The Third Tool: The Off Switch

In four preceding articles I have described the idea behind becoming a very highly valued five-tools project manager, ready to manage each of the five progress factors:

  • Manage the project, starting with the project charter (discussed in the previous article).
  • Manage the client, starting with the Conditions of Satisfaction.
  • Manage time, starting with the Off Switch.
  • Manage money, starting with budgets.
  • Manage the team, starting with assigning tasks accurately.

Let’s look this month at a core tool for managing your most precious resource. You can take control of your time via the Off Switch.


Consider the following somewhat typical hour of a working day:

LawyerHour 1

That’s what the lawyer believes she does. If she keeps on top of her timesheets, she likely records 0.3 hours for Matter 1, 0.3 hours for Matter 2, and 0.3 hours for a discussion with a colleague or client. She writes off a tenth of an hour for email.

LawyerHour 2

However, look at the figure above. It’s what our hypothetical lawyer is actually doing with that hour.

Note that she’s really spent only about 0.1 hour truly focused on Matter 2, because she attended to some email before – and during! – her work on it.

The discussion came up short as well, about 0.2 rather than 0.3 hours – and it too was interrupted by email. Then she did more email as the hour ended.

The question isn’t, is this fair to the client? I’d ask first, is this fair to the attorney?

Was she able to do her best work on Matter 2 with that email interruption in the middle? Research offers a very clear no – with the result that she gets stressed, falls behind, and scrambles just to get through her day. (See my book The Off Switch: Discovering Your Work-Work Balance for references to the specific research – and a lot more detail on this issue.)

She also allowed email to interrupt the discussion. Not only did she likely lose her train of thought (actually, it’s much worse thans simply losing a train of thought), consider the message she sent to her colleague… or client: My email is more important than you are – and I don’t even know who sent it yet!

Even Matter 1, because it was stopped and restarted, didn’t get the benefit of her full attention.

Sure, you can live and work like this. “Everyone does,” you say. Maybe.

But… is that really how you want to work? It’s not as productive as you think.

The First Off Switch: Interruptions

Here’s another version of the where-did-my-hour-go diagram. Because you’re not context switching or trying to multitask, each specific task, even email, will see produc­tivity gains and take less time than before:

LawyerHour 3

Our test-subject lawyer is now accomplishing in about fifty minutes what used to take a full hour. Do that for a ten-hour day, and you – I mean, she – will get over an hour and a half back.

That’s the principle of focus, or what psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed “flow.” (Athletes call it plaing “in the zone.”)

It takes time on a task to reach full flow, twenty minutes or more according to various studies. However, simply by keeping interruptions at bay we can reach partial flow states where our effectiveness increases dramatically.

Make Email an Actual Task

If email is your biggest interruptor, as it is for most office workers these days, try these two steps to get control of it:

Turn off the sound and the desktop alert (the blue translucent thing in Outlook) that accompany a new email, and minimize or hide the email window itself.

Set aside specific time every couple of hours to do email as a discrete, focused task. If two hours feels like too much time, then do it once an hour – anything but always, all the time.

If you could truly do email only three or four times a day, you’d save on the order of an hour or more each day, according to studies. Since most of us can only cut down rather than eliminate interruptions the obvious savings will be more like twenty minutes. Note that when I helped my own teams implement the “email task,” they normally saw at least thirty minutes a day of clear additional time.

They also saw a lot less stress.

Now that’s something worth emailing home about.

Better yet, take some of that recovered time and spend it at home, with family or friends.

(This article is adapted from Steven B. Levy’s new book: Legal Project Management Field Guide: Five Tools for Busy Professionals. The book covers time management for lawyers – and the other tools – in greater detail.)

Comments are closed.