Have you ever felt like there aren’t enough hours in the day? In professional life it just seems like a given.
Whether you are a working parent with kids at home, or have aging parents to care for, or even an energetic dog who requires long walks daily, or a combination of all three (lucky you!), or a whole different set of responsibilities, chances are you feel stretched a lot of the time.
The truth is that our prosperous professional lives are full to overflowing. This is a good problem to have. And it is also a kind of suffering.
The holy grail of professional life these days is feeling like you have a handle on things most of the time and finding satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment in what gets done.
The better we get at our work, and the more knowledgeable we become, the more we have to contribute. Life in law, whether as corporate counsel, in private practice, or in a support role, is about having multiple projects on the go at any one time. There is always a to-do list. There are always people to respond to, answers to give, and deadlines to meet.
The key is getting comfortable with having lots on the go. Although your to-do list is never completed and someone always wants something, you know you are effectively using your time, making good choices, and realising steady progress.
The following is my top 7 list of tips for making the most with the time you have and most importantly feeling good about it.
Step one: It all starts with having a planning meeting with yourself. Schedule this meeting, and make sure you show up. Get off email. Turn off your phone. Get to a space where you can focus free of distractions. The purpose of this meeting is to take step number two.
Step two: Review what you have on your plate and make choices about what stays and what goes.
Do an inventory of all your commitments and responsibilities. They will fall into three categories, work, community, and self. I use community as a catch holder for family, friends, and other people or organizations you care about.
Find where there is overlap. You might be coach of your kid’s soccer team. If you love that time with your child and enjoy soccer then that will likely be an investment in family and in self. Depending on the type of legal practice you have, there may even be a nice networking opportunity in connecting with the parents. In that case it could check all three boxes.
Look at your list and answer these questions:
- Which of these gives me energy in some way?
- Which items are a drain?
- What can I take off this plate to give myself more energy and time?
Life is like a buffet table. You have to make choices. Some items you will choose because you know they are good for you. Some because they are delicious. But there is only so much room on the plate – and in your belly. Worse, if you let someone else make the choices you could end up with something nasty on your plate. Like sea cucumber. For me, living all those years in China; it was always sea cucumber. Believe me; you don’t want a heaping serving of sea cucumber.
You might resist this exercise in subtraction. I know I have. “No, no, I really do need to be on those two boards, and I really am the only one who can plan Great Aunty Julia’s 90th birthday party.”
Just say no. One no leads to more no’s. Wielding your “no sorry, I can’t do that” is a critical skill I encourage you to practice.
I recently stepped down from a board that I was involved with. The organization and its cause mean a lot to me. But, as I looked at my year ahead I realised that the board commitment had to go. It was one piece that filled my plate to overflowing. So, as much as it meant to me, it had to come off. It took me two months to tell them, but I got there in the end.
Saying no, and removing things from the plate can be hard, but it also frees up essential time for what is truly most important.
Tip three: Having set your big picture priorities, it is now time to do the same thing at the office.
First thing in the morning review your to do list and decide what you want to accomplish in the day. It is important to do this before jumping into email. Prioritising takes a sharp mind. When you let yourself be sucked into email first thing each day it is all too easy to get swept up into email priorities rather than making strategic decisions about where your real priorities lie.
Use a white board or blank sheet of paper when prioritising. Look ahead at your big projects, how can they be broken into parts? What part can you initiate this week? What can you delegate?
Tip five: Give yourself blocks of focused time to work on your complex projects.
The worst way to work is bouncing on and off of email. If you want to have a productive day, it is essential to have some blocks of time for giving all of your attention to one item on your agenda. Our brains produce their best work when they are able to focus on one thing.
Tip six: “Use your brain to interact with information not to store it” says leadership coach David Rock. Get the to-do lists out of your head.
Tip seven: Congratulate yourself for what gets done.
Take stock of what you accomplish and give yourself a mental pat on the back for what you achieved. It is all about making good use of each day.
For a great guide on making good use of the time you have each day read David Rock’s book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.