Focus for Lawyers – clarity when life gets blurry


Focus for LawyersIf I were to start writing out my current “to-do” list in this post, then it would be the single longest article in my entire site to date.  In fact, I’d be fairly confident that the list of things I want to accomplish in life, law and business is probably going to be so long that it would longer than the rest of this site put together.

It would be extremely easy for that list to become so overwhelming that, in fact, I end up not accomplishing anything.  How I get through the quagmire of this list is only by virtue of a combination of skills that I am learning to develop:

  1. Focus
  2. Productivity
  3. Prioritisation

This article is only on the first of these, although I have touched on productivity in the past.

Focus – In Personal and Professional Life

Focus is not a lawyer-only quality.  It’s required to accomplish anything meaningful.  That doesn’t mean you need to be in laser-like single mindedness for your entire life in everything that you do (if you’ve got kids then you know, as I do, that this would be impossible).

However, you will find that when you start applying focus deliberately to your professional life you will apply it to your personal life as well.

Is this actually a good thing?  Usually, but don’t forget that focus is not an excuse for rudeness – the fact that you’re doing something doesn’t give you the right to wave anybody else who needs you away (try it a few times with your spouse, if you have one, and see how that goes).

Focusing on the right tasks at the right time will generally enable you to get more done, build your confidence and let you cascade your achievements into a fulfilling day, week and month.

What is Focus?

Focus is the ability to do a task until it is complete.  That’s it.  It’s hardly rocket science.

I’ve heard an acronym a few times recently from John Lee Dumas (not sure where it came from – but that’s where I heard it) which is quite useful:


Sounds corny?  Probably – but it’s right, and you would benefit by remembering it.

What Gets in the Way of Focus?

Focus by itself is fine, and in a wonderful world with no distractions focus would be fairly easy.  But distractions there are, and more than a few.

There are two major categories of distraction – those we cause ourselves, and those caused by other people.  Both can be managed, to an extent.

Self-Caused Distractions

I’m pretty good at these.  With running a website, I have basically an infinite number of things I can do which are not at all productive.  I can check statistics, play with fonts, change colours, move widgets, change layout, listen to podcasts and read books about how I can be doing websites better (not necessarily a bad thing unless it’s a distraction).

None of those things help with my core purpose though: delivering content that helps people.  It’s here where prioritization can help, but that’s a topic for another day.

Generally I find that self-caused distractions occur when I’m floundering in the performance of my real task.  It’s where the words aren’t flowing on an article, my next chapter of a book in progress is stalling, or I’m struggling to come up with ideas of some sort.  That’s where I let distractions creep in.

The solution is obvious: pick a task that you can achieve, and which has meaning.  If you’re completely stuck with a task, then you have a couple of options: 1) move on to another productive task that you can do properly; 2) get some help to bring you back on track with your existing task.  Which option you pick is really a matter of urgency – if neither task is urgent then do the one that actually involves you achieving something.  If your task is urgent the seeking help is the next best option.

External Detractors from Focus

Other people are pretty annoying sometimes.  You’re just getting into the groove of an article or an advice, and somebody “pops their head in” for “a quick question”.

In legal practice, of course, the speed of the question has no correlation to the length of the answer or discussion that comes from it.

External distractions are, however, another opportunity for you to work on prioritization – it’s just in a bigger circle than yourself.  There is only one question: does your task need to be done so quickly that, in comparison to the task the other person has, you cannot take the necessary time to address the issue they are asking you to.

This is not an opportunity to be snob.  Your existing task may or may not be more important than theirs – judge each on its merits, but don’t stuff around – just make a decision and deal with what needs doing, irrespective of the choice.

It becomes more complicated when it’s a more senior person.  As a clerk or junior lawyer you’ll need to deal with this a lot: two partners each give you, in quick succession, urgent tasks that require immediate attention.  There is only one solution here: they need to sort it out.  You are not in control of this situation, just speak to them both, indicate you’ve been asked to do an urgent task for each, and ask them to indicate to you which to prioritize.  Whatever you do, don’t say yes to both as if you’re going to get straight on it.  One of them will be annoyed at you later.

So Here’s The List

Focus is really a fairly easy concept, but can extremely difficult to pull off in practice.

Here’s how I go about it if I need some conscious effort – hopefully it helps!

  1. Prioritize your tasks.
  2. Of the task you have chosen, make sure you have defined exactly what it is that you are doing – wishy washy tasks are immediately unfocused;
  3. Ensure you’re working on the core of the task, not the periphery.
  4. Have the necessary tools to complete the task, so you don’t end up stuffing around mid-effort to find a pen or something silly;
  5. So far as it’s rational, eliminate the distractions you cause yourself, and those caused by others.
  6. Where a decision is called for, make a decision.  The things that cause us to waste time are normally decisions we have to make – fear gets in the way.  Sometimes these decisions take a half day task and turn it into a 3 day task.  Not because we couldn’t do it faster, but because we didn’t want to make the necessary decision.
  7. Finish.  So often I see (or have) tasks 95% done that just need a little more attention, but the person has lost focus – get it done, then it won’t distract you from your next task.  More, however, it will also give you a confidence and energy boost as you can tick that task off your list.

Good luck!  What distracts you, and how do you get past it? How do you focus?  Let me know your best ways of staying focused in the comments.

Happy Lawyering!

  • One way to ensure #7 is to make sure a piece of paper/email, etc. is only being handled once. In other words, when you pick something up finish it. Handling something twice is inefficient and a waste of time.

  • This was a helpful read – thanks. #4 is critical to the success in all we endeavor to accomplish. I keep a ‘running to-do’ list that is with me through the day and is based on a ‘master list’ of goals, both long term and short term, that I’m interested in accomplishing.

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