There's No Such Thing as Successful Multi-Tasking

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People are still talking on the phone and texting while driving, despite the statistics that prove it can be deadly — and despite it being against the law.

Now, new statistics show the same result — injury and death — from just walking while being in "another zone" of texting or listening to music.

USA Today reported a Seattle study that more than a quarter of 1,000-plus walkers were using electronic devices as they navigated intersections where pedestrians had been hit in the past, and that such multi-taskers were nearly four times less likely than other pedestrians to follow all safety rules. It's no wonder that pedestrian deaths are increasing even as fatalities from other traffic accidents fall.

This is just one confirmation that successful multi-tasking is a contradiction. We can do only one thing at a time successfully. That's a particularly relevant warning for lawyers. Those who reach the pinnacle of success in practicing law are able to do many things, but they do them best when they focus on one at a time.

Consider the common scenario of sitting in a meeting at which lawyers have smartphones in hand, checking text messages or sending new ones while they're ostensibly participating in the proceedings. Such multi-tasking often means that the individual is either reacting too quickly to their email or missing something important in the live dialogue as it is going on. An inattentive lawyer who misses a key point in a meeting risks arousing client ire or making a mistake due to inattention that could have major negative ramifications.

Attorneys have time management software, Outlook calendars, personal digital assistants and many other technological tools to help them manage multiple tasks, but many still claim to have too little time or say they are overwhelmed by the need to balance client, practice and personal priorities.

When that happens, it makes many lawyers feel that they should do even more to multi-task. Yet attempting to do too many things at once produces attorneys who are close to burning out, or, at the very least, are unhappy in their day-to-day occupation.

Successful people are focused and passionate about what they do. In the effort to excel under the intense pressure of economics, lawyers can simply try too hard to succeed. Often the source of stress is a sense that their practice seems to be spinning out of control.

Attorneys facing such an impasse should pause, take a deep breath, and take the time to think things through. Trying to do too much at once creates self-defeating fear and paralysis as the tasks become overwhelming.

The time savings, efficiency and commoditization of routine tasks and services afforded by electronic technology have freed the great majority of lawyers to focus on the creative, problem-solving aspects of their practice. However, unless we're aware of what technology can consume from what Lincoln called our stock in trade as lawyers — our time and advice — we will not be able to fully exploit what it can add.

In sum, technology facilitates multi-tasking, but multi-tasking generally does not facilitate good lawyering.

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