Are You Going Deep on Your Legal Work?

We tend to view new technologies positively, focusing on their positive effects, while overlooking or minimizing their potential negatives. And while the internet, email, social networks, and mobile devices have all produced real efficiency gains in both the professional and personal spheres, it's worth examining some of the losses as well.

One oft-noted negative of the increased "connectedness" of the world is the seeming inability to detach from work; we are now reachable by bosses, clients, and customers at almost any time. Another effect is that many of us have become interrupt-drive, prone to dropping whatever we are doing to react to the latest message or other stimulus, losing focus and productivity in the process. It thus becomes more difficult to complete complex tasks that require "deep dives"--we keep getting pulled up to the surface.

A great deal of legal work is "deep work," a topic discussed at some length by author Cal Newport in a book titled (appropriately) Deep Work--a book that should be required reading for any knowledge worker (and of course that includes lawyers) trying to build a successful career today. Whether we're writing memos, formulating legal arguments, researching precedent, drafting merger agreements, or preparing for complex negotiations, we need to be able quickly assimilate and synthesize information, simultaneously maintain multiple complex conceptual frameworks in our minds, and put words to page--all tasks that require a high degree of focus.

The great thing about Deep Work is that Newport goes beyond simply decrying the state of distractedness and shallow work that permeates today's workplace; he also prescribes steps you can take to reframe your days. Rather than finding moments of focus in a sea of stimuli and distractions, you can schedule your short periods of distraction around long periods of focus.

But it's not easy to reprogram your behaviors. Imagine a meeting where devices aren't buzzing and participants aren't texting or reading emails--it's almost unthinkable these days. Or give this experiment a shot: next time you are standing in line, try to resist reaching for your smartphone.

My guess is that effective legal professionals are already incorporating some of the Deep Work concepts into their own professional lives, with at least some degree of success. However, Newport makes the key point (backed by scientific evidence) that every moment we spend giving in to a stimulus-response lifestyle, mindlessly clicking on headlines, feeds, and the like, trains our brains to want more of it. Truly taking back control of our brains requires a mind-shift during and outside of work hours.

Successful professionals already know that a high degree of self-awareness is necessary for career satisfaction and success. But we've had a bit of a blind spot for the potentially damaging effects of new technologies. Humans, like computers, are only as good as their programming--the difference is that humans have the ability to reprogram themselves for the better.

Check out Deep Work and ask yourself if you could be serving your clients--and more importantly yourself--better by recapturing your ability to dive deep into the really important tasks that determine success. 

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