handing the client over to the Designated Hitter (a paralegal or legal assistant who is trained and authorized to handle lower-level problems) who can often help. A discussion of real emergencies you have experienced in the past can be very valuable. We don’t want to downplay the validity of the problems the client may be having – we just want to triage what gets to the attorney. Allowing the attorney as much uninterrupted production time is the goal. Sometimes the client is only satisfied by talking to the attorney. Sometimes the attorney must immediately respond to something that opposing counsel or a difficult client has done. There are plenty of legitimate emergencies that pop up. But you can free up a great deal of your time if you and your staff know how to triage.
If you relate to this problem, we can help. For practical strategies to help you break your addiction to interruptions, click here.
Who’s Allowed to Interrupt?
Another strategy is to make a list of allowable interrupters. Your spouse and some family members are usually on the list of people who may interrupt you if they have something urgent to discuss. If you have school-age children, schools should be able to interrupt with urgent messages. You can institute a standing caller list for you and your staff (spouse, children’s school, a couple of trusted friends or advisers or A+ clients). Of course, all of this assumes they don’t bypass the receptionist and call you directly on your cell phone. If they do, we hope you summon the willpower to not respond during your production time.
We recommend not giving clients this kind of direct access. While most won’t take advantage of it, it gives you no way to control their access to you along with their expectation of an immediate response. Those who call the firm are screened and told the attorney will call back at a designated time.
To understand the source of your interruptions, let’s break them down into categories. We find that interruptions fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Family and friends
- Socializing at work
- Work issues, client crisis
- Attorney’s work style
Handling Interruptions from Family and Friends
Interruptions that come from your personal life, kids, family, or friends calling and texting you during the day can be managed. The solution is to redirect them to a more appropriate time:
- Let “personal” callers know not to call during your production time (we recommend you have daily closed-door production time)
- Direct them to call during your lunch hour if you are eating at your desk
- Ask them if you can get back to them after hours.
Just as you can retrain your staff and co-workers to support your efforts in managing your time, you can let people in your life know that you are trying to be more efficient during the day so that you have more time to be with them in the evenings and on the weekends.
Quick Tips for Handling Socializing and Work Interruptions
Here are some quick tips for pre-empting or shortening socializing and work interruptions. Some require you to adopt a new set of non-verbal clues by shifting your body language or simply changing the physical setup of your office. Some require verbal deflection. Notice that these tips apply to work and social situations since the two often overlap.
Use a Visual Cue
One attorney we know keeps a photo of his family front and center on his desk. This attorney, because of his friendly nature, has been plagued with co-workers who take up a lot of time discussing their personal problems. So, he’s established a visual cue to remind himself of his goals. He looks at the co-worker, looks at the picture of his kids and asks himself the question, “Would I rather spend time talking to this person, and end up working late; or do I want to see my kids before they go to bed tonight?” Without fail, he chooses the kids and deflects the personal conversations to another time.
Let’s Do Lunch
Corral co-workers to join you for lunch – especially the chatty ones. You are pre-empting social interruptions by catching up on each other’s news and adding a little fun to your day.
Tell Them You Prefer E-Mail
E-mail offers a great alternative to face-to-face conversations because it can be answered when it’s convenient for you. It doesn’t demand an answer quite as quickly as a text.
E-mail, Teams or Slack – any internal messaging apps are also great tools for staff to batch questions for the attorneys. Better still, the team can batch their questions and get them answered at a designated meeting time with their attorneys. This preserves the attorney’s ability to concentrate for longer periods of time to complete their production and go home on time.
Let Your Body Do the Talking
When you see someone coming into your office that you don’t want to have a long conversation with, stand up. This cues them non-verbally that you are in a hurry or on your way out. If that does not slow them down, walk toward the door and leave (even if you just walk to the restroom). Say, “Let’s walk and talk,” and hope they don’t follow you into the restroom.
Play Musical Chairs
Move the visitors’ chairs in your office away from your desk when you’re not seeing clients. Make your office a little less comfortable for chatting. When the chairs are’t conveniently placed at your desk, people are more likely to stand and talk to you and their time with you becomes much shorter.
Don’t Be Eye-Catching
Move your desk so that you’re not in view of the passing traffic in the office. If people can easily see you and catch your eye, they’re more compelled to come in and socialize.
Close Your Door and Mean It
Enroll your staff in the idea that when you shut your door it means that you are not to be disturbed by anyone. This is critical to establishing production time. If the rest of the office does not respect your closed door, send out a memo saying that you are committed to managing the level of interruptions to your day so that you can accomplish more production. As you begin to take your time seriously, so do others.
Overcoming the addiction to interruptions and regaining the capacity to focus for longer periods of deep work is essential for your personal and professional success. These tips and techniques are just a small part of how we help you manage interruptions.
For an in-depth look at how to take control of your time, click here for our free course.