5 Myths About Productivity For Lawyers

Personal productivity is the skill of getting the right things done, and doing them in an effective and efficient way. In an age where technology makes it possible for lawyers to be “on call” 24/7, it is more important that ever that we purposefully and deliberately choose how we spend our time and energy. This requires us to acknowledge, and let go of “productivity myths” that permeate the legal profession. These myths are reinforced by our culture, and can be difficult to shake. As you read about the top five productivity myths among lawyers, keep an open mind and see if you recognize any of your own behaviors that may be worth changing.


1. I Can Accomplish More By Multitasking.

Have you ever found yourself doing a CLE webinar while checking emails and reading case law? Or attended a meeting where virtually everyone was tapping on their smartphones instead of yapping about the subject at hand? These are just two examples of the productivity myth that, “I can get more done when I multitask.”

In reality, multitasking leaves us feeling stressed and suggests to others that they do not merit 100 percent of our attention. Moreover, multitasking fractures our attention, which decreases efficiency. Our brains are hardwired to undertake tasks sequentially and are incapable of paying attention to two separate things simultaneously.

To move from one task to another, we go through the process of “task shifting.” This requires what is known as “switching time” as we move from one source of focus to another. Studies have shown that when subjects switch back and forth between separate tasks, they take 25 to 40 percent longer to complete them than when they perform the tasks one at a time. The difference is the cumulative switching time required by multitasking.

It is easy to be distracted by the “ping” of a new message or to react reflexively to a new request. The act of “monotasking”—focusing on one thing at a time—requires awareness and intentionality. To become proficient at monotasking, pick a simple task such as reading the paper or writing a brief. Try to keep your attention on that task without switching to something else. Every time your attention drifts, take note of it.

After you become more aware of your attention, learn to stop yourself when it begins to drift. If a new idea comes up, instead of switching tasks, jot it down and come back to it later. Turn off the alerts on your devices. Schedule 30-minute blocks of time three or so times a day to read and reply to texts and emails. By learning to focus your attention on one thing, you will feel less stressed and get more done.

2. I Can’t Play Until My Work Is Done.

As kids, we were told we could not have desert until we finished our dinner. As attorneys, some of us believe we cannot play until we finish our work. The problem is that, unlike dinner, our work is never done. What starts with organizing your calendar and reading a few emails at home on Sunday turns into working a few hours on Sunday, and before you know it, your weekend is gone. When we put our fun on hold, we wake up one morning and realize that we have no fun, and no life outside work.

There is no denying that work is important. But it is a productivity myth that work always comes first. Burnout and other health and relationship problems arise when we deny ourselves even simple pleasures and continually bring work home.

In addition to fending off burnout, engaging in fun activities has a positive effect on the brain’s executive functions (e.g., planning, prioritizing, decision-making). It also gets us out of our linear, left-hemisphere brain and into our creative, right-hemisphere brain, which can actually increase productivity.  Think about it for a minute. When do you get your best ideas? Playing golf? Cooking dinner? Walking the dog? It probably is not while you are in your office, trying to come up with a solution through logic and will. The best ideas come to us when we release control, get out of our left-hemisphere brain, and allow our right-hemisphere brain to go to work. In fact, a recent study shows that we can boost creativity by 60 percent if we take a walk while brainstorming instead of sitting at a desk.

Work will take up as much time and energy as we allow. We need to purposefully carve out time for play and relaxation.  Start by writing down ten things that you enjoy doing for fun. Pick one of them and schedule time in your calendar this week to do it. Repeat on a regular basis.

3. If I’m Busy, I’m Productive.

Is your calendar packed with calls and meetings? Do you constantly check email and social media? Do you relish checking items off your “to do” list, regardless of what they are? If so, you may have fallen victim to the productivity myth that, “If I’m busy, I’m productive.”

We all know someone who is addicted to busy-ness, who is always in motion but never seems to get anywhere. Being busy creates the illusion of control and certainty. It gives the impression that we are important and in demand. Some people book themselves solid to avoid thinking about bigger issues. They blame their inability to achieve certain things on the fact that they are “just so busy.” Busy-ness can also be a form of procrastination. “Perfectionist procrastinators”, for example, spend excessive amounts of time and energy overworking in an effort to do things perfectly, in the hopes of eliminating possible grounds for criticism.

The busiest people, however, are not necessarily the most productive. They may occupy themselves with trivial tasks that could be left undone or delegated to others. A study based on thousands of respondents from around the world shows that, on average, we spend 40 percent of our time on unimportant or irrelevant activities.

The key is to be productive, not busy. This requires us to be selective about how we spend our precious time and energy. Looking outside the legal industry for inspiration, Bill Gates has regularly taken two “Think Weeks” each year since the 1980s, regardless of how busy things are at Microsoft. During these weeks, Gates goes into seclusion to read, study and think about the bigger picture.

You may not be able to go into seclusion for a week, but you can review your calendar and “to do” lists. For each item they contain, ask yourself, “Will doing this move me significantly closer to what I want to be? To do? To have?” If the answer is not an clear “yes,” either delete it, delegate it, or diminish (i.e., do less of) it. If you have perfectionist tendencies, identify tasks that require more speed than perfection (e.g, tidying up your desk). Think of several possible ways to perform these tasks and choose a way that is “good enough” instead of perfect. Spend the time that you save your high-priority activities.

4. If I Sleep Less, I Can Get More Done.

 In the legal profession, sleep deprivation begins in law school with “all nighters” and 24-hour, take-home exams. It continues with tight deadlines for completing due diligence on transactions and submitting trial briefs. We get it into our heads that sleep is for wimps, and we buy into the productivity myth that, “If I sleep less, I can get more done.”

No single activity impacts our productivity more than sleep. It is a critical driver of peak performance. Sleep enhances our creativity, concentration, attention, mental and physical health, decision-making and social skills. Sleep reduces our stress, anger, impulsiveness, weight gain, moodiness, and tendency to drink and smoke. Yet sleep deprivation is so widespread in America that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have deemed it an epidemic.

If you lose just one night’s sleep, or go for several nights with insufficient sleep, your cognitive capacity is about the same as if you were drunk. Less glucose reaches your brain, which is why you find yourself pumping change into the candy machine. Your brain prioritizes the thalamus, whose job it is to keep you awake. Your prefrontal cortex, occipital and parietal lobes—the parts of your brain that you need the most for thinking—slow down and become less active. This is hardly a recipe for brilliant legal work.

If you are not consistently getting 7 to 8 hours a sleep each night (the amount almost everyone needs), engaging in regular exercise will help, as long you do not exercise right before bedtime. So will laying off caffeinated drinks by early afternoon. Power down an hour or so before bed by dimming the lights and turning off all your devices. Most importantly, keep a regular sleep schedule, even on the weekends. And if your mind is still racing from work when bedtime arrives, write your thoughts in a journal. Getting them out of your head will help you get the sleep you need to function at your best.

5. I Need More Time.

Have you ever found yourself wishing for an extra day so you could work on business development, read that stack of articles, or simply relax? If so, you are not alone. There are many faithful believers in the productivity myth that, “I need more time.”

The truth is that if we use our time properly, we have all the time we need. We have just as many hours in a day as Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and every other successful attorney, past and present. Time itself is not the limiting factor. It is what we do with our time that matters. This is a subtle yet critical distinction.

In order to use your time well, you have to take charge of it. Many people have no clear picture of where each day goes. They blame their lack of time on forces outside their control. One way to end that unproductive pattern is to monitor how you spend your time for a week or two. Thankfully, as lawyers, we are accustomed to tracking our time. Simply extend the practice beyond your billable client hours. Record your time in 15-minute increments throughout the day. Avoid the mistake of trying to “recreate” how you spent your time at the end of each day.

There are plenty of time-tracker apps if you prefer the digital route. Good old pen and paper are low tech, but flexible. Armed with a week or two of baseline data, you can tweak your schedule to “create” time for things that really matter. You might discover that you spend two or three hours a day surfing the Internet or watching TV. (According to Nielsen, the average person watches TV for 4.5 hours a day.) Cut that back by one hour a day and you will have an “extra” seven hours each week to spend on high-value activities.

Many people talk about the importance of spending time on things that matter the most, but few of us take the steps that are necessary to make it happen. Letting go of these cherished productivity myths is a big step towards walking the talk. Although it is hard work, confronting the realities and taking control of your time and energy is well worth the effort. It will enable you to make your best contribution in your profession, and to live your best life. 


Lisa Dunsky is a licensed attorney since 1993 and a graduate of the University of Michigan. She is at attorney with Sidley Austin LLP, and a certified life coach, specializing in life purpose and personal productivity. Her weekly blog on productivity is available at http://www.getting-sorted.com/blog/.