by Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis
Q: A typical day at the office for me is one interruption after the other. I come in; start working on something important and get interrupted constantly by my staff, my partners and, of course, the telephone. I’ve gotten to the point of feeling that if my clients would just leave me alone — I could get some work done! So I work nights and weekends just to catch up. Help!
A: Many of the attorneys we work with struggle with this issue. They feel helpless in the face of constant interruptions that seem to be out of their control. They don’t begin any significant production until either after 5:00 p.m. when the office has quieted down — or Saturdays when there are no interruptions at all. There is hope, however. By practicing the techniques listed below, you can learn to be proactive and take more control of your day.
Interruptions have a hidden cost
Here are the facts: time and motion experts say that you lose ten minutes per interruption. This means for every six interruptions, you lose one hour. Add up a day’s worth of interruptions and you lose one to two hours per day. Add up a week’s worth of interruptions (five to ten hours) and you now know why you end up working evenings and weekends.
Most attorneys don’t manage themselves very well and end up using their personal and family time as “make-up” time for production, leaving themselves very little time for a life. This is a high price to pay — especially in light of the fact that only about 20 percent of the interruptions that occur are genuine, drop-everything, time-sensitive interruptions! The vast majority of interruptions – 80 percent – are either social in nature, disorganized “blurting” of questions from the staff, or issues that seem more urgent than they really are. Daily staff meetings in which the staff anticipate and cluster their day’s worth of questions can eliminate many of the internal interruptions that take place.
In our Atticus® Time Management programs, we train our attorney clients to anticipate interruptions and head them off with an approach we call the “Power Hour.”
The idea of the “Power Hour” is to block out, every day, a one to three hour block of time in which you handle your highest priority production. For most attorneys this is best done in the morning — when they are fresh and able to concentrate on complex work. This leaves the afternoon for them to see their clients. Some attorneys will block out time both in the mornings and the early afternoon, and will schedule client sessions in the late afternoon. There are many variations on this concept, so look to see when you can consistently plan time for your “Power Hour.”
To enhance its effectiveness and guard against distractions, clean off your desk every night and pull out only those files you want to work on in your morning “Power Hour.” When you arrive, resist all temptations to handle any lower priority items that come up. All of your calls should be held — with the exception of people who you need to talk to get your work done — and all interruptions should be blocked. Close your door and power through as much production as you can — you can expect to be up to four times more efficient when working this way. A significant improvement over your output when you are multi-tasking!
In order to maintain a sense of accessibility while your calls are being held, your secretary can tell callers that you will want to talk to them as soon as possible. She can then say, “Where will you be at 11:00? Please give me your phone number and (the attorney) will be able to call you then.” Your secretary should actually make phone appointments for you while you are in your “Power Hour.” She should not tell the client to call the attorney back. Instead, she can pre-empt several rounds of phone tag by setting a phone appointment on the spot. Some of the smartest attorneys we know actually tell people right up front, in the first meeting, that their telephone hours are between 11:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Introduced to the idea upfront, their clients usually have no problem with this whatsoever.
Remember that no one can interrupt you without some permission on your part. Think about that. The idea is to take control, be pro-active and pre-empt those interruptions ahead of time! Stop regarding your personal time as an endless source of “make-up” time or you will end up without much of a life!