There is no shortage of productivity advice on the internet. Notable examples include Getting Things Done, 43 Folders (inventor of The Hipster PDA) and Zen Habits, and David Seah (inventor of The Printable CEO).
Truth is, most of these systems are notoriously difficult to fully implement and, like Merlin Mann, after an extensive time following the productivity genre/industry in details, I have generally soured on the relentless gadgetry, listmaking, fickleness and obsessiveness of most productivity websites and communities, and so don’t closely follow many of those blogs anymore. (Let me craft a specific exception for Lifehacker, which never claimed to offer readers a “system” but rather a digest of tools and possibilities.)
That said, the productivity industry has a lot to offer, and the odds are good that most readers will find something on these websites which they can integrate into their life for increased efficiency and decreased stress. One idea I’ve found useful is clustering similar tasks together, a.k.a. “batch processing.”
Research has confirmed that multitasking does not work, and that the time it takes to shift mental gears between tasks causes multitasking workers to be less productive on the whole. It is easy to verify this finding empirically in the legal world: next time you are deep into a brief, jump over to discovery requests in another case, and note how long it takes for that stunned and confused feeling to go away.
The “mental gears” analogy can be extended to other circumstances, too, and most office workers feel a need to “warm up” when they begin work before they can be the most productive, hence the ubiquity of caffeine and the idealized Dunkin’ Donuts world referenced in the video above, which is not too far from the truth.
Thus, many productivity gurus have recommended clustering tasks together and doing them in succession, as well as breaking up large tasks into multiple chunks each of which can be completed without interruption by another task.
The problem for lawyers is that the reality of law practice strongly encourages living by the calendar. The impulse is to adopt “first in, first out” system of completing tasks, with exceptions made for urgent matters.
For example, if in the past week four motions, six discovery requests, and ten phone calls came in, and in the next week a complaint and two dispositive motions are due, then the natural inclination for the lawyer is to arrange these tasks in the order they are due, making an effort to fit in other matters that should, but do not need, be done within that same time frame.
The end result is thus an assault from all directions, leading to the managed chaos present at most law firms and the much-lamented feeling of constantly “putting out fires.”
Nothing will ever make that feeling go away (you knew what the job entailed when you signed up), but it can be reduced through better practice management.
Don’t let the calendar determine how you schedule your work. Instead, take the little bit of time to schedule tasks so that you perform similar tasks at the same time, thereby reducing the loss of productivity due to switching mental gears.