Work Habits That Can Become a Barrier to Professional Success
Vol. 40 No. 7
Mary Dunnewold is a legal writing instructor at Hamline University School of Law.
Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to professional behavior. We agree to take on projects we aren’t interested in and don’t want to complete. We schedule more work in one day than we can possibly accomplish. We agree to do a favor for a friend when we really don’t have the expertise or the time to follow through.
Faced with a multitude of unappealing tasks or overwhelmed by the work on our desks, we may give in to the impulse to procrastinate, we try to do too many things at once, or we allow ourselves to be distracted by the more immediately attractive options in front of us: texting with a friend about dinner on Saturday or washing out that coffee cup that suddenly seems in urgent need of attention.
Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.3 requires lawyers to “act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.” Similarly, Rule 1.4, which addresses communication with clients, requires lawyers to “promptly comply with reasonable requests for information” and to keep clients reasonably informed about the status of their cases. In fact, of all the possible ethical and disciplinary traps lawyers can fall into, lack of diligence, in the form of neglect of responsibilities, and failure to communicate with clients is number one across the board.
For instance, in Washington State, issues of diligence, competence, and communication accounted for 28 percent of all ethical violations in 2010, the largest percentage in all categories (Washington Bar Association, 2010 Lawyer Discipline System Annual Report). Similarly, in 2010–11, the most common complaints against lawyers in Texas involved allegations of neglect and failure to communicate (State Bar of Texas, Commission for Lawyer Discipline Annual Report, June 1, 2010–May 31, 2011). And in New Jersey during the same time period, “gross and patterned neglect” accounted for 29 percent of attorney discipline, the most common offense (New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics, 2010 State of the Attorney Disciplinary System Report).
Neglect of responsibility can arise from myriad causes, including untreated mental health and substance abuse issues, physical health issues, and just plain inappropriate behavior and bad decision-making. But a few questionable work habits—which may initially seem relatively benign—can start a lawyer down the slippery slope to neglect and unprofessional behavior: procrastination, multitasking, and, a related issue, giving in to distraction. Learning to overcome these behaviors can help contribute to a better professional life.
A range of feelings and issues may underlie procrastination. You may not feel like you can successfully complete a task, so you don’t want to begin it. You may feel anxious or overwhelmed about work in general. You may have never developed good time management and organizational skills. Or you may be legitimately tired, or just bored with the work in front of you. Although legal practice can be very satisfying work overall, not all tasks lawyers must perform are fascinating and rewarding, and sometimes it just takes an extra boost of effort to get to them.
But if procrastination goes on too long, it can leave you feeling out of control and even more overwhelmed, which can lead to more significant problems, like client dissatisfaction and even ethical lapses. For instance, in one case, a lawyer had procrastinated so egregiously in an adoption case, he was driven to lie to his clients when they arrived at court for a dispositive hearing. He asked the clients to wait outside the courtroom while he completed the adoption, but in fact no hearing was scheduled and no adoption was in the works. He was eventually disbarred (In re McCoy, 447 N.W.2d 887 (Minn. 1989)).
Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who studies procrastination, explains that we have to see procrastination for what it is: short-term gain with immediate mood repair, but potentially dangerous to our careers over time. “We have to give in to feel good,” Pychyl says. “We think we’re busy, but clients and others we work with see our lack of attention as disrespectful and, at worst, pathetic.”
Most of us are required to perform some unappealing tasks. “But thinking that we will feel more like doing them tomorrow is a rationalization and is never true,” Pychyl says. “If we put those tasks off until tomorrow, we will pay the price—in the form of negative impressions by our clients and co-workers and increased pressure to act.”
Pychyl recommends three techniques for overcoming procrastination. First, just get started. Research shows that making progress on goals results in an upward spiral of motivation. “No one ever says, ‘oh, I’m glad I waited,’” he points out. “Instead, after working on something we’ve been putting off, we usually say, ‘this is not as hard as I thought.’” So you might try committing 30 minutes or an hour to a project, with the intention of stopping at the end of the designated period, just to get the ball rolling. And once you are 30 minutes in, you may have no trouble continuing.
Second, make an “implementation intention,” as opposed to a “goal intention.” “So instead of thinking, ‘I need to make those phone calls sometime,’ think ‘when I leave the meeting, I’ll go straight to my desk and call that client,’” Pychyl suggests. This kind of specific planning frees up cognitive resources to do other tasks. A specific implementation intention also provides a “cue” for behavior, so when you see your desk, your implementation plan goes into effect.
Finally, Pychyl advises, “make your plan concrete.” Abstract plans do not seem urgent, so we are not particularly motivated to carry them out. Think in advance about what you will say to the client when you make that phone call, how the conversation will go, and what else you might need to do to implement your plan. This sort of thinking makes the task feel like it belongs to today, not tomorrow. It may even feel a little more urgent.
Other methods may help overcome procrastination if the problem arises because of the complexity of the work you’re avoiding. You may want to break a project down into smaller steps, organize your thoughts by outlining or making a flow chart showing what needs to be done, or establish specific rewards for yourself for completing certain tasks. If you need help with organizing or conceptualizing a complicated assignment, you may want to talk it through with a colleague. But be careful with the planning. As Pychyl notes, sometimes planning becomes procrastination.
Multitasking and Distraction
Multitasking and distraction feed each other and may exacerbate procrastination tendencies. Recent research on multitasking carried out at Stanford University demonstrated that “media multitaskers” are less able to concentrate, remember information, and switch effectively from task to task, as compared to people who perform, and complete, one task at a time (www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/08/21/
0903620106.abstract). In particular, multitaskers are less able to filter distractions and more likely to focus on irrelevant information. So when we try to do several things at once—talk on the phone, type that e-mail, communicate with an assistant—we get more and more distracted and our performance suffers. In turn, feeling inadequate about work performance, or simply watching tasks pile up in front of us because we are not able to focus, may lead to procrastination.
Multitasking and distraction can affect your performance in both work and academic settings. Jim Dimitri, a clinical professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, has studied multitasking and distraction in the law school setting. “Multitasking requires more cognitive effort, impairs memory, and increases the time needed to complete tasks. It also increases the risk of making a mistake,” Dimitri notes.
To counter these effects, Dimitri encourages professors and students to adopt learning tools that will help students avoid and control distractions that could affect their performance. For instance, professors can establish a “laptop-free zone” (e.g., the front row) in law school classrooms to minimize the risk of distraction for some students. Outside of the classroom, students should consider carving out specific time blocks in which they limit their access to social media, texting, and e-mail. “Switching off your devices and applications can be difficult,” Dimitri says, “but may result in much more effective work or study time.”
If you need more help getting away from electronic distractions, you might try using voluntary Internet blocking software. For instance, “Self Control” is a program that blocks access to mail servers and websites for a specified period. For example, you can block access to your e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter accounts for an hour, but still have access to the rest of the web. Other programs allow you to block all Internet access or to block certain kinds of distracting websites.
If you are having significant issues managing your time and workload, you may want to consult an expert. Many state lawyer assistance programs provide resources to help attorneys learn better time management skills. Also, some life skills and professionalism coaches specialize in coaching attorneys to better organize their professional and personal lives. Your school’s academic support program or dean’s office might have referrals, or check your bar association’s website.