By Marcia Pennington Shannon
Many lawyers schedule their workdays based on whatever fire needs to be put out at the time. Unfortunately, since they rarely plan ahead, the fires just keep coming. This is exhausting not only for the practitioners, but also for anyone who works alongside them.
Poor time management techniques take a toll in productivity, revenues, energy and stress levels. As a supervisor, your time management abilities (or lack thereof) have a direct impact on those working under you as well. What kind of time management technique do you have? Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have a clear sense of my priorities each day?
- Do I properly estimate how long a project will take to complete?
- Do I plan as much as possible to reduce unnecessary emergencies?
If you answered "no" to any of those questions, you are probably using the "time management by crisis" technique—and it means you need to alter some behaviors.
In this and the next two Managing columns, we'll focus on the three areas of time management in which changing behaviors and strategies can make a tremendous impact on using time more effectively: (1) self-management, (2) organization and systems management, and (3) people management.
This installment discusses the self-management behaviors—the ones you have the most power to change. To begin, though, here's an overview of why effective time management is so valuable.
Changing Techniques Is Difficult—But Well Worthwhile
Improving your time management is going to require change. Change is uncomfortable. You'll be breaking old habits and creating new ones. It takes patience and commitment. Experts say that you should plan on at least three to six weeks to incorporate new habits into your routine. It's difficult to change too many behaviors at once, so the best approach is to choose two at a time, starting with the ones that will make the most difference.
If it's going to be difficult, why go to the trouble? Because effective time management will allow you to use your days in ways consistent with your goals and values. Think what it would be like to make the most of your high-functioning time. Think how nice it would be to locate documents and other information quickly. Imagine reducing stress because you are no longer working in crisis mode when it's not necessary. A greater sense of control and renewed creativity can be additional by-products. Most importantly, you'll gain more time for your family and other outside interests, thus creating a more integrated, balanced lifestyle.
If those reasons aren't compelling enough, take a moment to multiply 15 minutes times the number of days you work each year. Let's say you have 220 workdays annually. If you save 15 minutes a day over that period, you have "found" 3,300 minutes or 55 hours a year. Now try multiplying 25 percent of your hourly billing rate by the same 220 days. This is how much revenue you gain for the year. And this doesn't even include the gains of those you supervise. If you work more efficiently, it is highly probable they will, too!
Self-Management: Planning and Prioritizing Toward Productive Behaviors
Now let's look at the specifics of self-management tactics. Self-management means working smarter and getting the same results in less time. Begin by thinking about your personal work-style preferences. For example, at what time of the day are you most productive? When do you concentrate best? Do you focus better if you have music playing or do you need complete silence? Incorporate this information as you plan and prioritize your time.
Planning and prioritizing are at the heart of good time management. Here, then, are steps to help you build a plan for change on a weekly basis.
Step one is to create a master list of all the matters for which you are currently responsible. Using this master list, you'll be ready to create weekly goals and daily to-do lists.
Set your weekly goals by looking over your master list and deciding what needs to be accomplished during this particular week. Here's a tip: End each week by establishing your goals and to-do lists for the following week. Share the list with your assistant so that he or she can plan ahead as well.
Next, from your weekly list, create daily to-do lists of the items that must be completed each day. Of course, some things arise at the last minute that you may need to add in as you go. Prioritize the order in which the items need to be done, so you won't waste time during the course of the day trying to figure out what needs to be done next. Start your day's list with no more than three to five tasks that must be completed. Consider all other items something you get to if—and only if—you complete the must-dos. Stick to your list unless a real emergency occurs.
If you are working on a major project, be sure to schedule several blocks of uninterrupted time to keep the project moving forward. Owing to multiple demands, rarely will you be able to find large chunks of time where you can focus on one project. Accordingly, plan out a large project by writing down all the steps required to complete it (including assignments that will be delegated to others) and write a date to be completed next to each step. Add these steps into your weekly goals and daily to-do lists.
Be sure to begin each day with the most crucial task instead of things such as e-mail and routine phone calls that typically eat up your time. Otherwise, the morning will be gone before you start the major assignment. But don't neglect to allot time in your day for phone calls, e-mails and the interruptions that invariably occur.
Procrastination: The Biggest Time-Waster
All of us procrastinate from time to time. But if this is your normal modus operandi, you are robbing yourself. You are making a choice (yes, a choice) to create crises where there are none and thereby living a more stressful life. As a manager, again, you are creating much more stress for those you supervise as well.
Ask yourself, "Why am I procrastinating?" In some cases, you just may not have enough information to proceed, a situation that can be easily remedied by asking more questions to get the answers you need. In other cases, there may be less obvious, more emotionally based reasons, among which fear of failure is not uncommon. Just remember that the fear is often much greater than the actual reality—and the only way to find that out is simply to move forward.
Here are other suggestions for overcoming procrastination:
- Do the project at your "peak" time or first thing in the morning.
- Use the "Salami Technique," which means slicing the whole into smaller pieces.
- Delegate the task, or portions of it, to an appropriate person.
- Bounce ideas around with a colleague to help you get started.
- Walk away from it for a few minutes. A 10-minute walk outside can do wonders.
All aspects of self-management, including self-knowledge, planning, prioritizing and overcoming procrastination, allow you to take charge of your time, proactively using it to meet your goals in a way that matches your values. Once self-management becomes part of your time management repertoire, you can begin to add organization and systems management, our next Managing topic.