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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’s a great incentive to look for ways to do ever more tasks at the same time. The image of the lawyer taking a conference call on speakerphone while drafting a document and checking e-mail is now too standard to be considered a caricature of overwork. But there are (and should be) limitations on multitasking — it should be considered just one of many tools to enhance productivity. Here are some ways of improving the use of multitasking. 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 ball game 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 in such a situation 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 it may be quite apparent that 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 maximum 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 is not your highest priority. Most clients will not take the implied insult well. There are many other circumstances, moreover, such as dealings with co-counsel or senior lawyers in your firm or giving directions to your secretary, where personal attention may be key to effectiveness and where multitasking may be poorly received. � Where tasks cannot be effectively integrated. For most lawyers, there are at least some tasks that cannot be done simultaneously without severe adverse effects. Often, productivity and quality on both tasks may suffer. Thus, 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 is unique, 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 decreased quality, and perhaps even greater total time will be required to switch back and forth. GOOD 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 down-time with productive activity. These situations may include: � Situations where a wait is expected. In any circumstance where you may expect to be kept waiting for an appointment, a court appearance or otherwise, you should generally bring some reading materials, or portable tasks, with you. Rather than day-dreaming, or looking bored, you may be able to achieve significant progress on tasks that you otherwise have little other time to perform. � Situations where related task switching is possible. In many instances, related tasks may be involved in the same project. Thus, for example, in litigation, the filing of a motion may require drafting a notice of motion, an affidavit in support of the motion, a memorandum of law, and perhaps a transmittal letter to the court and counsel. It may not be efficient to work on all of these steps at the same time, but it may be quite possible to work on each in turn, in rapid succession: drafting, editing and finalizing to completion. � Situations where creative insights arise. It often happens that turning attention away from a thorny problem — letting it rest, in the mind, while you go on to other matters — may permit sudden, creative solutions to arise spontaneously in your thoughts. In that situation, it may be quite appropriate to stop work on the new task, at least long enough to capture your insights on the original problem. � Situations where rote tasks can be performed. There may be some circumstances where it is truly possible to do two things at once. 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. Thus, for example, it may be possible to listen in on a long conference call, in which you have a limited role, on limited issues, and at the same time monitor 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 task, and the secondary task of deleting spam will not suffer. But beware: Because a lawyer’s functions generally require high-level concentration, it may be very difficult to find situations where you can do two things at once, effectively. 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. There are several other techniques that should be considered as alternatives. In some instances, moreover, these techniques may be combined with multitasking for even more beneficial effect: � Eliminating tasks. It is quite possible that some steps in a work routine can be eliminated, or substantially reduced. You should, at all times, ask yourself whatever you truly need to be performing a particular task. If not, then you should stop work, or think of some better way to get the work done. � Delaying tasks. There is a temptation, on any project, to do what seems easiest, or most familiar, first. Thus, for example, junior lawyers often are tempted to perform extensive electronic research to answer legal questions, because that is what they are conditioned to do in law school. Yet through insight and careful planning, it may become obvious that some tasks can be performed later, after more fundamental “building block” tasks are completed. (Thus, in the research example, first reading available factual materials, and any previously written research memorandums may make later electronic research much more effective). � Delegating tasks. There are many circumstances where the most appropriate person to perform a task is not you, but someone else, to whom you should delegate. Yet there is a temptation to assume that because you recognize that the task must be performed, you necessarily must be the one who does the work. In that event, multitasking to try to fit something into the rest of your work obligations is not efficient. Far better to spend any multitasking spare time thinking of who should receive the delegated 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. Careful consideration of how and when multitasking may improve productivity should be a key element of any lawyer’s approach to this work management tool. Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City office of Jones Day and co-director of the New Associates Group there. The views expressed are his own and should not be attributed to the firm or its clients.

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