Getting the Most Out of Your Day
By Tanya Witt
The Witt Law Firm
While researching the latest in law practice innovation, I stumbled across an article discussing studies of how brains work. In particular, the studies analyzed the importance of concentration. Practicing law is a cerebral undertaking thatrequires focused concentration. The always-on aspect of technology can interrupt our focused concentration. As attorneys, our job is to provide valuable legal knowledge and not to be immediately available at all times.
Insights into how the brain works can be applied to increase results in the practice of law.
Shut out distractions
Studies confirm that distractions from e-mails and phone calls reduce mental acuity. A study at the University of London found that IQ was reduced 15 points for male participants and five points for female participants when e-mails and calls distracted them. Participants were not required to respond to the e-mails and calls but the distractions still caused the noticeable drop in IQ. That much reduction in IQ is equivalent to missing a night’s sleep.
In the book “Your Brain At Work,” author David Rock cites a study that found that employees spend an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it took them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all.
When TV newscaster Diane Sawyer was asked the secret to her success, she replied, “I think the one lesson I’ve learned is there is no substitute for paying attention.” Reduced concentration diminishes comprehension and memory and increases mistakes. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of “Brain Rules,” cites studies that show errors increase about threefold when people switch between tasks. Medina said multitasking is counterproductive. “We can talk and breathe but when it comes to higher-level tasks, we just can’t do it,” Medina wrote.
Interruptions are particularly detrimental to tasks that require concentration. Some mental tasks require more cognitive resources than others. High-level decision making is said to require more cognitive resources than easier mental tasks. Frequent interruptions can cause you to lose good ideas and weaken your judgment. Early in my career a mentor of mine said, “As lawyers, we are paid for our judgment.”
How can we improve our practice of law from these studies? Carve out times and places for uninterrupted work and analysis. Turn off e-mail and phone notifications and shut out other possible distractions while performing focused tasks. Doing so increases insightful decision making and reduces errors. Read e-mails a few times a day and not every time one pops up. Do not answer calls while performing important work. This is hard for some attorneys. We are in a service profession after all. But ultimately it is better to have higher quality ideas and less mistakes than to be immediately responsive.
Handle difficult projects early
Many people can best tackle their more challenging tasks if they perform them early in their day. Starting your day with focused concentration should set a productive tone. Save easier tasks such as replying to e-mails and calls or administrative tasks for later in the day when your mind will be tired. If you cannot tackle the difficult project early in your day, perhaps you can at least outline your thoughts and analysis early in the day.
Work intensely for 90 minutes
Some studies report that 90 minutes appears to be about the maximum period of time during which we can focus intently on a task. You may maximize your results if you work intensely for 90 minutes followed by a short break. As discussed above, you will get the most out of the 90 minutes if you shut out distractions. This means closing your office door, turning the ringer off on your phone and muting your computer so e-mail notifications do not chime.
After an intense physical workout we perform a cool down. Similarly, after intense mental work we benefit from quieting the mind. Some attorneys I know follow focused work with a walk around the office. Others close their eyes and focus on their breathing. Find what works best for you.
Benefits of naps and exercise
Our brains perform best with a brief nap during the day. Some researchers believe our brains evolved with two periods of sleep: one during the night and one during the day. Medina cited a study that found a 26-minute nap improved the performance of NASA pilots by 34 percent. Medina said every afternoon around 3 p.m. people’s brains are in clear need of a nap. He said meetings should not be scheduled for 3 p.m. Despite the often-cited mental benefits of a nap, most attorneys cannot nap during the day. The next best alternative to a nap may be a midday workout. Medina said exercise brings blood, oxygen and glucose to the brain. Medina wrote that one of the most interesting findings is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by increased mental sharpness. Exercise also stimulates the proteins that keep brain neurons connected.
Implementing these approaches into your practice could improve your results.