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Kate Simpson

Tech as a disruptor of concentration

The evidence is all around us: the inability to stand in a queue and embrace the boredom; the need to be entertained in some way every 15 minutes. So, we flick through the Distraction Apps on our phones: Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Medium, Instagram, Globe and Mail. Grab the headlines, be distracted, entertained, and fill those few quiet moments.

This flicking, the modern equivalent of channel surfing, is getting more and more pervasive in our working lives, too: Getting through an hour’s meeting without checking e-mail becomes a feat of modern-day self-control.

And law professors (and anyone who gets to lead student workshops inside our firms) report that students seem unable to get through a lecture without checking their phones multiple times.

As an advocate of greater and better use of technology in law, I’ve started to wonder whether all of this distraction should force us to re-evaluate how we approach technology in our industry.

This question struck me with some urgency recently after reading Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

Deep work is what some call “getting in the flow” or “in the zone.” It’s that balance between being challenged and being bored; it’s looking up and realizing that hours have flown by while you have been concentrating on a deep task.

Clearly, much legal work is cognitively demanding and requires the ability to harness years of training and expertise in complex subjects. Lawyers, like other consultants, are often specifically instructed by clients to deeply focus on a specific issue or problem that they don’t have the resources or the time to concentrate on themselves. And, as I’ve written about before, the simpler, routine tasks in law are slowly but surely being automated away.

The paradox that Newport highlights is that while deep work is increasingly important in a world of automation and outsourcing, it is also becoming harder to do because of all of the distracting technology we surround ourselves with.

We’ve all been warned about the perils (or complete ineffectiveness) of multi-tasking: “Multitasking Damages Your Brain and Career” suggests one Forbes article; “How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking” suggests the Harvard Business Review. Multitasking is a myth, however. Apparently, what we do is switch between tasks very rapidly; we’re not actually paying attention to two or more things simultaneously. We flick between tasks instead. The experts quoted in Newport’s book talk about the 20 minutes of “attention residue” that travel with us as we switch between tasks. We may not even be aware of it, but part of our brain is still focused on the previous task. That’s why it can take so long to get deep into a piece of work again once we’ve been interrupted.

These social and networking apps, and the never-ending drama of our e-mail inboxes, constantly pull us in, and away, from focusing on the deep tasks that form the bulk of the so-called knowledge work prevalent in law firms.

It gets worse. Newport suggests the more we give in to these disruptions the less we are able to focus when we really need to. Being able to dive deeply into a piece of work to find that creative solution for our clients is not something we can turn on or off at will. It takes deliberate practice as explained by the performance psychologist Anders Ericsson (and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success).

Social media and mobile connectivity have created an always-on mentality that is seeping into the legal technology network tools that we use. The technology enables lawyers to be constantly connected and kept apprised of what’s going on with their matters and their field of law at all times. Collaboration tools allow us to dip in to the multiple threads and streams of activity going on around our firms. We’re asking lawyers to tweet, to write and comment on pithy blog posts, and to be available to clients 24/7. We’re asking them to connect more internally and engage in our knowledge management, teaching, and business development activities. We’re giving them instant messaging and Slack-like apps that threaten to further interrupt and permanently plug them in to other people’s busyness.

Of course, there is a lot of value in these activities. As a “human network router” myself (as Newport calls us), pushing e-mails around the firm, as well as between lawyer and client, is absolutely required to keep projects, deals, and cases moving and the business operating. But is this the work that our clients most value? And is it what gives us the most satisfaction and sense of accomplishment? I know for myself that much of my best work is actually the result of deep work.

Sadly, productivity in law firms, like other forms of knowledge work, is often assessed by busyness. It is the closest we’ve come to measuring lawyer value; instead of counting the number of widgets we build, we need to be seen to be busy doing stuff. We can’t just close the office door, shut down Outlook, and bury the smartphone deep into a desk drawer; we need to respond to urgent client and matter demands as they arise. So we respond to e-mails as fast as possible and at silly times of the day.

The deep tasks are taken home instead then, for when the kids are in bed, the e-mail stream turns to a trickle, and where one can find the uninterrupted peace to focus.

In the end, it seems that the cultural norms and working practices we are developing are the worst culprits, and not the technology itself. Our legal tech brings so many benefits, with efficiencies that enable us to be smarter, faster, better for our clients. However, like all technology, we need to better understand the limitations and drawbacks, as well as how or why it benefits us and our clients. We need to make smarter decisions about why we use the specific technology that we do.

For me, this meant re-evaluating the benefit I get (or not) of the Distraction Apps I use. For example, Twitter and my news feeds help to keep me on top of developments in legal technology, knowledge management, and practice improvement. And while this is an important activity, I’ve realized that using these tools to check in on the world outside should be scheduled around my intense bouts of focus, and not every hour of every day.

There has been some pushback among lawyers with some of our internal connectivity tools (often known in my field as adoption or change-management challenges). While I’d be the last person to defend resistance to innovation just because it is new, I clearly see there is need for a balance that requires thoughtful debate whenever we introduce yet more technology.

Many of the expectations we have of each other (and, critically, that our clients have) are currently too implicit. If we make these explicit, we can be up-front about the need for uninterrupted time and space to focus. And then we need to find clever ways to create that time and show our colleagues and clients that this is actually critical to the quality, productivity, and value of our work.

Deep work enables us to be the very best at what we do. In this age of intelligent machines, it is essential that we distinguish ourselves from the rest, as well as from the machines, with our creativity and intelligence. And that means taking charge of how we use technology before it takes charge of us. 

Kate Simpson is national director of knowledge management at Bennett Jones LLP, and is responsible for developing the firm’s KM strategy and initiatives. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.