By Mark Powers & Shawn McNalis

You’ll never be able to successfully manage your time until you develop a proactive approach to managing interruptions. In our book, Time Management for Attorneys: A Lawyer’s Guide to Decreasing Stress, Eliminating Interruptions and Getting Home on Time, we present strategies for avoiding interruptions altogether, give you some tips for handling them and help you identify the sources of the interruptions in your office. Here’s an excerpt that will help you handle your biggest interrupters (hint: the source of your worst interruptions may be closer than you think).

Industrial engineers have determined that the average length of an interruption is seven minutes. It takes you an average of three minutes to get back into what you were doing when you were interrupted. This means ten minutes per interruption. Six interruptions occur and you have lost an hour. Twelve interruptions and you’ve lost two hours. Many of you have twenty or more interruptions on an easy day. You do the math.

Many attorneys don’t start serious production until after five in the afternoon, because that is when the office quiets down and they can concentrate. They work from five o’clock until eight, nine or later to get their production work done, all the while feeling bad about not spending time with the family, or pursuing life outside their practice. It is not uncommon for us to hear attorneys say they view Saturdays and even Sundays as a real haven, not for rest and relaxation, but a “real” opportunity to concentrate and get work done. When they analyze this statement they realize it is primarily because there are no interruptions to deal with! However, what they have gained in perceived “real” time for getting a lot of work done is conversely a huge loss in the personal column of life, interacting with family as well as taking care of themselves. Attorneys who operate this way must then squeeze their so-called life into the few hours that remain of the weekend; that is, if they have the energy. Is it any wonder that the failure rate of attorney marriages is so high?

Create Critical Interruption Criteria

Maybe 20% of the interruptions you experience are valid, time-sensitive and truly important enough to displace whatever you are working on. The remaining 80% of the interruptions can and should be handled at other times and in structured ways. Two proactive ways which help you get a handle on the interruptions in your office are as follows:

  • Create standards for what truly constitutes a valid interruption
  • Create lists of people by whom you allow interruptions
  • Create Standards For Valid Interruptions

Start by creating, with your staff, a list of typical client crisis or emergency scenarios that get your attention when and if they occur. This is a very useful list to help them distinguish the real emergencies from the false ones. Staff members who are new and not seasoned may believe that every client problem must be immediately elevated to the attorney, instead of tactfully handing the client over to the designated hitter who can often help. This is especially true of a new staff person who has never worked in a law office before and doesn’t realize the emotional instability of some of the clients who often want extra attention or just someone to talk to. A discussion that gives examples of real emergencies you have experienced in the past can be very valuable. Remember, we are not trying to downplay the validity of the problems the client may be having. Sometimes the client is only satisfied by talking to the attorney. Sometimes the attorney must immediately respond to something that the opposing counsel or a vengeful spouse has done. There are plenty of legitimate emergencies among those masquerading as such. It is important for you and your staff to clarify the difference.

Set Criteria on What Constitutes an Emergency

Another way to set criteria on what constitutes an emergency is to make a list of allowable interrupters. Your spouse and some family members are usually on the list of people who may interrupt you if they have something urgent to discuss. If you have school-age children, the schools should be able to interrupt with urgent messages. You can institute a standing caller list for you and your staff (spouse, children’s school, a couple of trusted friends or advisers or A+ clients). Some offices make a changing list on a daily basis, and they e-mail it or instant message it to the call screener. For example, the call screener knows the spouse and specific other individuals can always get through; but, other than those, “today’s” list of allowable calls is limited to those whose files the attorney is addressing. So if the attorney is going to be working on the Smith file and the Jones file today, Mrs. Smith and Mr. Jones are allowed to call in.

Other than that, you may have a small list of important clients or influencers who get your attention whenever they call. This list should not be a broad one. It should be small and select.

In order to begin to get a handle on managing interruptions, let’s break them down into categories. We find that interruptions fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • Family and friends
  • Socializing at work
  • Work related
  • Attorney’s work style

Handling Interruptions From Family and Friends

Interruptions that may come from your personal life, kids, family or friends calling in and interrupting you during the day can be managed. The solution to this is to discourage them where it is appropriate:

  • Let “personal” callers know not to call during your production time
  • Direct them to call during your lunch hour if you are eating at your desk
  • Ask them if you can call them back after hours.

Just as you can retrain your staff and co-workers to support your efforts in managing your time, you can let people in your life know that you are trying to be more efficient during the day so that you have more time to be with them in the evenings and on the weekends.

Quick Tips for Handling Socializing and Work Interruptions

Let’s begin by giving you some quick tips for pre-empting or shortening socializing and work interruptions. It may be as simple as adopting a new set of non-verbal clues, shifting your body language or simply making a change in the physical setup of your office. Notice that these tips for “taming” the interruption apply to work and social situations since the circumstances inevitably overlap.

Use a Visual Cue

One attorney we know keeps a photo of his family on his desk. This attorney, because of his warm nature, has been plagued with co-workers who take up a lot of his time discussing their personal problems. Since becoming aware that he is spending a lot of the time in unproductive conversation when they plop down in his chair to conduct a long, rambling self-analysis, he has established a quick trigger to remind himself of his goals. He looks at the co-worker, looks at the picture of his kids and asks himself the question, “Would I rather spend time talking to this person, and end up working late to make up the time; or would I rather get to see my kids before they go to bed tonight?” Without fail, he chooses the kids. This has been a great source of motivation for him.

Let’s Do Lunch

Corral co-workers to join you for lunch. You are pre-empting social interruptions by catching up on each other’s news and adding a bit of fun and relaxation as well.

Tell Them You Prefer E-Mail

E-mail offers a great alternative to face-to-face conversations because it can be answered when it is convenient for you. It does not stand in your way and demand an answer now. Internal e-mail is also a great tool for staff to batch questions and ask them of the attorneys, which they, in turn, can answer at their convenience.

Get Creative with Your Communication Methods

Conference calls are great alternatives for group communication. They consist of one hour communicating with a group of three at once not three hours communicating one message to three people. Most telephone companies have extended conference-calling services available. One such service is called a bridge line and allows you to put up to 150 people on the same call at the same time. The bridge line can be useful for much smaller groups as well, especially for meetings that may not warrant travel but involve critical participants from remote locations.

The low-tech method of communicating by memo is a timesaving device as well. It allows you to put all of your thoughts down in a coherent fashion that can then be sent to as many people as necessary. This leverages your time by allowing you to communicate to many people simultaneously.

Let Your Body Do the Talking

When you see someone entering your office with whom you do not want to get into a long conversation, stand up. This cues them non-verbally that you are in a hurry or on your way out. If that does not slow them down, actually walk toward the door and leave (even if you just walk to the restroom). When you want to end a conversation, break off eye contact with the other person. They will feel that it is time to leave without you having to say a word.

Play Musical Chairs

Move the visitors’ chairs in your office away from your desk when you are not seeing clients. Make your office a little less comfortable for chatting. When the chairs are not conveniently placed at your desk, people are more likely to stand and talk to you and consequently their time with you becomes shorter.

Do Not Be Eye-Catching

Move your desk so that you are not in view of the passing traffic in the office. If people can easily see you and catch your eye, they are more compelled to come in and socialize.

Close Your Door and Mean It

Enroll your staff in the idea that when you shut your door it means that you are not to be disturbed by anyone. This is critical to your production time. If the rest of the office does not respect your closed door, send out a memo saying that you are committed to managing the level of interruptions to your day so that you can accomplish more production. Mention that your secretary can help anyone in the office who needs to speak to you or that she can set up a meeting with you later. As you begin to take your time seriously, so do others.

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