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Lawyers are multitaskers, by nature and by necessity. For most lawyers, day-to-day professional experience consists of many different activities on behalf of many different clients involved in many different projects. As a result, there is a great incentive to look for ways to do more and more tasks at the same time. The image of the lawyer taking a conference call on a speakerphone while drafting a document and checking e-mail is now too standard to be considered a caricature of overwork. Is there only one direction in which multitasking can proceed � ever more tasks performed in ever more locations? In fact, there are (and should be) limitations on the use of multitasking, and multitasking should be considered just one of many tools to enhance productivity and effectiveness at work. Here are some basic methods for improving the use of multitasking. SETTING LIMITS Common sense (increasingly supported by psychological research) suggests that there are inherent mental and physical limits to effective multitasking. Imagine yourself driving a car and listening to the ballgame on the radio. That’s probably no problem. Now, imagine yourself also drinking a cup of coffee and snacking on some doughnuts. For most people, there is still likely no problem. Now, imagine also talking on your cell phone, while your spouse yells at you for missing your freeway exit and your child begins crying in the back seat. Most people would feel frazzled, flustered, and more than a little distracted from the task of driving safely. So, too, in professional occupations, there are a number of circumstances where multitasking would be ineffective (and perhaps severely counterproductive). These situations should be avoided, if at all possible: • Where deep concentration is required. All of us can think of professional problems that require deep, intense concentration. When these kinds of problems arise, it may be necessary to shut out all noise and distraction, for some period, to ensure that the maximum effort can be focused on the problem. If concentration must be broken, moreover, the interruption(s) should be as brief as possible. If a long interruption is planned, or cannot be avoided, the task should be set aside until another sustained period of intense concentration can be found. • Where personal attention is required. Many aspects of professional practice require personal attention to be effective. Although clients may know that you are generally busy, for example, when you speak to or meet with a client, the general impression you need to convey is that you are giving your full personal attention to the client. Repeated interruptions (telephone calls, checking your e-mail or pager, or glancing at unrelated materials during a meeting, for example) all suggest that your client (at least, this particular client) is not your highest priority. Most clients will not take the implicit insult well. Multitasking will also be poorly received if you are dealing with senior lawyers in your firm or with co-counsel, or giving directions to your secretary. Personal attention is likely to increase effectiveness in these situations. • Where tasks cannot be effectively integrated. For most lawyers, some tasks cannot be done simultaneously without severe adverse effects, or without compromising productivity and quality on both tasks. For example, it may be very difficult to compose correspondence while simultaneously drafting billing statements. Even slipping back and forth between the tasks will not work well. Each lawyer has different capabilities, of course, but it is always worth asking yourself, before you multitask, whether you genuinely expect to perform two tasks well, at the same time. If not, you should not multitask. What you appear to gain in efficiency will almost certainly be lost in quality � and may cost even more time, in the end, if mistakes are made. FINDING OPPORTUNITIES That there may be limits on effective multitasking hardly means that multitasking can or should be avoided. The trick is to think of circumstances where it may be possible to “fill in the gaps” of downtime with productive activity. These situations may include: • Where a wait is expected. Whenever you leave your office and may have to wait (for an appointment, a court appearance, or perhaps a phone call), you generally should bring some reading materials or portable tasks with you. Rather than daydreaming or looking bored, you may be able to achieve significant progress on tasks that normally compete with higher priorities. • Where related task switching is appropriate. In many instances, related tasks may be involved in the same project. For example, in litigation, filing a motion may require drafting a notice of motion, an affidavit in support of the motion (with exhibits to be gathered and attached), a memorandum of law, and perhaps a transmittal letter (to the court and counsel). Instead of trying to work on all these steps at the same time, it may be more efficient to work on each in turn, drafting, editing, and finalizing. • Where creative insights arise. It often happens that turning attention away from a thorny problem while you go on to other matters may permit creative ideas to suddenly come to mind. In that situation, it may be a good idea to stop work on the second task, at least long enough to capture your insights on the original problem. • Where rote tasks can be performed. There may be some circumstances where it is truly possible to do two things well at the same time. The essential requirement is that the main task does not require total concentration, and the secondary task is essentially rote (requiring even less attention, and not suffering in the event of disruption). For example, it may be possible to listen in on a long conference call, in which you have a limited role, on limited issues, while going through your e-mail to delete spam. When subjects of specific interest to you arise on the call, you must turn your full attention to that conversation. But beware: These situations are actually quite rare because a lawyer’s functions generally require high-level concentration. WORK MANAGEMENT TOOL The essential purpose of multitasking, when it works correctly, is to enhance performance and productivity. Yet multitasking is not the only means to that end. Several other techniques should be considered as alternatives. In some instances, these techniques may be combined with multitasking: • Task elimination. It is quite possible that some steps in a work routine can be eliminated or substantially reduced. Always stop and ask yourself whether you truly need to be performing a particular task. • Task delay. There is a temptation, with any project, to do first what seems easiest or most familiar. For example, junior lawyers often are tempted to perform extensive electronic research to answer legal questions, because that is what they were conditioned to do in law school. Yet electronic research may be much more effective after reading factual materials and any related research memorandums. • Delegation. There are many circumstances where the most appropriate person to perform a task is not you, but someone else, to whom you should delegate the task. Don’t assume that because you recognized that the task must be performed (and may even have conceived of the task in the first place) that you must be the person to do the work. In that event, multitasking to try to fit that task into the rest of your work obligations is not efficient. Far better to spend a few minutes thinking of who should be delegated the task and how the delegation should be managed. Multitasking for its own sake is pointless. You can spend a day working hard digging holes and then filling them in, without really being productive. So, too, with multitasking: The point is not to do more work, but to be more productive. Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York office of Jones Day and a member of the firm’s training committee. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s firm or its clients. This article first appeared in the New York Law Journal, an American Lawyer Media newspaper.

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