50 Lessons for Lawyers

Lesson 6. Understand and apply the power of focus.

August 14, 2019

That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

– Steve Jobs

When was the last time you felt as though you were able to give one hundred percent of your attention to a particular task? If you’re like most lawyers, your answer is probably something like, “I can’t really remember,” or “Not often enough.” It doesn’t matter what you’re working on, there is always something else clamoring for attention. And the more things we have clamoring for our attention, the less attention we have. More than one of my clients has said to me, “You know, I feel like I have ADD.” And the reality is that many, or more likely most, lawyers suffer from self-induced ADD. And lawyers are not alone.

Below is a listing of the symptoms or criteria for diagnosis of ADD from the DSM-IV Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association: [6:1]

  • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work or other activities
  • Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities
  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace
  • Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities
  • Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks or activities that require sustained mental effort
  • Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities
  • Often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli
  • Often forgetful in daily activities

Sound familiar? Painfully familiar? Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of ADD, says that he has come to see ADD as a “metaphor for modern life.” In his book, CrazyBusy,[6:2] Hallowell notes that, “…once applicable to only a relative few, the symptoms of ADD now seem to describe just about everybody.” The pull of the email “ding,” the ringing phone, the text message, the Facebook notification, the CNN news update, all conspire to create a sense that you must pay attention to everything. But what ends up happening is that by trying to pay attention to everything, you slowly lose the ability to pay attention to anything.

So how did we get to this point?

In an interview with Harvard Business Review,[6:3] Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age,[6:4] says that the self-induced ADD so many of us deal with didn’t start in the digital age. “[I]t goes back to inventions from 150-200 years ago and the new experiences of time and space they provided us…The possibility of doing two or more things at once has long intrigued us,” Jackson says. Jackson recognizes that there are times when we need to multitask, but we also must develop our attention skills fully. The problem is, most of us spend much more time multitasking than we do working to develop our attention skills. As Hallowell explains in CrazyBusy, multitasking is like playing tennis with two balls. Imagine trying to focus on two balls at one time. You’d be running all over the place. And even if you could keep two balls in play at one time, you couldn’t do it for long. You just can’t keep your eye on two balls at one time and expect to perform well.

 What you can do to improve your focus:

The good news is that there are things you can do to improve your focus. Some are simple exercises you can perform at your desk, and others are lifestyle changes. Taken together, they will make a huge impact on your ability to focus.

Reduce multitasking.

Too much multitasking – or as it is more aptly called, “switchtasking” – is one of the biggest impediments to increasing our focus. The truth is, our brains cannot multitask. They can only focus on one thing at a time. And as we age, our ability to switch quickly from one task to another diminishes. Maybe you’ve experienced this first-hand by accidentally hitting “Reply to All” in an email while talking on the phone and processing emails at the same time.

Research conducted by the University of London found that workers who are distracted by email and phone calls can suffer a 10-point drop in IQ. That is more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana, according to researchers. In The Myth of Multitasking: How Doing It All Gets Nothing Done,[6:5] Dave Crenshaw explains that switchtasking only serves to shorten our attention spans and make us more susceptible to interruptions – both internal and external. Interruptions and switchtasking create the self-induced ADD described above. When we try to focus on more than one thing at a time, we lose our ability to focus on anything. Reduce the amount of switchtasking you do each day.

Interval training for your brain.

If you were planning to run your first marathon, you wouldn’t get up on the day of the marathon and expect to run 26.2 miles. So, if you’re not accustomed to focusing for long periods of time, don’t sit at your desk and tell yourself you’re going to work for an hour or more on a project. It is a recipe for frustration. If you were training for a marathon, you’d start small and work up to 26.2 miles over time. My friends who have trained for marathons have all followed some type of interval training method. One of the best ways to condition your body is to use interval training. Our muscles respond very well to short bursts of intense training, followed by lighter training or rest. Our brains work the same way. You can increase your ability to focus by starting out with short blocks of focus time and building up to longer periods of intense focus. Here’s how:

  • Use a timer and create presets.
  • Start small. Create a “Focus Preset” for 10 minutes and a “Break Preset” for two minutes. Tell yourself you are going to focus on a particular task, completely uninterrupted for 10 minutes. Then give yourself a two-minute break.
  • Create additional presets of 15 minutes, 25 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes and 90 minutes. And create a five-minute break and a 10-minute break. You could also apply the concept of working 25 minutes and then taking a five-minute break. This way of working is known as The Pomodoro Technique. It’s a powerful tool for getting work done in a highly focused way. For more information on The Pomodoro Technique, visit http://www.pomodorotechnique.com.
  • If you can, work up to 90 minutes of focus time. Then give yourself a 10-minute break. Brain research has shown that 90 minutes is the optimal amount of time our brains can focus on one thing.

Get regular exercise.

Exercise is good for you. You already know that. But what you may not know is that exercise is not only good for your physical health; it’s good for your brain. Regular exercise can help to improve your mental focus and dexterity. Even 15 minutes a day of aerobic exercise – something as simple as a brisk walk – can improve your ability to focus.

Get enough sleep.

Most of us need at least seven to eight hours of sleep to be at our best. Recent research has shown that some people may need as many as nine hours a night.[6:4] Unfortunately, many of us suffer from “sleep debt,” a chronic lack of sleep that can accumulate over time. Sleep debt not only impacts our ability to focus, it can lead to serious health issues such as increased risk of stroke, heart disease, weight gain, diabetes and memory loss.

Living the Lesson

  • Notice when you are multitasking, and make a conscious effort to reduce the amount of multitasking you do each day.
  • Turn off email notifications. Pop-ups and audio notifications are constant sources of distraction and can destroy your focus. Remember: If you’re waiting for an important email, you can always check for it.
  • Start with shorter periods for focus and work up to longer periods, but no longer than 90 minutes without a break.
  • Try using earplugs to block extraneous noises. I got in the habit of using earplugs when I was studying for the bar exam. They can really help you shut out the world around you when you want to focus. You may also want to try listening to music with headphones to drown out distractions. The key to using music to help you focus is to find the right “background” music for you. You want the music to help you focus and not be a further distraction for you!

[6:1] Symptoms or criteria for diagnosis of ADD from the DSM-IV Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Retrieved from http://www.mental-health-today.com/add/dsm.htm

[6:2] Hallowell, Edward M. (2007). CrazyBusy. Ballantine Books.

[6:3] Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/hmu/2009/01/pay-attention-an-interview-wit.html.

[6:4] Jackson, Maggie (2009). The Dangers of Distraction, The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Prometheus Books.

[6:5] Crenshaw, Dave (2008). The Myth of Multitasking: How Doing It All Gets Nothing Done. Jossey-Bass.

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