It’s often incredibly difficult to let things go in today’s always on, always connected world. There is a desire to multitask and switch gears at all times.
Check Twitter, check email, review a letter. Write a couple paragraphs in brief, get phone call. While on phone, pull up Facebook. Phone call ends, check Twitter, back to brief. Another lawyer sticks head in office, wants to talk about an issue in a different case. Finish conversation, back to brief, an urgent email notification pops up. Read email, not really that urgent. Reply anyway. Couple more paragraphs into brief, calendar notification goes off. Lunch scheduled with another lawyer in 25 minutes.
What are the chances that any of the work you just produced was actually of high quality?
Maybe some people can be productive in such a environment or schedule — or rather, I’m sure they feel as though they are productive. But research shows that it’s highly unlikely. I’m particularly partial to the work of Cal Newport, MIT Computer Science Ph.D. and now professor at Georgetown University. Newport has long advocated for hard focus and deep work on his blog and in his most recent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You (affiliate link). Unfortunately, most people spend large parts of their day on shallow work.
Shallow work is replying to emails, administrative planning, talking on the phone. Worrying about supplies, managing inter-office politics, reading a memo. Cumulatively, they are all the little things that eat up large parts of your day. Newport believes that this work is often attractive because it’s easy, which in turn makes people feel productive. It’s also often rich in personal interaction, which most people enjoy.
Yet deep work is where we produce the most value. For lawyers, deep work is analysis, deconstructing arguments, writing briefs. It is not “busy” work. It is quiet work, something that requires planning and time to be set aside. As Newport notes:
Deep work is phasic… we’re not computer processors.
We can’t be expected to accomplish any job any time we have the available cycles. There are rhythms to our psychology. Certain times of the day, week, month, and even year are better suited for deep work than other times.
To respect this reality, you must leave sufficient time in your schedule to handle the intense bursts of such work when they occur. This requires that you constrain the other obligations in your life — perhaps by being reluctant to agree to things or start projects, or by ruthlessly batching and streamlining your regular obligations.
When it’s time to work deeply, this approach leaves you the schedule space necessary to immerse.
I’ve found this to be very true in regards to my own productivity and that of many other lawyers I speak with. There are certain times of the day, certain times of the week, when I find that I can just work. I know that if I sit down at my computer from 7 to 10 a.m., whether it be writing motions or articles or letters, I can plow through them with ease. If I try write in the afternoon, the quality inevitably suffers. It’s not that I can’t or won’t write in the afternoon or evening, but I know that I can much more easily slip into a state of deep work when I am in a certain place, at a certain time.
Taking the time to explore when you are best capable of deep work is something that is incredibly important if you want to produce remarkable work. There is no guarantee that you will produce something remarkable, but you will increase your chances of producing such a thing if you know when you are most capable, most open to letting go of everything else in your life — responsibilities, bills, deadlines — and focusing on a single task or problem.
So discover when you are the most productive. Whittle away your responsibilities from that time. Let it be open. Even if you have nothing particularly pressing to do, keep that time free. It is potential. Ready to be filled with your most important work when you need it.
Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @associatesmind.