How Multitasking Burns Money and Ruins your Brain

As a busy family law attorney, I can tell you that many things consume my time. Here are my top ten time-burning, schedule busting activities:

10. Reading 12 emails from the same client anguishing over who has the right to walk the dog this weekend (generally sent between 2am and 3am)

9. Explaining to clients why taking all the money from the family bank account might not be such a wise idea

Dana Santos

Dana L. Santos

8. Reviewing the email from opposing counsel that copies the letter that duplicates the fax that reiterates and confirms the telephone call I just had with opposing counsel

7. Picking up the same piece of paper I have already picked up 5 times during the past week, because the last 4 times I picked it up I read it and didn’t want to deal with it

6. Being polite when my office mate walks into my office and insists on discussing why the football lockout is a crime against humanity and why football team owners are the spawn of Satan, even when a) I could care less about overpaid athletes and their “troubles” and b) I really, really, really need to get this pleading out

5. Giving a client the same piece of advice that I’ve given them the last 5 times they asked the question, because they think if they ask me enough times, the answer will change (clients who are also preschool teachers know intuitively this method will not work)

4. Reading those wonderful and disgusting joke emails from the uncle in Louisiana that must be read before any work gets done (why do all the really interesting looking people shop at Wal-Mart?)

3. Deleting all the email adds from West, Amazon, Travelzoo, Intuit, InkSell, TigerDirect, Hotwire, Yoshi’s, Brookstone and other internet purveyors of unneeded consumer crack (there is a price for shopping online, what you save in gas you lose in lost years of your life getting off email lists)

2. Watching for that little email blurbie thing in the bottom right hand corner of my computer screen that tells me EVERY time an email comes in and like a Pavlovian dog, I immediately click on the email to see who likes me enough to send me email

1. Giving my clients excellent, well-reasoned, thoughtful advice, then doing the exact opposite myself

While the above is mostly tongue in cheek, the reality is we all waste a huge amount of time every day doing things we either don’t need to do, or don’t need to do RIGHT NOW. This results in lost income. How many times have you walked into your office at 9am, looked up at the clock at 5pm, and realized you had billed .8 all day?

Multi-taskingI do not claim I am a master of time management. I am simply pointing out some techniques for people like me who want to try a few simple things to increase their productivity.

a. Buy a scanner. As a solo, this machine is worth every cent I paid for it (ScanSnap s1500.) I can read, forward to a client and electronically store information in seconds. While I have not slain the paper dragon, this technology has given it a mortal wound.

b. Resist the temptation to read email as it comes in. I know this is hard and if you’re like me it will take months of really expensive therapy to fully understand why you want people to love you, but the fact is this is a huge time burner. Discipline yourself to read email on a schedule. I try to read first thing when I come in, then during or immediately after lunch, and finally at around 4pm.

c. Don’t answer your phone. (Attorneys everywhere in the county are reading this and thinking “hmmm, I thought she was just avoiding me.”) If you’re just sitting at your desk sorting mail, pick up the phone. However, if you are in the middle of a task requiring concentration, which is more often than not, that phone call will cost you (and your client) time and money. If I’m working on a three page declaration and I break for a call that is not an emergency, I have to reread that declaration from the beginning, re-collect my thoughts and attempt to recall the brilliant legal theory that was on the tip of my tongue when the phone rang. Instead, listen to your voicemail in the morning and return calls or reply by email as needed. Get work off your desk, and then take a break for calls before lunch. Do the same in the afternoon.

d. Reply to clients by email whenever possible, not phone. As a solo I have to ensure that I am operating as efficiently as possible. It doesn’t make sense for me to have a telephone call with the client, then write up my notes for the file, then write a letter to the client confirming the conversation. If a client has a question, you can respond quickly and thoroughly to their question by email, while simultaneously making your note for the file and providing something in writing to them to refer to at a later time, thereby saving them money when they need to review that piece of advice/information. While we know the in’s and out’s of our business, we sometimes forget that clients often have a huge learning curve and cannot retain all the information we give them.

e. Do one task at a time. Period. If your staff thinks an open door means you’re free to talk, then either shut your door or let them know that you are not available. There is no such thing as a “quick question.”

Finally, accept that your brain is no longer a steel trap (if you grew up during the summer of love and spent lots of time in the Haight, let’s face facts, your mind was never a steel trap.) You might as well acknowledge this reality and come to terms with it. You are past the age of forty and your brain works differently than it did when you were twenty. You are capable of more complex thought and more sophisticated reasoning, but your ability to access short term memory is impaired. Encourage your brain’s ability to focus and retrieve information by rejecting the temptation to multitask. Put systems in place to keep you organized, efficient and time effective, then do your best to follow those systems.

And finally, do as I say, not as I do.

Dana Santos is a certified family law specialist in San Ramon, California.


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