October 23, 2012

Moving from Crisis to Control: Reclaiming Time through Systems Management

Issue Cover Law Practice Magazine Logo






By Marcia Pennington Shannon

July/August's Managing column kicked off a three-part series on time management with a discussion of self-management-focusing on increasing your efficiency by planning your days and weeks, instead of practicing the "time management by crisis" technique.


Having incorporated some of the self-management suggestions into your daily routine, it's now time to take a look at your organization and systems management. This is the second building block in taking control of your time.

Organization and Systems Management: Assessing Your Needs

Organization and systems management is about bringing order to the way you use your office and the way you go about handling the multitude of papers, e-mails and phone calls you receive each day. Having systems in place will allow you to use your energy and creativity where they count—in your work product—not in trying to find lost papers or reconstruct billable time you didn't write down.

What kind of systems are key? The following sections provide tips for keeping your desk clear, maintaining project files, capturing billable time, efficiently using the phone and conquering e-mail. Getting control over any of these areas will increase your productivity.

But first, to help you identify specific areas in need of further action, take a couple of minutes to complete the Organization and Systems Self-Assessment below. Then we'll look at suggestions for creating an action plan that incorporates the new strategies you need.

Organization and Systems Self-Assessment
SITUATION/BEHAVIOR Frequently Sometimes Infrequently Never
1. My office is well organized.
2. My desk has a clear workspace for the project I'm currently working on.
3. I do not waste time looking for things in my office.
4. I have an effective filing system.
5. I have a good system for keeping track of billable time.
6. I have an efficient system for dealing with e-mails.
7. I employ timesaving strategies when making and receiving phone calls.


Bringing Order to Your Space

In completing the self-assessment, did you conclude that any of the first four factors present an issue for you? Then consider incorporating the following steps in your action plan.

  • Begin with your desk. If it lacks a clear space and you are doing your work on top of other files and papers, stop now. The first step is to clear off the top of your desk and begin again. You should never have more than one file opened at a time. If you are working on one file and must open another, close the first file and move it aside.
  • Take files that are needed this week and place them in a lateral file holder on top of your credenza. A lateral holder allows you to see the name on the file immediately. For easy retrieval, keep these files in alphabetical order.
  • Files that you work on frequently but do not need currently should be placed in your file cabinet. All other files should be placed in the firm's file room and retrieved when needed. If you have closed a file, move it out of your office.
  • To keep your inbox from overflowing, deal with it each day. Any loose piece of paper needs to find a home, whether that home is a file, someone else's office or the trash can. As you've probably heard before, read it, act on it, refer it to someone else, file it or throw it away. If you need to take action on it, add it to your to-do list. Ask your assistant to file papers away on a daily basis.


Capturing Billable Time

Once you've brought some order to your workspace, think about an effective system in which you can capture your billable time. Studies show that lawyers who don't complete their timesheets on a daily basis fail to account for as much as 20 to 25 percent of their billable time. It's very difficult to re-create time after just a few hours pass, let alone a few days. So record your time as activities occur.

There are some excellent software packages that let you track your billable time easily. It's worth finding one and learning how to use it. Many individuals, though, find that recording their time on paper and then passing it on to their assistants to input works well for them, too. If you choose to use such a method, be sure to design a timekeeping form that works for you. For example, the form might have room for several current projects and include the client's name, the matter number, a brief description of work done, a start time and end time, and the time billed for each project.


Defending Against E-Mail Onslaught

Almost everyone agrees that e-mail is a blessing and a curse. But there are steps you can take to make e-mail a tool that truly works for you.

  • Plan on reading your e-mail no more than three to four times per day. Although it's always tempting to read an e-mail as soon as it arrives, you waste a lot of time by interrupting a current project. Don't worry that you may be missing a real emergency. First of all, how often does that actually occur? And second, if something is a true emergency, you can bet that someone will be following up with a phone call very soon. Set aside specific times for answering e-mails.
  • When you read an e-mail that calls for a reply, respond immediately. If it cannot be fully answered within two minutes, reply that you have received the e-mail and will respond in detail as soon as possible. Add this to your to-do list and move the e-mail to your action folder. Move other e-mails to appropriate matter-specific folders. Delete the messages you don't need to keep.
  • When sending an e-mail, clearly describe the message's contents in the Subject line, so the receiver will immediately know what the e-mail concerns. Make the body of the message easy to read as well. Stay away from long, rambling paragraphs. Use bullets, white space and highlights (such as boldface or all capitals for critical words) to make your e-mail more effective. Also, don't bog down yourself or others by unnecessarily including people in the CC line or using group e-mail lists.


Using the Phone Efficiently

Although the telephone can save time and make our work more efficient, it can also be a terrible time-waster if used ineffectively. Consider employing some of these steps to make your phone a tool for productivity.

  • Jot down points you want to cover before making important phone calls. Consider whether it's appropriate to e-mail or fax an agenda to all participants before the call.
  • Let people know how much time you have left to speak with them, or say up front, "I have only five minutes to talk right now." By doing so, you are helping each person make efficient use of the time allotted.
  • Reduce telephone tag by making sure that when you leave a message, you indicate the best time to call back.
  • When answering your phone, be sure to focus only on that call. If you try to multitask, you are likely to miss important information that will cause you to waste time.


Next Up

To really put you at the top of your game, in the next issue we'll focus on people management—the last building block in this three-part series on efficient time management. While it's said that we all have the same 24 hours each day, how we use our time makes the difference between running from one crisis to another and creating more satisfying work and personal lives.