TIME MANAGEMENT IS A CHALLENGE for many, lawyers and nonlawyers alike. Yet lawyers in private practice must manage many things, from legal work for clients to supervising staff to handling the business side of practice. Lawyers often express frustration with their ability to manage their time each day. Perhaps because we normally bill for our time by the 10th of the hour, we often feel extra frustration with our time management skills. It’s all too easy to compute the potential revenue loss of even 12 minutes.
In addition, legal work has a way of becoming increasingly complex or expanding in scope on rather short notice. Entrepreneurs are eager to accept new work and sometimes take on more work than they can comfortably manage. This is common in service professions.
THE CONCEPTUAL CORE
But better time management practices can be beneficial for almost everyone. Time management and organizational gurus such as David Allen and the late Stephen Covey have become household names within certain circles. Allen’s Getting Things Done method is widely known. Almost everyone has heard of Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In 2007, Timothy Ferriss published a book titled The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, which made many bestseller lists.
All time management theories have much in common at their core. One should have a strategy that allows one to identify and focus on the highest priorities. Listing tasks is required to both organize the work and free the mind from trying to recall too many things. Incoming items such as mail, email or assignments within the workplace should be quickly categorized into lists or “buckets.” Distractions should be minimized. Taking the time to plan and build simple systems to avoid time-wasters should result in some immediate benefits.
These are all good concepts, and successful people have used them, consciously or unconsciously.
Email management is now a big part of daily time management. The Inbox Zero (inboxzero.com) principles say you should process all email with one of five actions: delete, delegate, respond, defer or do. I like the Inbox Zero mantra: “It’s not how many messages are in your inbox—it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox.” Lifehacker (lifehacker.com) columnist Gina Trapani has put forward a concept called the “trusted trio.” After her negative experience with setting up too many email folders, she has decided that every email you open that cannot be handled within two minutes or deleted immediately should be moved to one of three folders: Follow Up, Archive or Hold.
The lessons on email management really apply to all office or knowledge workers. Moving an email from your inbox to another folder clears your inbox, but it also clears your mind because you know you have filed the item where you can get back to it and it will not be forgotten. And when you open the folder, what do you have? You have a list of all of the emails by subject line. The only drawback is they will be in chronological order by date of email. It would take a few email ninja tricks to have them sorted roughly by priority.
BUCKETS AND LISTS
If I attempt to distill time management into two words, they would be buckets and lists.
You handle inflow with a few buckets. These are the places where you stash items so they will not be forgotten and will not occupy your mind. Both of these results are important. The number and kind of buckets depends on your inflow of information and tasks. Folders work great for email because they serve as both folder and list, even if they are an imperfect list. An actual desk tray or organizer may be best if your assignments mainly come in via paper. And sometimes the best bucket is to add an item to a to-do list. If you have returned from a meeting with a handwritten list of 10 new tasks on your legal pad, the way to preserve them, and clear your thinking, is to put them on your task list or delegate them to another’s task list.
All lawyers—indeed, all successful people—use to-do lists or task lists to one extent or another. Some people live by them on a daily or hourly basis. Others use them only intermittently. But everyone understands that on a busy day, when many things must be accomplished, the way to begin is to record the tasks in a list or risk overlooking one. So spend some time today examining your inflow and figuring out what buckets you should use.
Several popular software programs can be used to facilitate task management. Some of the most popular include Remember the Milk, Things, Toodledo and Trello. Microsoft Outlook also contains powerful task management tools, which is a great option for many people, given the time they already spend in Outlook.
A MANAGEABLE APPROACH
To-do lists can be kept on paper or on digital devices. For most lawyers, a blended approach may be best. I have discussed time management with Paul Unger of Affinity Consulting, and he has an interesting structured approach to to-do lists that combines modern technology with old-school methods, outlined below.
- Outside of the office, he uses the iPhone/iPad app TaskTask to enter tasks, which synchronizes in real time to Microsoft Outlook.
- Tasks are organized and grouped using Outlook categories (Client, Admin, Research, Personal, etc.).
- He uses the client name as a prefix in the naming, so when sorted, he can see them all grouped together by client.
- Every task, including bucket list items, is placed on Paul’s list.
- Emails are converted to tasks in Outlook using drag-and-drop. Then emails are saved into Worldox, his document management system of choice.
- He begins each day with a review of tasks and makes minor edits, if needed.
- He always looks for tasks to delegate.
- He shares his task list in Outlook with his team members, so they can review and help him during their downtime.
- If in the office, he selects today’s five to 15 tasks in Outlook using Control + left click and prints a short daily task list. A daily short list is essential to him because working from a master task list that is too long proved to be distracting and made it difficult to focus.
- During the workday, he crosses off tasks on the printout or checks them as completed directly on his iPhone or in Outlook.
- He adds all new tasks directly into Outlook or from TaskTask on the iPhone.
- He leaves work knowing his tasks are organized, and if clients call at night, he can add new tasks via his phone.
Note that TaskTask only synchronizes with Outlook if you are using Microsoft Exchange Server, which is another good reason for solos or smaller firms to look at a hosted exchange service solution.
There are two shortcomings to all of these ideas, however.
First, we are fallible human beings, not machines, and there will be days (or periods) when we simply will not behave as efficiently as possible, try as we might. Sometimes it will be because of our failings and at other times events will be outside of our control. The best response is to strive to do better next time and not waste more time beating ourselves up over a lack of perfection.
Second, we truly cannot manage time. Time flows on, and our ability to alter it exists only in science fiction. Time flowed on before us and will flow on after we are gone. Enjoy the ride.