For many lawyers, their workdays could best be described as chaotic, out of control or constant crisis management. They arrive at the office with no clear plan about how they are going to spend the day but just let the day unfold responding to each email or phone call as it appears. While their day may be productive and billable as this is all work needing attention, the feeling that all they are doing is putting out fires can be very frustrating.
Over the long term this type of crisis management means that matters requiring blocks of time do not get completed; “dog” files are continually avoided and remain barking on the desk; clients who are not as demanding get ignored and angry; and often work that could wait gets priority while more important work gets insufficient attention. A lawyer who allows her day to unfold without any strategy around what will be accomplished that day is headed for burnout. After all – who wants to feel they are at the mercy of whoever screams the loudest for attention.
There are dozens of time management tips and strategies but here are four “take back your life” tips to create a more satisfying day.
- Distinguish between what is important and what is urgent. This is one of the main themes in Stephen Covey’s well-known book on time management “First Things First”. Our clients may think that each of their issues is urgent but if we let the client dictate what is urgent, we end up with too many bosses and competing demands. Determine what can wait and what needs immediate attention. Make sure you attend to the important not the urgent matters. More significantly, determine what is important for you to lead a healthy, more fulfilling life. Often, it is getting to the gym or making sure you get out the door by 6 pm that is important to schedule into your day, despite all the urgent matters on your desk.
- One of my favourite time management books is titled “Never Check Email In The Morning.” The author, Julie Morgenstern doesn’t mean this literally. She means avoid the black hole of email that can suck you in so that you never get to the important work you need to accomplish today. Email can be a great time-waster as not all of it requires immediate attention. If you can’t stop yourself from replying to every email that instantly pops up, consider checking for important emails only on your blackberry or IPhone. You may be less tempted to reply if you don’t want to send a cryptic short answer on your phone. Most email can wait until later in the day to answer. Don’t be an email slave.
- Determine when you are at your highest and lowest energy points during the day. Are you a morning, afternoon or evening person? There is a myth that the most productive people are morning people who get into the office at 6 am and have three solid, billable hours of productive work done before anyone else has even got their coffee. These morning people are productive. But so are afternoon people who pick up speed as the day progresses. When the early risers are peaking at 3 pm, afternoon people are hitting their stride and their most productive time of the day may be from 3 to 6 pm.
The trick is to recognize when you are at your most productive and focused and schedule work that requires your greatest concentration during that time. Save non-billable work or work that requires less concentration for first thing in the morning, if you are a slow starter or later in the day, if you are an early riser. Of course, the afternoon person has to turn off the phone in order to get that quiet time that an early riser gains. But if afternoons are your most productive time, guard it by shutting off interruptions as much as you can.
- Take a short break every 90 to 120 minutes. There is a lot of research that shows we can only maintain our peak focus and concentration without a break for a maximum of one and half to two hours at a time. After that, our attention wanders and we are not as productive as we were before. The break need only be for 10 minutes but it should involve getting up out of the chair, stretching and moving around. Taking a break by surfing the Internet, while a pleasant diversion, is not giving our brains or eyes a rest. A walk outside around the building breathing outside air will make you more productive when you return. Lawyers are so programmed to record every 6 minutes like an assembly line worker that we are reluctant to take even a 10-minute break in our day. Taking regular short breaks will increase your focus and you will feel less tired at the end of the day.
Managing time is within our control. We cannot determine what client demands will appear each day but we can decide how we are going to react to them. Taking control over how you are going to spend your ten hours in the office not only makes your day more productive and satisfying but it puts you in charge of your life instead of allowing others to dictate how your day unfolds.