Thursday, February 10, 2011

Do legal educators need to teach students how to single task?

More than a decade ago, law schools began installing wireless access and made students buy laptops both to take advantage of the in-class teaching opportunities the internet provides and as a way to model how lawyers work in practice.   Laptops and mobile devices are now so ubiquitous that students don't need to rely on their law schools to learn about them.  (I nevertheless believe that law schools should offer a specialized course in applied legal technology to teach students about the specific devices, apps and software they'll need in practice.  But that's different than handing them laptops that mostly get used to surf during class). 

Ironically, what digital natives don't know how to do is unplug and concentrate on a single task.  An associate who surfs during a deposition may blow the case and get fired as a result.  With students who only know a world where everyone is wired all the time, legal educators are going to have to teach them about the critical importance of unplugging and developing their ability to focus.   

Here's some advice for doing just that from Tony Schwartz at the Harvard Business Review:

The social critic Linda Stone has coined the term continuous partial attention to describe the fractured way we now focus. "With continuous partial attention," Stone explains, "we keep the top level item in focus and scan the periphery in case something more important emerges." Or something more alluring, reassuring, or simply less demanding.

Staying singly focused on a task in this digital era is like trying to resist eating while sitting in a bakery as cookies, pies, cakes and tarts emerge fresh and fragrant from the oven. There's a reason Cinnabon points its air vents out into the corridors at airports.

[Try these practices to build your capacity for sustained attention]

1. Slow down. The faster you're moving, the more likely you're reacting rather than reflecting. Set aside intentional times during the day — they can be as short as a minute or two — to check in with yourself. Think of them as "wake up" calls.

2. Build deliberate practices, ritualized behaviors you do at specific times until they become automatic. For example, begin by doing the most important thing first in the morning, uninterrupted, for 60 to 90 minutes. Make the start time and the stop time inviolable, so you know exactly how long you're going to have to stay the course.

3. Create "precommitments" to minimize temptation. Our capacity for self-control gets depleted every time we exercise it. Turn off your email entirely at certain times during the day. Consider working at times on a laptop that isn't hooked up to the Internet. Do this for the same reason you should remove alluring foods from your shelves (or avoid all-you-can-eat buffets) when you're on a diet.

4. Start small. Attention operates like a muscle. Subject it to stress — but not too much stress — and over time your attention will get stronger. What's your current limit for truly focused concentration? Build it up in increments. And don't go past 90 minutes without a break. That's the time to let your attention wander.

You can read the rest of Tony Schwartz's column here.


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