March 14, 2017

Time Management for Young Lawyers

A frequent complaint and struggle for all lawyers (new and experienced lawyers alike) is time management. Like it or not, there are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Many lawyers deal with this by trying to squeeze things in or stealing time from other important commitments to get more work done, such as eating lunch at their desk, sleeping less, and not devoting enough time to business development and self-care. With so much to do and seemingly not enough hours in the day to do it all, managing a finite number of hours can quickly become exhausting. Rather than managing time, however, lawyers (and everyone, really) should instead focus on managing energy. Here are some general guidelines and tips for proper energy management:

Do Not Multitask. It seems logical that to get more done in less time, you should do more than one thing at a time (that is, multitask). The problem is that our brains cannot effectively handle more than one task at a time. So, while it may seem like you are doing two or more tasks at once, you are really just switching between each task rapidly and losing a great amount of concentration, efficiency, and accuracy in the process. Typically, multitasking does not result in getting more done but in several poorly done tasks and a stressed-out brain. Instead, focus on one task at a time. You will likely get all of the tasks done more quickly and you will have more energy to tackle the next thing on your list.

Do the Worst Task First. Mark Twain gets credit for this one. He reportedly once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.” Many time management gurus recommend this trick, which is simply to pick the most dreaded task of the day and do it first. By overcoming the worst task right at the beginning of the day, you will free up all the energy that you may otherwise have spent worrying about it.

Designate Specific Times for Checking E-Mail. A lawyer who responds to every e-mail as it comes in will likely spend the entire day responding to e-mails and get nothing else done. We have all had those days! Being responsive to clients and colleagues is important and valued, but part of responding to e-mails also requires completing the work—and that requires setting aside time to focus. It can be hard at first, but designating one or more specific times during the day to respond to e-mails is key to good energy management. Outside of those times, close your e-mail completely. If nothing else, turn off the alerts. The energy drain that constant e-mail alerts cause is immense. If specific clients or superiors need to be an exception, there are ways to set up special rules and alerts, but make sure this is truly the exception.

Make Lists. Keep a notepad nearby (electronic or pen and paper). Use it to write down anything that is distracting you from being present for your current task. If you do not write it down, your brain will continue to waste energy worrying about it. Anything that you can write down in a list should be written down so that it is not taking up valuable energy and space within your brain.

Take Conscious Breaks. The key word is “conscious.” It will take time to learn to focus on one task at a time. Start by taking conscious breaks every 20 minutes and decide ahead of time how long the break will last. A quick five-minute walk around the office or to get coffee can be re-energizing and is a good tool to get refocused. Plan breaks ahead of time and do not let them last longer than planned.

Schedule Your Week in Advance. Pick a time, preferably before the start of your week, to plan for the week ahead—Friday afternoon often works well. Use your task list to schedule time to complete priorities, including business development activities, self-care, and other personal or family tasks. Also, it is not practical to schedule every minute of every day. You need to leave room for emergencies, tasks that take longer than expected, and breaks. For large projects, break the time into smaller (no more than two-hour) blocks. For certain tasks, working on the project for 10 minutes per day can also be effective, and, once you get started, you may often find the motivation to complete it. This approach generally works well for administrative tasks or any tasks for which you have a large stack or pile that can be dealt with over a longer period of time.

Clear Your Desk at the End of the Day. Set aside some time to regroup and clear off your desk at the end of each day. Rather than trying to squeeze in one more task, leave time to assess what tasks need to be pushed to the next day, update your task list, and clear off your desk. Giving yourself the opportunity to have a productive start to each day will boost your energy and set the tone for another productive day.

If you are interested in learning more about time management, the ABA has published several books related to this topic for attorneys, including Coaching for Attorneys: Improving Productivity and Achieving Balance, by Cami McLaren and Stephanie Finelli, and How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line, by Allison C. Shields and Daniel J. Siegel.