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Professional Development

When Time Management Isn’t Working, Manage Your Priorities

Kate Ahern


  • When you intentionally manage your priorities, they become a filter for what you choose to do and the level at which you do it.
When Time Management Isn’t Working, Manage Your Priorities
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The culture of our profession pressures you to treat yourself like a race car—constantly trying to figure out how to go faster, work harder, do more, and squeeze everything possible out of every ounce of time.

Another 0.1.
Run, run, run.
How much more did you get done?

Time management isn’t an effective tool when it’s just an attempt to overstuff your day like a suitcase, sit on it, and hope the zipper closes when it feels impossible to take anything off that daily packing list you call your to-do list.

This overstuffing approach puts the focus on what others want, leaving no room for what’s important to you, what you value, how you want your life to look, or where you want your career to go. In other words, your own priorities are left on the back burner, often for so long that you feel along for the ride in your own life and career, unclear on what you really want.

This combination of overstuffed time and disregarded priorities is the perfect recipe for burnout.

Give Your Priorities More Authority

For time management to work, it needs to be about using your time in a way that works best for you and your life. It’s also best for your clients and your firm. (Even though your firm probably doesn’t realize this yet.)

Rather than just focusing on your time, managing your priorities fixes both overstuffed time and disregarded priorities. When you intentionally manage your priorities, they become a filter for what you choose to do and the level at which you do it. You no longer say “yes” to opportunities just because someone asked, you felt pressured, you’re the one who’s good at it, or saying “no” makes you uncomfortable.

In other words, when you’re clear on your priorities, what you value, and what you want for your life, you can:

  • compare each ask and task against those priorities;
  • set your goals according to those priorities;
  • be intentional about where you put your time and energy;
  • steadily steer your career where you want it to go and build your life the way you want it to look; and
  • confidently weed out more of what doesn’t serve you and have more time and energy for what’s most important to you.

These factors make humans happy (and are absolutely in alignment with being an amazing rock star of a lawyer).

Right now, you and so many others in this profession may be feeling unclear on your own priorities, confused or conflicted over what you really want, too busy to stop and reassess what’s most important to you, flooded by others’ requests for your time and energy, convinced that everything flying at you is important, and pressured by what your environment is telling you your priorities “should” be. All these feelings are completely normal, especially early in your career.

Start Small

The great news is that you can start small! For example, when I started on this journey way back in my Big Law firm associate days, I made huge changes by investing 20 minutes a day in my own priorities. When working with early-career lawyers one-on-one, I typically start by helping them reclaim an hour a day—that’s more than enough space to move your priorities off the back burner, to take consistent action on what’s most important to you, on what you really want from your life, and on building a career to support that life.

Cheers to your first small shift toward intentionally managing your priorities—it can change everything! If you’d like help, please feel free to reach out; I’d love to chat with you.