Work Smarter, Not Harder: How Lawyers Can Achieve More By Doing Less

Advances in technology allow us, as young lawyers, to work on the go and get more tasks done in a fraction of the time, promising to make our lives easier and our loads lighter. But we’re working more, not less—on call 24/7 to meet the immediate demands of our clients and colleagues. And yet, despite working more hours, at all hours, with a growing set of tools at our disposal, most of us feel more stressed, overwhelmed, and run-down than ever—that it’s getting harder to get things done, that our to-do lists are never-ending, that we’re failing and can’t keep up. But if we’re doing more, how can it be that we feel like we’re never achieving enough?

How We Are Working Against Ourselves

The key to our decreasing productivity isn’t how much time we’re spending on work, but what we are getting done and how. While we may feel more stressed and overwhelmed than ever, we often get in our own way by trying to take on too much. Below, I’ve laid out three common pitfalls that young lawyers face in their effort to be successful.

Multitasking can never be as effective as focusing on one task

Thinking that there is no other way to get it all done and meet the breakneck demands of the hyper-paced world we live in, most of us spend our days juggling multiple projects at once, jumping between tasks and tools and dealing with an endless stream of notifications on various channels.

But in trying to do so much all at once, we are unable to truly focus on any single task. Multitasking slows us down because context-switching takes time and exhausts our brains by oversaturating our working memory with too much information, which further erodes our efficiency. What’s more, it takes at least 20 minutes to regain focus following a distraction, meaning that we not only lose productivity from lack of focus, but we actually lose time as well from the constant need to move from one task to the next.

The more decisions we need to make, the fewer we find ourselves able to make

As we become available on more channels, we need to make increasingly more decisions about how we will spend our time—even when the decision is simply to ignore a notification or request in that moment. And we pay a biological price for making so many microdecisions daily in the form of decision fatigue. The more choices we make throughout the day, the less mental energy we have to take on the next incremental decision, and the harder each one becomes for our brains. So we eventually look for shortcuts—veering toward doing nothing at all or becoming reckless and impulsive instead of thinking things through.

Not planning how to spend time in advance makes you feel like you have less time

How we spend our time affects our sense of wellbeing and productivity, but just as important is our perception of the time we have and how we’re spending it. Indeed, researchers have found that even when there is plenty of “time;” the more emotionally conflicted we feel about how we are spending our time, the less “time” we feel we have. That is, if while working on something, we feel guilty about it, as though we should be working on something else instead, we effectively feel more stressed for time than we would otherwise, and depleted of the mental focus needed to complete the task at hand. Like multitasking and decision fatigue, feeling stressed for time elevates our stress hormones, causing mental fatigue and reducing productivity.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Although most of us understand, accept, and account for the fact that we feel physically tired after a long day or a hard workout; but for some reason, we approach mental energy differently. However, mental energy is no different—good decision making, like physical strength, is a state that fluctuates during the day, and not a fixed trait. No matter how rational and disciplined we try to be, there is a limit to how much we can put mind over matter.

Our ability to keep pace with and respond to the ever-evolving and fast-paced demands of the competitive global marketplace is measured by how well we can adapt to and handle complexity. Understanding that the way we work is getting in our way of working—that we are stressing ourselves out, interrupting our workflows, running ourselves down, and reducing our productivity—allows for the possibility of change, and paves the way forward.

Rising to the challenge requires that we have more strength and energy, but more importantly, that we work smarter, not harder. Producing high-quality work and being on call 24/7, without being able to make more hours in the day or take on superhuman capabilities, requires that we optimize and reconfigure our workflows. Doing so sustainably requires that we place a premium on conserving willpower, reducing stress, recharging, getting comfortable doing less, and replacing inefficient work habits with better ones. That we tune in to our limitations, more realistically assess and prioritize amongst tasks, and actively experimenting with and find tools and habits that work for us, not against us.

Tips for Spending Your Time More Productively

  • Reduce false feelings of feeling pressed for time. Practice slow breathing and re-channel feelings of stress into more energizing productive emotions, such as excitement.
  • Keep distractions to a minimum, especially during time dedicated to focused work, and stick to asynchronous communication when you can.
  • Try to prioritize and accomplish tasks more efficiently by planning your schedule in advance to ensure that you can be fully focused and committed to what you are working on in the moment. For projects that require more attention and concentration, schedule large chunks of focused time for when you feel at your prime. Consolidate administrative tasks and pencil them into those short, in-between breaks in your schedule, or for when you feel focused work is a bit out of reach.
  • Choose the right time and context to make critical decisions. Just because you receive an email at 11:00 PM does not mean you have to commit to responding immediately.
  • Make fewer scheduling decisions by committing to pre-scheduled routines where you complete specific tasks at regularly scheduled intervals. For example, instead of agonizing daily over whether you’ll exercise or not, commit to certain fitness classes, or set up regular appointments to exercise with a friend.
  • Commit to only what you think is essential—and once you’ve committed, commit whole-heartedly, doing only one thing at a time. Decide that you will not feel guilty for anything on your list. For example, if you want to set aside 15 minutes to organizing your desk tomorrow, then give fifteen minutes of your whole heart to organizing your desk when you do. Don’t waste one bit of energy feeling guilty or wishing you were doing something else – know and believe that you are doing something of value.
  • Recharge, and do so wisely. Instead of counting on willpower to remain high all day, actively conserve and refuel mental energy reserves. Consider that just as important as taking a break is what we do during that time. Scrolling through social media on the couch exhausts us more than it reinvigorates us. Far better to take a nap, meditate, spend time doing nothing, letting your mind wander, or even engage in mundane tasks, like washing the dishes, watering your plants, or cleaning your desk.
  • Eliminate certain decisions so you can use your brainpower on things that matter when they matter. Adopt time-saving, automated technological tools that reduce your to-do list and serve as a boon, not a burden. ZERØ’s passive mobile time capture and narrative generation features are easy-to-use and shoulder much of the administrative burden of time entry, alleviating stress, and boosting productivity.
  • Subscribe to ZERØ’s Life Hacks for Lawyers, ZERØ’s weekly newsletter that provides productivity tips for lawyers, including how to best leverage technology for optimal time management.
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Amy Sapan

Originally from New York and based out of Tel Aviv since late 2010, Amy Sapan has over eight years of corporate legal experience, principally in the fields of high-tech and private investment fund formation. She has previously held positions at Amit, Pollak, Matalon & Co. and Yigal Arnon, two of Israel’s leading law firms, as well as Dickstein Shapiro LLP in New York City, now defunct. She received her J.D. magna cum laude from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and her B.A. in International & Area Studies summa cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis. She is a member of the NY State Bar and the Israeli Bar Association. She is passionate about gardening, art, craft, dance, swimming, ecology and movement.