Are You Carrying “Digital Debt”?

August 7, 2023

Even if you’re not familiar with the term “digital debt,” it likely affects how you work. It refers to the seemingly endless stream of digital communications — emails, video meetings, Slack threads, LinkedIn messages — that eat up our workdays.

Being in digital debt is what happens to information professionals, including lawyers and marketers, when we’re too drained from coordinating and responding to communications to think or create. You know — do actual work! As a recent piece in Forbes explained, “like having a negative balance in your bank account, it can feel like a negative balance on your time.”

A Microsoft report on work trends coined the phrase to highlight how technology can be a burden to information workers. It comes as the legal profession, like so many others, is questioning how new technologies like generative AI will shape our everyday workflows.

Could generative AI be one way to pay back the debt and reclaim some of our focus? In theory, a tool that can work independently to field the inquiries that interrupt your work — or even handle low-level tasks so that you don’t have to — sounds promising. Generative AI has the potential to help firms transform processes around client onboarding, graphic design and image searches, marketing copy and RFP responses.

As promising as this sounds, we also need to be realistic about generative AI’s limitations in terms of overall time savings. By now, everyone has heard about the New York lawyers sanctioned for citing fake ChatGPT-generated cases in a legal brief. Their situation offers plenty of lessons learned, including that as powerful as generative AI may be, it can’t monitor itself. Which takes time.

And generative AI can’t manage relationships. It can’t build credibility with and buy-in from key stakeholders inside the firm. Legal marketers are valuable for their industry expertise and ability to offer strategic guidance. Both are built through cultivating trusted relationships — not through automated replies and stock content. Generative AI may be able to help write the first draft of a marketing email or an attorney bio, for example. But it’s up to humans to align content with firm values and to navigate nuances that come with sensitive content.

All this means that digital debt will remain a problem for information workers across industries. Rather than pin our hopes on the newest tech advancement, we may be better off turning to some classic best practices for productivity. Here are just a few recommendations, but check out the complete list for more:

  • Communicate Your Boundaries: Let your colleagues know when you are setting aside blocks of time for focused work.
  • Eliminate digital distraction: Be pro-active in the use of apps like Freedom to turn off the digital tap for segments of time. At the very least, mute your notifications!
  • Methodically schedule each day: The more carefully you plan your day, assigning blocks of time to all the tasks you need to accomplish (and leaving room to deal with surprises or urgent matters that crop up), the likelier you are to tackle your to-do list and end the day with a feeling of accomplishment.