Blocking out the noise

21 March 2016 By Stefanie Garber
Dermot Crowley

As lawyers face more interruptions and demands on their time, learning to stay focused is more important than ever, writes Dermot Crowley.

According to Gloria Mark, professor of Informatics at the University of California, it takes a worker an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from an email interruption when working on something that requires a high level of concentration. Astounding!

This might seem a long time to deal with one email, but of course it is not that email that chews up the time. It is the other emails that we then see in our inbox and get stuck into. It is the sudden urge to then get a coffee, have a chat or check Facebook.

Emails are not the only interruptions we receive, but they are a big cause of unnecessary interruption in today’s workplace. Add to this the physical interruptions, phone calls, mind clutter (thoughts popping into your conscious mind), and instant messaging. This can be problematic in a law firm, as so much of the work that lawyers do involves thinking and concentration.


Constant interruptions tend to make our work fragmented, and lead to increased stress and increased time spent on the task. In fact, research is suggesting that interrupted concentration can increase the time to complete the task by up to 30 per cent. But what can we do when so much of this seems out of our control? Some lawyers still have an office and a door they can shut, but many firms are now moving towards open plan or activity-based workplaces where interruptions can be harder to control.

The first step to managing interruptions is to know what mode you need to be in. There are three modes that I recommend moving between as you go through the day. I like to think of these modes as a traffic light: red, amber and green.

Lockdown mode
Lockdown mode is when you need to concentrate fully on a piece of work. When in this mode you need to control the interruptions, both from others and from yourself. If you have an office, close the door, and make sure your colleagues understand what that means.

If not, relocate to a quiet space while you work on the task. In many law firms, the library is often the place to go. That can help with physical interruptions. Go all the way by turning off your email alerts, phone and put yourself into ‘do not disturb’ mode on IM.

The thing about lockdown mode is that you cannot stay there all day. This is good for one to two-hour bursts of concentration work. Use this mode wisely.

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Focus mode
Most of your day should probably be spent in focus mode. This is where you are working on your priorities, but you are aware of what is happening around you, and will evaluate every interruption.

If you do get interrupted, ask yourself if the interruption is truly more important than what you are currently working on. If not, make a time to do it later. Having a good task system that allows you to capture the task and then get back on task is helpful here.

Available mode
Some of your day should be completely open to interruptions. Remember, interruptions are not inherently bad. In fact, many interruptions help you to get your work done as well. So have times, when you might be doing low-concentration work, where you are happy to be interrupted if necessary.

In fact, some partners that I work with advertise these times and invite interruptions. This reduces interruptions at other times, and stops them becoming a bottleneck.

Interruptions are just another form of incoming work. Learn to evaluate them quickly and respond appropriately, rather than just react blindly.

Dermot Crowley is a productivity thought leader, speaker, trainer and the author of Smart Work.

Blocking out the noise
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