Thinking time

Tuesday, 01 July 2014
Liberate yourself from the tyranny of your inbox and treat yourself to some quality thinking time, urges Martyn Gowar.

Your editor caught me out the other day as I was trying to decide what I should write about, and I have to confess that a wet towel around the head was not doing me much good at 5.30 on a Friday evening. When does inspiration come, and how much of it is dependent on perspiration?

The upside of downtime

I was much influenced 30 years ago by a wonderful New York private client lawyer who I met at the end of a trip around the US, during which I had been reading a book about what was then a new phenomenon of lawyers working excessively long hours.

This book included the story of how one of two rivals for a partnership worked the first 24-hour day in the firm’s history, only to be outdone by the other, who worked the next week on a flight from New York to San Francisco and was able to record a 27-hour day.

Shell-shocked by these tales as I went to my friend’s major firm in New York, I asked him how he did it, mistakenly assuming that he did.

He put me at ease by saying that in fact he only worked from 9am to 6pm – or to 7pm if he was really worried about something – and then went to play the piano with his string quartet. (His middle name is Steinway, I should add.)

My friend pointed out that, when you are doing intellectually stretching work, as we do with tax and trust law, there is a limit to what you can achieve each day. Quantity is no substitute for quality of thought.

Despotic inbox

I am sure I have muttered about the tyranny of the inbox before, and, even as I type this, little messages keep popping up in the corner of my screen, tempting me to switch over to deal with them (after all, it will only take a minute, and then the problem will be gone!).

And then there are the interruptions of the phone, and people with queries – all of them important, all of them not to be ignored – and, before you know it, your train of thought has been derailed.

We all have to work out our own salvation. For some, it is discipline, and for others it is self-discipline. When something is both important and urgent, the discipline of the deadline solves the prioritisation problem, but, when something is important but not urgent, the self-disciplined will come up trumps. However, what is urgent but not important, let alone what is not urgent and not important, cannot be forever postponed.

Food for thought

Thinking time is a precious commodity, and I suggest we all need at least half an hour minimum a day – but at a time when we are not mentally tired. Of course, we are all different in terms of what works for us, and I claim to offer no answer, except to say that I try to focus on the reality that my clients want from me a properly considered response to their problem, built on an understanding of all the influences that affect their own lives. That requires time and concentration. Somewhere in the day, time has to be found for it.

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Martyn Gowar

Martyn Gowar TEP is a Partner at McDermott Will & Emery UK LLP and an Editor of the STEP Journal.

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