Despite our best intentions to start the day strong, tackle certain looming projects and remain “focused”, often before our first cup of coffee we have been interrupted repeatedly, by phone, email, texts…  Before we know it the day has flown by and we are no closer to finishing our projects then we were when the day started.  I think we can all agree that repeated interruptions are a nuisance. However, interruptions can be more than just a nuisance, they can result in inadvertent ethical violations.

Certainly, some interruptions are unavoidable, but most are. A recent study by Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, found that the average worker shifts computer screens an average of 566 times a day (going from a word document to email to a website, for example), and on average, people spend approximately three minutes on any particular activity before switching to something else.  Mark also found that it takes approximately 23 minutes to return to our original project after three or more distractions.

For lawyers distraction ad infinitum can have real, ethical consequences.  As reported in a recent ABA article, Interruptions and distraction can lead to ethics pitfalls, there are several potential ethical risks by continual distraction.  The potential ethical violations include: failing to accurately capture your time; charging unreasonable fees and failing to complete projects for clients efficiently; failing to provide competent representation; and failing to keep our clients reasonably informed.

As Mark noted, frequent interruptions changes how a lawyer thinks. It takes time to get into a complex thinking mode, and being interrupted hinders our ability to perform our duties to our clients with the necessary skill.  Continuous interruptions can result in our failure to properly keep track of our time, impact our efficiency and timeliness, and result in our neglecting to inform our clients.

As Mark noted, mindfulness is a technique that shows promise by allowing you to focus on the present moment, on the work you are doing right now. Mindfulness can help you catch yourself before your attention is diverted so you can make an informed decision about whether you should divert your attention or not.  So, before you check that email, take a breath.  Before you go off task and go on that website “just for a minute”, take a breath.  Before you walk down the hall and chat with a co-worker, take a breath, and try the following exercise:

Sit in an upright and comfortable position and lower or close your eyes.

Bring your attention to your breath. As you inhale count one inhale, as you exhale count one exhale. 

Continue counting your breaths until you reach ten. If you lose track, simply start at one again.

You may never reach ten, and that is ok. By simply bringing your attention to your breath in this way, over time, you will be able to notice, and therefor avoid, self-imposed or unnecessary distractions, which in turn, could help you avoid any potential ethical violations.