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LAWBIZ COACHES CORNER: There’s no such thing as successful multitasking

Ed Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at edpoll@lawbiz.com. Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at www.LawBizForum.com.

People are still talking on the phone and texting while driving despite the statistics that prove it can be deadly and despite it being against the law. Now new statistics show the same result – injury and death – from just walking and texting or listening to music and being in “another zone.”

USA Today reports a Seattle study that more than a quarter of 1,000-plus walkers were using electronic devices as they navigated intersections where pedestrians had been hit in the past – and that such multitaskers were nearly four times less likely than other pedestrians to follow all safety rules. No wonder pedestrian deaths are increasing even as fatalities from other traffic accidents fall.

This is just one confirmation that successful multitasking is a contradiction. We can do one thing at a time successfully, not many different things at the same time and do them well. This is a particularly relevant warning for lawyers. Those who reach the pinnacle of success in practicing law are able to do many things … but do them best when they focus on one thing at a time.

Consider the common scenario of sitting in a meeting where lawyers have smart phones in hand, checking text messages or sending new ones while they are ostensibly participating in the proceedings. Such multitasking often means that the individual is either reacting too quickly to their email, or they are missing something important in the live dialogue as it is going on. An inattentive lawyer who misses a key point in a meeting risks arousing client ire – or making a mistake due to inattention that could have major negative ramifications.

Lawyers have time management software, Outlook calendars, personal digital assistants and many other technological tools to help them manage multiple tasks, but many still claim to have too little time, or are overwhelmed by the need to balance client, practice and personal priorities.

When this happens it makes many lawyers feel that they should do even more to multi-task.

Yet attempting to do too many things at once when there appear to be so many competing priorities for work and practice demands produces lawyers who are close to burn-out or at the very least are unhappy in their day-to-day occupation.

All successful people are focused and passionate about what they do. In the effort to excel, made more intense by the pressure of economics, trying too much to succeed can cause problems for lawyers. Often the source of stress for such lawyers is a sense that their practice seems to be spinning out of control.

Lawyers facing such an impasse should pause and physically take a deep breath, then take the time to think things through as the equivalent of a deep breath that restores perspective. Trying to do too much at once defeats successful multitasking; it can instead create self-defeating fear and paralysis when tasks become overwhelming.

The time savings, efficiency and commoditization of routine tasks and services afforded by electronic technology have freed the great majority of lawyers to focus on the creative, problem-solving aspects of their law practice.

However, unless we’re aware of what technology can consume from what Lincoln called our stock in trade as lawyers – our time and advice – we will not be able to fully exploit what it can add. Technology facilitates multitasking … but multitasking generally does not facilitate good lawyering.

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