Interruptions are enormous time wasters that represent huge productivity losses. Studies have shown that it can take more than 25 minutes, on average, to resume a task after being interrupted, and after resuming complex tasks, such as those performed by most lawyers daily, it can take an additional 15 minutes to return to the level of focus or concentration as before the interruption. Further, a September 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal linked frequent interruptions to higher rates of exhaustion, stress-induced ailments, and a doubling of error rates. Constant interruptions can even mimic the symptoms of sleep deprivation.
Given the number of interruptions most lawyers experience daily, this represents a real problem.
Sometimes you don’t have a choice; emergencies do arise, and some interruptions need to be addressed immediately. In my November/December 2014 Simple Steps column for Law Practice Magazine, I talked about blocking time for priority work and leaving room for the “chaos factor.” By doing so, you plan time to handle emergencies that may arise. If you must be interrupted, make a note about what you were doing and, ideally, what the next step is. Then put the original task away so that you can fully focus on the new priority.
Allowing interruptions permits the priorities of others to override your own. But most interruptions don’t represent real emergencies or significant priorities that trump your original task. In those instances, it’s better to avoid the interruption entirely. You can circumvent many of these interruptions if you set some ground rules for how others interact with you.
Staff and Colleague Interruptions
Not all lawyers have staff, but those who do frequently find that staff interruptions can represent a major loss of productivity. Staff interruptions are often the result of the lawyer’s limited availability or an inability of staff to predict when the lawyer will be able to answer their questions. When you are present in the office—usually when you’re alone in your office trying to get work done—you can be bombarded with interruptions simply because your staff doesn’t know when you will be available next. And once they have your attention, they may be afraid to let it go because it’s so difficult to get it in the first place.
You can limit or eliminate these problems with a few simple steps.
First, train staff to hold all questions for a specific time, so you can tackle several issues at once rather than dealing with multiple interruptions for individual questions. Next, implement “available” and “unavailable” (or “do not disturb”) time in your office. Give staff a clear time when you’ll be accessible to them, and follow through consistently. You can accomplish this by establishing regular daily or weekly office hours, or providing a changing block of time daily when you will be on hand for questions. Either way, staff must know when they can reach you. This will eliminate their urge to grab you every time they see you.
Schedule recurring meetings with those who are accountable to you or have regular questions for you. For example, schedule a meeting with your assistant every day at 4:00 p.m. to resolve any remaining issues from the day and plan for the following day. Or have a weekly meeting with your associate to report on the progress of ongoing projects or cases.
Block out “do not disturb time” to concentrate on complex tasks. Instruct others not to interrupt unless an emergency arises—and define what constitutes an emergency. If possible, put your office phone in “do not disturb mode” to alert others that you are not available, and close your office door. If all else fails, leave your office in favor of a conference room or remote location to ensure that important work gets done.
Colleagues present another oft-cited source of interruptions. Even solos can experience these interruptions, particularly if they work in an office suite or shared office arrangement. Colleagues may stop by for feedback or questions, or they may simply want to take a break and shoot the breeze. Let them know your office hours and do not disturb policy. If they interrupt anyway, give them a time to come back with their questions. Don’t be shy about telling a colleague that you’d love to hear about his or her latest vacation but that you can’t do so until you’ve completed your task. Or set a time for coffee, lunch or a drink outside of work instead of chatting during regular work hours.
When you learn to set expectations and follow through, staff and colleagues know when they will have access, so they will hold questions. You may even find that when staff can count on your availability, they learn how to resolve some issues on their own.
Keep these same concepts in mind when interacting with others in your office. Respect their time, just as you expect them to respect yours. If you don’t want to be interrupted with “quick” questions, don’t do it to others. Ask if you can schedule a time to talk. Save up questions for those you work with frequently to ask all at once, preferably at a designated time.
Although client interruptions may be more difficult to ignore than those from coworkers, it’s possible to prevent them—or at least a significant portion of them—with good planning and communication. For example, if you call a client but don’t get through, leave a message with the best time to reach you during the time you’ve blocked out to make and answer calls. Similarly, if you’re in the middle of important work and don’t want to be interrupted, have an assistant screen your calls or use an answering service, just as if you were in a client meeting. Instruct them to provide callers with a definite time when you will return calls to avoid repeated client calls, and then follow through.
Technology such as smartphones, social media, email, and text messaging constitute another major distraction, and they can give people the sense that you are available 24/7. But just because you have a cell phone doesn’t mean you should always be available.
It may take some discipline, but you can schedule time for technology in the same way that you schedule time for staff. Only check email at specified times during the day, and turn off email and social media notification sounds and pop-ups. Designate a block of time for social media, and exit out of those programs on your computer when you’re not actively using them. Turn off your cell phone when you are working on a focused task.
As Richard Branson says, “Manage your mobile, don’t let it manage you.”
Some interruptions are self-created. They can occur as a result of boredom, procrastination, or feelings of being overwhelmed. Simply becoming more aware of these interruptions can help to eliminate them. For example, when you are working on a task and something unrelated comes to mind that you need to do or remember, those thoughts can easily distract you. Instead of using brainpower to try to remember or wasting time switching from what you’re doing to the new task, simply make a note and continue working. Process those notes at specific times during the day to be sure they don’t get lost.
Realistically, you can’t eliminate interruptions entirely, but being mindful of them and taking steps to prevent them can result in a significant increase in productivity.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Law Practice Magazine and was excerpted in part from How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line. Reprinted with permission.