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How To Be A More Focused Lawyer

Lawyers balance lots of competing demands for our attention. Most of us have big caseloads and our days are filled with interruptions by phone, email, or in person visits. Despite these challenges, to do our best work really requires focus. In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg offers a chapter worth of insight on how to improve your focus.

Duhigg points out that most of what we do is autopilot guided by heuristics. Heuristics are the mental shortcuts that allow us to function without having to put conscious thought into every decision. Despite the many claims to the contrary, our brains are not wired to multi-task well. When we have to toggle between different tasks, the risks of errors increase. And, the more we have to engage our automated systems (due to workload or toggling), the more limited our ability to focus becomes. We literally see and process less as stress forces the brain to focus all our energy on the most obvious stimulus even if that is not the most important thing. This concept is cognitive tunneling.

Cognitive tunneling can manifest itself for lawyers when we lose the ability to see the big picture. We push forward with fighting a case because we cannot see the creative settlement options. Our minds narrow in on the theory of the case we have embarrassed. We stop considering other possible theories or outcomes. The stress of heavy workloads forces our brains into cognitive tunneling.

The second problem with high stress and high workload is “reactive thinking.” Reactive thinking is what happens when our “habits and reactions can become so automatic they overpower our judgment.” (Dug at 81) Again, stress causes reactive thinking to engage. Rather than considering strategy on a case, perhaps stress forces you into following the same game plan that worked in the past.

So why do some people stay calm under stress? According to Duhigg, people who make the best decisions under stress are those who can visualize pictures of what they expect to see. They in essence, live the experience first in their mind so when they encounter it in reality they can handle any changes. And, they visualize their days with more specificity than others. Psychologists call these imaginations “mental models.” We all create mental models but some people create more of them and in greater detail than others. Some people create lots of mental models, or theories, and then test them in their mind.

According to Duhigg, people who can manage their attention and who habitually build robust mental models in their minds earn more money than others. So Duhigg advises that you begin the habit of imaging what you expect to see at your desk or during the day as a way to train your mind to improve its mental modeling. To help focus, imagine a task just before you begin it.

Duhigg’s suggestion is an easy one for lawyers to implement. We will all be better served to spend a few minutes on the way to work imagining our day so we can create the mental models needed to guide us through stress and stay focused. Before heading into a trial we can do mental modeling to deal with our ideal opening or direct exam, but also to do mental modeling of how we could handle a setback in our case. Mental modeling can help prepare for a negotiation, helping us deal with moments of high emotion in the process.

We all can benefit for the better decisions that flow from being focused on the right things no matter how much stress heads our way. Duhigg’s chapter on focus is an excellent resource to move us in the right direction.


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