Goals Managing Self Planning Time

The zero-sum game (no math necessary)

Written by Steven Levy

Time is considered the ultimate zero-sum game.

What’s a zero-sum game? It’s any situation where doing more of one thing means less of another. In economics, it’s the classic guns-and-butter story. In most sports, it’s I-win-you-lose.

And in time management? Every minute spent doing Task A is a minute you cannot spend on Task B.

These days we too often try to multitask, do two things at once, usually involving a smartphone, though for lawyers it might also involve a computer and a phone (and billing records). However, science has proven that multitasking is actually a less-than-zero-sum-game for foreground tasks (i.e., those requiring some degree of concentration):

  1. If you try to do foreground Task A at the same time Task B and maintain your normal level of quality, you will wind up having accomplished less, in total, than if you had performed each task separately with full attention.
  2. If you don’t worry about quality, you’ll be able to do both tasks in the same amount of time, but with lower quality than you normally produce.

Intuitively, it feels like we’re doing more with less (time), but actual testing repeatedly proves the reverse.

If you’re trying to work on two projects at once – not sequentially, doing part of one and then part of another, but simultaneously – your output will suffer. You’ll accomplish less, or quality will decrease.

When you try to do two things at once, or in very short bursts of less than twenty minutes or so per project, you introduce frictional penalties – the time needed for switching back to a project and coming up to speed, regaining your place and your focus. This friction can add 10% or more inefficiency. In other words, in trying to get more done, you actually get 10% less done. That doesn’t mean you’re billing 10% fewer hours, just that you’re 10% less efficient. Or billing 10% more for the same work. That doesn’t make clients happy, to say the least.

In other words, you’re not being fair to your projects, or the clients behind them, when you try to multitask on projects. You’re treating projects like a baseball game, where one project (team) will be the winner and the other will be the loser. However, as a practicing lawyer, you’re in the Major Leagues – you cannot give your clients participation trophies and call it good.

New Year’s Day is coming, and with it a cultural tendency to make resolutions. Go to the gym more often. (Might last until Valentine’s Day.) Cut out the French Fries. (A week? Maybe.) Remember to say “I love you” to a spouse or child? (I hope you can stick with that one for a long time.)

How about making a resolution to stop multitasking when it comes to working on projects? I know this one is sort of like the gym… but some people who go to the gym observe the changes in their body, like what they see, and thus keep showing up to climb the endless stairs and pull the levers of the cam machines. If you stop multitasking, you’ll actually see the results, if you pay attention. Your work will become more focused – and less frustrating. Your feeling of accomplishment will stem not from cramming more and more into a smaller sack of time, but from digging deep into each project and knowing you’ve made a difference.

Try it and watch for the results.

And then next month, I’ll show you some cases where time management can move away from a zero-sum game, where you can do more with less.


About the author

Steven Levy

As the CEO of Lexician, I help lawyers around the world manage their projects, their time, their teams, and their clients. I am the author of four books for legal professionals, including the new edition of the groundbreaking Legal Project Management and the time-management guide, The Off Switch. Before founding Lexician, I was the former head of Microsoft’s Legal Operations / Technology department. You can contact me at steven.levy@lexician.com or learn more at Lexician.com.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.