If you’re among those who believe multitasking makes you more productive, you may be deluding yourself, according to scientists who have studied how the brain reacts when individuals try to manage multiple tasks simultaneously. It’s especially difficult, these experts say, to multitask when one of the tasks is of a complex nature.
This school of thought may have profound implications for legal professionals, who are often expected to juggle several complex tasks at once. In fact, in today’s technology-driven workplace, it would seem that multitasking is an expected way to work, and it probably wouldn’t be acceptable to your boss if you refused to do it entirely. But before you add another iron to the fire, consider these suggestions for what to do instead:
Recognize that some tasks don’t mesh. Although we’re probably all guilty of practices such as participating on a conference call while also reading or drafting email, scientists say this is a bad idea. Because these tasks, for instance, both involve communication processes, they actually interfere with one another and make it unlikely that you can do either well. So think twice before you engage in multitasking, especially if two highly similar or complex tasks are involved. You’ll probably be more productive and turn out higher-quality work if you focus on one undertaking at a time.
Allow yourself a time out. For the most part, it’s important to be an accessible team player. But to also be a productive one, you may have to block out time to focus on one critical task, especially complex legal ones such as reviewing a deposition or preparing a closing argument. Allow yourself the luxury of “single tasking” by letting calls go to voicemail, hanging a “do-not-disturb” sign outside your workplace and silencing email notifications. Research on multitasking supports the idea that constant interruptions, especially when they turn your attention away from tasks that require deep concentration, ultimately impede your efficiency and work quality.
Quit shuffling. Multitasking mistakes occur when you constantly shuffle priorities, bouncing from one task to another to another without really making progress on anything. In the end, no assignment receives the time and attention it deserves. To boost your productivity, focus on one task at a time, especially when it’s complex. If you must tackle numerous tasks concurrently, group them together according to importance and urgency. Plan to address the more complex, important tasks at the most optimal times. Less mentally taxing items might be grouped together and tackled at a time when you’re more likely to experience interruptions. Keeping lists, either electronically or on a whiteboard where you can visualize and group tasks, is helpful. Maintain your focus by reviewing the list periodically throughout the day and making adjustments when necessary.
Put technology on hold. Technology is to blame for much of the multitasking and distractions that take place in today’s workplaces. But just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to be at its beck and call. Make it a point to occasionally turn off or otherwise tune out technological distractions and train yourself to focus intently on certain work situations — an important client or staff meeting, an interview with a potential witness or the writing of a brief.
Rediscover the art of delegating. To reduce the natural tendency to multitask, try delegating instead. If you feel you can’t possibly take on one more task, don’t. Instead of you alone trying to juggle several urgent matters at once — and having your head spinning from trying to decide where to start and how much time to devote to each task — see if you can assign several people one action item each. This can be a real time- and sanity-saver for busy legal professionals. Review the priority list mentioned earlier, and decide which duty or duties you can safely hand off to available staff members. If the person you turn to is a colleague, just remember to return the favor when your schedule is light and he or she needs help.
The myth that we can successfully multitask may be just that, yet it’s more ingrained than ever. In a business environment where being “slammed” sounds like a desirable state and a sign of importance, recognize that focused concentration and delegation — not multitasking — may be the best way to truly be productive and successful.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.