Interruptions from staff and other team members can break up the flow of your work day and seriously interfere with your ability to get your most important work done.
Experts have estimated that we can spend upwards of 40% of our day dealing with--and getting back on track after--unwanted interruptions.
Most law firm settings do require a certain amount of interruption to move at the speed of your clients and their matters--but that doesn't mean you can't set up some simple rules to reduce at least some of the burden that interruptions are causing you.
If you feel like your office is a revolving door, here are a few ways to address it:
1. Educate your staff on the purpose of establishing new communication routines.
Reducing interruptions starts with educating your team on why you're establishing new communication rules. Make it clear that the goal is to help the office run smoothly by bucketing certain questions and communications together and creating more uninterrupted time for everyone to concentrate on individual work.
2. Create rules and define an "emergency".
Identify rules your team can follow when it comes to communicating with one another. For example, if you want the hours between 10:00am-11:30am and 1:30pm-3:00pm to be uninterrupted work time, create a rule that no one interrupts you unless X, Y, or Z happens. Define what's not important enough for you to be interrupted , and also define circumstances where you do want them to communicate with you immediately--for example, client calls, potential new matters, or emergencies (and define what counts as an emergency).
3. Establish times for questions.
If you're going to have periods with no interruptions, then also establish well-defined periods for questions and work-related discussions. Some attorneys who supervise others hold open "office hours" at specific times throughout the day, others will ask that questions are held until the top of the hour. Experiment to see what works best for you and your team.
4. Define what kinds of issues are good for weekly meetings.
Some questions don't even warrant discussion on a daily basis, and are better suited for weekly meetings with the whole team present. So also make it a point to define the kinds of questions and issues that are better covered at your next staff meeting. For example, breakdowns in processes and firm systems, or matters that relate to the entire office, for example.
5. Work the system.
It will take some time to get the rules in place and train your staff, and you will need to be vigilant about following the system you've set up. But the benefits that are on the other side of working the system are well worth the effort.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you sit down at your desk at 9am to start drafting a brief or reviewing a contract, and someone knocks on your door. You chat about something non-work related and they hang around until the phone rings a few minutes later.
As soon as you finish the call, you turn back to your screen and out of the corner of your eye you see you've gotten a new email--the subject line is ambiguous enough to make you curious about the content, so you open it. You quickly decide it's something you don't need to respond to now, and instinctually you take a quick glance at your phone--no new text messages--before finally turning back to the brief.
It's now fifteen minutes later and you've made no progress on the brief, and can't remember where you left off.
We can all relate to this pattern of events--intending to do "real work" but being interrupted by a series of distractions that take us away the work we set out to do.
If you're serious about building a work day that's focused on completing your most important projects, consider building time into your day that’s dedicated to doing Deep Work.
The concept of Deep Work comes from an excellent book written by author Cal Newport, and here’s the central idea: in order to get our most important work done, we must create time periods and a work environment that’s distraction free. If we don't create a completely distraction-free environment, we get pulled out of the state of pure concentration that we need to complete cognitively demand work, and instead become consumed with surface-level interruptions.
Not only does our work suffer from this lack of concentration, but we can end up spending a large chunk of our day simply transitioning back and forth between tasks.
Some studies conducted on the effects of this "task-switching" suggest that we can spend anywhere from 10% to 40% of our productive work time in a day switching among tasks--in other words, several HOURS of our day.
How To Get Started
If you're serious about getting things done, here are the four things you need to do to get started:
1. Choose a time of day and set a time frame. Start by choosing a time of day when you think you'll be the most productive--morning or afternoon--and when you'll have the least amount of interruptions to eliminate. Consider starting with an hour of deep work time and working up to 1-3 hours per day. If you can't go for 3 hours without interruptions, break it up into two or three smaller chunks.
2. Create a distraction-free environment. Shut your door, turn your cell phone on silent (or even better, put it outside your office), have your assistant hold your calls, turn your email notifications off, and put a "Please do not disturb" sign on your door.
3. Train your staff and colleagues. Most of the interruptions we have can be limited/eliminated by simply training those around us on our Deep Work routines. Let your colleagues and staff know what you're up to: that this is your most focused drafting time and to not interrupt you for the next hour unless there’s an emergency. Define what an emergency is and set a time right after you finish with your deep work to check back in with them, if necessary.
4. Remain disciplined. We saved the hardest part for last. At this point we're hard-wired to check our phone and our email all day long, so sticking with your plan initially will be challenging. But if you can push through that urge and fully engage in deep work, the amount of clarity and productivity you'll experience on the other side will be well worth it.
One of the ways we can create space in our day is by automating certain aspects of our practice.
The concept is simple: identify the tasks or processes you handle repeatedly and regularly, and create a system that removes you from the decision-making process as much as possible.
Every lawyer can work on implementing automation in at least three areas of their practice: documents, tasks, and scheduling.
Think about documents, emails or forms that generally contain the same information and that you frequently use within the office or with clients. Things like client forms, email templates, inbound discovery or discovery responses, letters, contracts, or any other documents that are part of your practice that you have to create or write consistently but that generally contain the same components, terms or language.
Look closely at your day. How many of the emails you send, directions you give to staff or clients, or documents your draft could be be simplified by creating a template or a system?
The goal is to eliminate as much of the decision-making and review process as possible. Every decision you make drains your willpower and takes up time, so if you can come up with a template or a form that you’ve already vetted, then that’s several less decisions to be made every day.
A second easy target for automation are tasks that you currently are a part of that either (1) don’t really require your attention, or (2) your response could be reduced to a set of rules that, if followed, require LITTLE IF ANY of your input or attention.
In other words, you remove yourself from the equation by setting up a procedure, a system, or set of rules so that you no longer have to be a part of the process. You no longer become the bottleneck that prevents projects or tasks from moving forward.
Here's a few examples:
If you examine these areas of your practice closely, you’ll find that a lot of decisions you are making that could be systematized. Empower your staff with directions for how to take action so that you’re not involved in these kinds of decisions.
Identify the tasks or processes you handle repeatedly and regularly, and create a system that removes you from the decision-making process as much as possible.
Scheduling is one of the easiest and most effective candidates for automation.
Let’s say part of what your secretary handles is scheduling appointments for you or client meetings (and you should have someone else in charge of your scheduling). Instead of having to tell your assistant every time a meeting gets scheduled when you want it, where to have it, what to send to the client, what times you’re available, and how long the meeting should be, you can automate that process by working with him or her to establish a set of rules.
For example, you can set times in your day that are blocked off specifically for client meetings, client calls, or calls with opposing counsel. Your assistant could also know that a certain kind of meeting with a client—maybe one before a hearing, for example—should automatically get scheduled for 1 hour, while a routine update call gets 15 minutes. If you’ve made a GUIDE OR AN FAQ SHEET that gets sent to the client ahead of a certain kind of meeting, then the secretary knows to send that, too.
Taking this example further, maybe one of the things you always do is schedule a call with a client before their first court appearance to explain the process and what to expect. And maybe in advance you send A ONE PAGE FAQ SHEET with the meeting invitation that lays out things you want them to know before you get on the call with them.
You can easily automate this process with your assistant. Not only will it save you mounds of time, it’s a great way to add value to your client relationship–because the communication is timely, uniform, and provides them with helpful information in advance of the meeting.
HERE'S THE MAIN TAKEAWAY: By taking yourself out of the process as much as possible, you eliminate the bottlenecks that stall routine tasks from moving forward, save yourself the time and energy it takes to make countless administrative decisions, and empower your team with the tools to make a decision on their own without your input.
How often do you start your day with a plan and great expectations, only to have it foiled by the arrival of the Unexpected?
Client emergencies, urgent work, unplanned meetings, other people leaning on us: these things consistently find a way to insert themselves into our day, yet we're still surprised when they arrive and disappointed that they've interrupted our plans.
When the Unexpected shows up, it’s challenging from both a scheduling and a mindset perspective. Not only do we have to account for work and time that we didn’t budget for, but more importantly we have to get over the poor mindset the Unexpected puts us in.
So what do we do about it?
Instead of meticulously filling your day from start to finish with things to do, build chunks of time into your schedule that are reserved for things you can't currently account for, but that you can logically say are going to happen based on experience.
For example, schedule a 1- or 2-hour slot of time (treat it the same way you would treat a client appointment or a court appearance) that’s dedicated to dealing with overflow work or meetings. Schedule a time block on your calendar called "The Unexpected" from 1pm to 2:30pm everyday. This practice management trick will give you the physical space to deal with what you can't account for at 9am.
MOST IMPORTANTLY: When the Unexpected arrives, it's less of a blow to our mindset because we’re already expecting it and have planned for it—so it’s not a surprise, we’re not as frustrated, and our expectations about how the day would go aren’t completely upended.
AND, if we’ve blocked off time for the Unexpected but it never shows up, then we feel like we just found a few hours of free time. It’s like that meeting or hearing that you’ve been dreading to go to that gets cancelled at the last minute. It’s found time, and can be a great mindset shift.
Build chunks of time into your schedule that are reserved for the things you can't current account for, but that you can logically say are going to happen based on experience.
HERE'S THE BOTTOM LINE: the key to dealing with the Unexpected is as much about managing your expectations as it is about time management. If you don't fill your time cup at the start of the day, you're less likely to have it overflowing at the end.
One of the ways we can establish a productive work day is to create a simple routine that we perform at the beginning and end of the day, every day.
One great technique I started to use a few years ago is what I call an "Open Up / Shut Down Checklist."
In a nutshell here’s how it works: I have a notecard on my desk that lists the 4-5 things I need to do every morning as soon as I get to the office, as well as the 4-5 things I need to do before I leave every night. I don’t start or end my day any other way--I always follow the checklist.
The concept is similar to warming up before you exercise and cooling down afterward. Having a routine in the morning allows you to smoothly transition yourself into work mode, and having one in the afternoon allows you to put a period on the end of the workday so you can walk away with confidence and unplug.
What kinds of things should you put on the list? I'd suggest two categories:
OPEN UP CHECKLIST
Here's an example of what my Open Up Checklist looked like when I was practicing:
Other sample tasks could include meeting for 15 minutes with your assistant or supervising attorney, returning urgent phone calls, etc.
Notice that I don’t open email and start firing off responses until my planning for the day is complete, and even then I’m only responding to those that I Identify are “urgent.” If I start my day with emails, I’m going to get sucked into the never-ending email vortex and it’s much less likely that I will plan anything.
SHUT DOWN CHECKLIST
And here’s a sample of my Shut Down checklist:
Here's why this will be a game changer for you: An Open Up Checklist helps you get into a routine that sets you up for success for the day and addresses your most urgent and primary responsibilities first--instead of just knocking out the low hanging fruit. And having a Shut Down Checklist allows you to walk away with peace of mind that you know your schedule and that you're on top of your work. And maybe most importantly, it gives you permission to end the work day with confidence.
Understanding time management techniques are an important part of being efficient with our time. But one of the most overlooked keys to creating more space in our day is making sure that we're consistently, and without exception, delegating work that is squarely within the job description of someone else on our team.
For many lawyers, we know that we're completing a task that should be done by a paralegal or secretary, but in the moment we choose to do it ourselves because it feels easier to “just handle it."
But if you think that "just handling it" makes more sense than delegating, you're seriously hurting your ability to get things done. Spending even 20 minutes a day doing someone else's work can have a dramatic effect on your productivity.
Here's why. Let’s say there is one task a day that you’re currently doing that could be delegated, and that task takes 20 minutes of your time:
In other words, if you can identify just one 20-minute task a day that you can delegate to the right person at the firm, you’re opening up almost two full weeks of work time.
Delegating can be difficult because it requires us to break old habits and GET INTO NEW ROUTINES. But the best way to start delegating is to take a close look at everything you do on a daily basis for three days in a row and for every task ask yourself: am I the right person to be doing this? If you're not, stop what you're doing and work with the person who should be doing it to transition that task.
If you want to really maximize your time saving: come up with a system that allows you to identify delegable tasks in advance, and work with your team to train them on how you want it done.
Delegation is not only important for your productivity, it's an important part of making sure the firm runs smoothly. When people consistently work outside their job description, the firm's work systems become jumbled and people become confused about who is responsible for what.
Here's the takeaway: in the abstract, identifying and delegating a 20 minute task feels like we’re talking about insignificant gains. But when you multiply those gains over the course of weeks or months, they free up massive amounts of time.
In 1955, philosopher C. Northcote Parkinson coined an adage that is now known as Parkinson's Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
In other words, the amount of time we give ourselves to perform a task will be the amount of time it takes us to the complete the task. For example, if we're given two days to complete a project we probably would take the full two days. But if we were given just one day to complete it, we'd find a way to get it done in that shorter time frame.
Most lawyers can relate to the concept of Parkinson's Law in the context of filing or client deadlines. We've all been under the gun to finish something in an hour or 30 minutes and felt like there was no way we'd be able to finish on time, wishing we had just a few more hours to make it better. But in that circumstance--with the consequences of missing a major deadline staring us in the face--we somehow always rise to the occasion and simply get it done, even though we thought we'd need more time.
Although the squeeze of an upcoming deadline can be uncomfortable, we can use Parkinson's law to our advantage by applying structured time frames to tasks or projects we’re working on.
For example, instead of coming into work and saying “I need to finish this brief today,” take a few minutes to evaluate how long you think it will take to complete, decide on a specific amount of time (e.g., 1 hour, 2 hours), and choose a time in your day to complete it. Tell yourself that you'll "Take 2 hours between 1pm and 3pm to finish this brief", which will be a much more effective use of your time.
The goal is simple: define as many work time frames as you can throughout your day, and apply a light amount of pressure to finish within the boundaries you’ve set. You’re not trying to rush through, but you are applying a level of consistent concentration and effort that will aid you in sticking to the timeline. If we don’t apply this kind of pressure, projects can meander for hours or even days longer than they need to.
Here’s the takeaway: don’t start a project or a task with an open-ended timeframe. Provide yourself with structure by defining the scope of the work and assigning a definitive time to complete it.
One of my favorite quotes related to planning and time management is one by Abraham Lincoln that you may have heard before:
This quote rings true because it’s a reminder that we can better manage our time and execute our work if we become disciplined in the way we plan and prepare.
How often are we quick to run headfirst into a project without taking the time up front to think about what the project entails, or be strategic about how we approach it? There’s any number of reasons why we don’t spend the time planning: we don’t find it valuable, we feel the urge to just “start” right away, or we don’t think we actually have the time to plan.
If you want to improve the way you manage your practice, here's what you need to do first: Adjust your mindset when it comes to planning. Before you rush into your next project, be intentional about spending time up front to map it out. Acknowledge that even a little bit of planning up front can save you massive amounts of time later.
Here are a five aspects of planning to focus on:
THE TAKEAWAY: be intentional about sharpening your axe before you get to work.
Looming deadlines and juggling dozens of open cases are a constant source of stress for associates.
If you’re looking for a simple way to decrease your stress level and increase your practice management efficiency, start by creating a master case or matter list that includes every single active matter or task you’re managing.
Here's the idea: create a single place (maybe an excel spreadsheet, or a tool on your firm's practice management software) that lists the key information, case name/number, deadlines, major filing dates, etc., for each matter you handle. Once the list is created, review it regularly. Print it out and carry it with you to every case or staff meeting. Put it in a prominent spot on your desk. Make reviewing it one of the first 5 things you do every morning (BEFORE you crack open your email), and one of the last 5 things you do before you leave for the day.
Here's why a Master List is a must have tool for every associate: