Are You Being Distracted Into Mediocrity?

As a busy lawyer, your time and attention are your most valuable assets that you must jealously and vigilantly guard. If you want to be great, minimize distractions as much as possible. Top performers, throughout history and across domains, have worked hard to minimize distractions in order to focus on their most important work.

J.J. Watt is a defensive end for the NFL’s Houston Texans, and is one of the league’s top players. He’s so good that he’s typically part of the conversation when analysts debate the greatest defensive players of all time. Watt’s 2014 season was particularly noteworthy. Despite frequently being double-teamed by offensive players trying to block him, he racked up 20.5 quarterback sacks, which ranks in the top 10 in the league for most sacks in a season (he also had 20.5 sacks in 2012). He even scored five touchdowns in 2014, which is a level of production that most running backs and wide receivers would be happy with. Beyond his remarkable on-field success, Watt had even more to celebrate in 2014. At the beginning of the season he signed a $100 million contract with the Texans, which was at the time a record deal for a defensive player.

Watt is a force who is extremely talented. But he didn’t accomplish such great success through talent alone. He’s also one of the league’s hardest working players. In an interview with his teammate Keith Browner described Watt’s work ethic:

“The main guy I look up to is J.J. Watt because his work ethic is ridiculous. He’s just a working horse. It’s like he never tires out. When I see him working, that makes me want to work harder because I say to myself all the time, ‘Nobody can out-hustle me and nobody can work harder than I can.’ So when I look at J.J., I try to compete with him and try and stay up there with him.”

You might expect that an athlete coming off a monster season during which he signed a monster contract would spend a bit of time celebrating his success during the off-season. What did Watt do with his newfound riches? He bought a rustic cabin in what he describes as “the middle of nowhere” in northern Wisconsin in order to double down on his work ethic, free of distraction. Watt explained the reason for purchasing the cabin to the Houston Chronicle:

“It’s really minimalistic. The only thing I have to focus on is training and that’s the way I like it. There’s no frills, there’s nothing to distract you up here.”

By putting himself in an environment that minimizes distractions, Watt is able to put in the hard work necessary to stay at the top of his game.

It’s not just athletes who use this approach, top performers in the knowledge economy do as well. When he was CEO of Microsoft, Bill Gates would disconnect twice a year for off-site “Think Weeks” during which he would do nothing but read and think deeply. His family, friends, and Microsoft employees were not invited. He read papers from Microsoft associates on topics related to the future of technology and emerging product trends. Gates typically read 100 or more papers during a Think Week. These sessions led to many Microsoft innovations and new initiatives.

Throughout history deep thinkers have disconnected to minimize distractions and produce valuable work. In 1845, Henry David Thoreau headed to the woods for two years to write his master work, Walden. George Orwell fled the hustle and bustle of London and escaped to a remote house on the small island of Jura off the coast of Scotland to write 1984. He described his writing sanctuary as “extremely un-get-atable.” Leonardo da Vinci spent a great deal of time in nature, wandering – purposefully not aimlessly – in an effort to better understand and appreciate the world around him. He once wrote: “I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand.”

Now, as a busy lawyer, I’m not suggesting that you can or should head off to a remote location in order live and work monastically. But in order to consistently produce valuable work you do need to find ways to minimize distractions in your day.

Distractions at the office come in many forms. Relentless email. Mind numbing, soul sucking meetings. Chatty colleagues. Facebook. LinkedIn. Phone calls. The window washing guys outside your 35th floor office who scare the crap out of you once a month.

Ever go on the Internet just to check out “one thing” and emerge from a daze twenty minutes later wondering what the hell just happened? You get the idea. In fact, that “minute or two” you intend to spend online checking Facebook is costing you much more.

According to a study conducted by Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after an interruption.

That 30 seconds spent chatting with your colleague who popped in your office? It just cost you 25 minutes of productivity. Not only do distractions crush productivity, they impact our emotional state as well. As Mark wrote in the New York Times: “Our research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood and lower productivity.”

Being prone to distraction is a habit that’s formed over time. Do you check social media, or refresh your email, at the first sign of boredom. Do you seek out distraction as an avoidance mechanism when you’re confronted with a particularly challenging task? These are learned and practiced behaviors, reinforced by the brain’s innate desire (an ancient survival mechanism) to avoid hard work and stressful situations.

The good news is that bad habits can be broken and new ones formed. Tidy up your office. Turn off notifications on your phone. Position your chair so that it faces away from your office door. Practice working in 30-minute uninterrupted blocks of time during which you don’t check email or get up for coffee. To eliminate distractions, you need to build a distraction free environment – to the greatest extent possible in a busy law firm environment (I’m a realist after all). Don’t succumb to the inevitability of an harried, hurried and distracted existence that results in late nights at the office because that’s the only time that things quiet down enough to get important, as opposed to busy, work done.

You’re in a battle for your own time and attention. Fight back. Distractions are robbing you of your opportunity to be great.

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