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Since the moment we got hit with that first 100-page reading assignment in law school, lawyers have been coming up with strategies for handling overloads of work and information. But how often do we stop and reassess whether those strategies still work well for us? The busier we get, the harder it is to take a step back and do an objective assessment of how efficiently we really work, not just how well we think we work.
Practice management consultants like myself specialize in identifying ways to improve the practice of law, so that lawyers can do more with less time. With spring in the air, when we all would like more time to enjoy the longer days and great weather, now is a good time for a work/life strategies tune-up. Let’s look at two common strategies used by lawyers to manage their time and workload—time management and checklists—and see how we can upgrade them to help you be more efficient and work smarter.
The Key to Productivity: Mastering Time Management
Time management is at the heart of every struggle for a work/life balance. We all wish “if only I had more time [today/this week/this weekend].” Time management is the key to being more productive and working more efficiently. Productivity and efficiency, in turn, free up more time in your schedule. So how do we evaluate our current time management techniques?
You can find an easy time management evaluation tool at mindtools.com. The tool breaks time management into five categories: (1) goal setting; (2) prioritization; (3) managing interruptions; (4) avoiding procrastination, and (5) scheduling. Right now, you may have mastered one or two of these, or tried all five with varying success.
The biggest obstacle to implementing an effective time management system is planning ahead. As busy professionals in a service industry, we tend to let external factors dictate our priorities—client requests, partner demands, calls/texts/emails from colleagues and family members. But it is impossible to effectively manage your time if you allow your schedule to be largely dictated by external forces. Each action you take during the day is a choice as to how to use your time. To tune up your time management system, it is crucial to plan ahead to make the most efficient choices. This means setting aside a chunk of time every day, week and month for planning purposes.
As Don Quixote said to his servant, “Dress me slowly, for I am in a hurry.” Follow this simple rule: the more hectic your schedule is, the more time you need to spend on planning ahead. And the great news is, once you’ve made a habit of sitting down each week to plan your schedule, the less amount of time each planning session will take. So, if you spend every Sunday evening or early Monday morning mapping out your week, by the time you’ve done it for a month or so, you will get your planning time down to mere minutes. You can then bank that time for a longer, deeper planning session on a monthly basis. And once a year, take at least half a day to think long-term—map out how you want your next year to look, or the next two years, or five years, or whatever time frame fits the goals that you want to accomplish. These planning sessions will be the most crucial step you take toward controlling your time, both professionally and personally.
By planning ahead, I mean a lot more than reviewing your appointment calendar. The time that gets away from us is the unscheduled, unstructured time on the white areas of our calendar. The goal of your planning session is to minimize those white areas by breaking your day down into time blocks and allocating time for all the activities you need to accomplish. But before I show you just how to time block, I need to discuss the importance of goal setting.
Most of us rely on some form of to-do list, reminder system, or post-it notes to track what we want to accomplish, whether today, tomorrow or whenever we get to it. But, truthfully, how many of those tasks ever get done? How long has that “write an article” post-it been on your computer screen? Do you have any real sense of when you will get around to it?
Part of the problem is that to-do lists and reminders do not help you see the importance of completing a particular task to achieving your goals. Instead, you need to step back far enough from your day-to-day routine to see the Big Picture: what you are trying to accomplish, not just immediately, but in the near and longer terms. We all want to do well professionally, have a healthy and happy family life, and have time for social and cultural activities that enrich our lives. Setting goals means identifying the various steps we need to take to reach those ends, breaking the steps down into components, and then prioritizing those components so we can allocate the proper amount of time needed to complete each one.
Let’s look at your professional goals. Do you want to make partner, develop a specialty area of practice, become well-known on the speaker circuit, land a Fortune 500 client? Make a list of the specific and concrete steps that you will need to take to achieve any of these goals. Once you have your list, review it each time you sit down to plan your week and how much time you need to spend on these tasks on a monthly, weekly, and even daily basis to achieve your goal. If you get stumped as to what steps need to be taken, use some of your planning time to research your goals and read up on how to get where you want to go.
The same applies to family life and personal enrichment activities. While the importance of goal-setting in these areas might not be as apparent, I cannot stress enough that you cannot achieve a satisfactory work/life balance unless you treat these areas with the same care. Make sure to include your family in your goal-setting for family life so you all have input into how to structure your family time. And make sure to set goals for your personal enrichment as well, so you don’t feel like you are living your life just for the office and your family.
For example, your kids may have been hounding you for a trip to a special location, but you never seem to have the time to plan it, so you keep going back to the same old place each year. As part of your planning time, you might set aside ten minutes during your lunch break next week to think through what you need to do to plan the trip. Then the following week, incorporate the action items from your lunch break planning into your weekly schedule, a little at a time. You will no longer have to worry about getting around to it because it is on your goals list, which you will review each week, and you can tell your kids, “I’m on it!” the next time it comes up at the dinner table. Think how great that will feel!
You can find numerous websites with advice on how to go about setting goals. Here are a few that I think are helpful for career goal setting. Choose the technique that works best for you, and you should be able to easily adapt it to your personal and family goals as well.
- Job-Hunt.org: Goal Setting: Part 2 of Your Personal/Professional Success Plan
- Goal-setting-for-success.com: Career Goal Setting
- UC Berkeley Human Resources: Goal-Setting: Developing a Vision & Goals for Your Career Plan
- Time Blocking
Now we are ready to talk about time blocking. By dividing your day into blocks of time for accomplishing specific tasks, you focus your time and attention to the task at hand and remove the distraction of unstructured time. A helpful summary of how to time block is available from www.makeuseof.com: Time Blocking—The Secret Weapon for Better Focus. The key steps are:
- Task List: Make a list of your tasks for the next week and prioritize them using whatever method works best for you. Here are some suggestions. Whichever system you choose, or make your own, the goal is to schedule your time blocks in order of priority:
- By deadline: urgent, immediate, this week, this month, necessary but no deadline
- By importance: must do, should do, could do, delegate
- By color: red, orange, yellow, green
- By return on investment (80/20 Rule): find the top 20% of tasks that give you 80% of the results
- Time Allocation: How you allocate time for the tasks on your list will vary greatly from person to person, based on your style of working, when you are your most productive, and how long you can concentrate on a single task. Write down how your initial time allocations worked out so you can use those results to better plan your allocations going forward.
- Schedule Reactive Time: Time spent responding to emails, returning phone calls, answering questions, and reviewing incoming correspondence, is all reactive time. By dedicating time blocks for reactive time, you can avoid interruptions and disruptive multitasking. And yes, you can tell a partner, “I will get back to you with an answer to that by ___” because you have already blocked out the time to react.
- Remove Distractions: Once you make the investment in planning out your day, you need to commit to the task at hand to insure success. Close all the open tabs on your desktop, set your phone to voicemail, and close your door. Put a post-it on your door saying to please return at whatever time your block ends, and get to work!
- Don’t Be Too Specific: Label your time block generally to maximize success. If you are too specific, and you aren’t able to complete the task in the allotted time, you may feel panicky and defeated. Instead, focus on the goal, not the task. Instead of “3 hours to finish research for appellate brief” write down “three hours for appellate brief research.” Even if the research takes more than three hours, you will feel the reward of having made substantial progress towards your goal.
- Don’t Be Too Rigid: Another advantage to keeping your labels vague is that it allows you to exercise choice in how to accomplish the goal. For example, if you have three documents you need to complete for a closing set, label your block “Prepare documents for closing set.” This allows you to choose which document you want to work on instead of being forced to eat your peas before your carrots.
- Perform Regular Reviews: Each week, month, and/or quarter, go back over your time blocks and see how they worked for you, what got accomplished, what didn’t, which tasks needed more time and which ones needed less. Just like planning ahead, a regular review is essential to increasing efficiency.
- Understand Your Body Clock: Pay attention to when in the day you are most productive, and when you typically need or take breaks. Make sure to schedule your highest priority tasks for your most productive time periods, more ministerial tasks for the times of day when you lag, and block in break times to stretch, get some water, take a walk, etc.
- Create Blocks for Your Non-Work Time: Give the same priority treatment to your time out of the office. Block out time each week to spend with your family, to exercise, and for “me” time.
- Use Reminders to Move You On: Make sure to have an external reminder set on your phone, computer, watch, or whatever works for you, and stick to your allotted time! If you know you only have 10 more minutes to finish your task, you will resist the impulse to check your Fantasy Football scores. Save that for your “me” time block.
Getting Things Done
Now that we have revamped your time management system, let’s tune up your to-do list. We have talked briefly about prioritizing and scheduling, but now let’s look at how you actually get things done.
Scrap Your To-Do List
We all have to-do lists, on notepads, post-its, desktops, phones, or refrigerators. How effective are these, really? If we never get to the end of our list, or items on our list sit there indefinitely, the list becomes another source of frustration. So how do we wean ourselves off all that list-making?
First, move items from your lists to your time-blocked calendar, where you can prioritize, categorize, set deadlines, estimate the time it will take to complete each item, and set up automatic reminders to make sure the items get done. You can still keep a notepad or phone app for jotting down to-dos as they come to you while on the go, before bed, etc., but make sure to take time each day to move the items from the list to your calendar. Next, take a page from Henry Ford’s book and automate your routine items with comprehensive checklists.
Last month, Knowledge Strategy Interest Group’s webinar was an in-depth analysis of why to use comprehensive and practice-oriented checklists and how they work. View the archive of this 5/26 webinar to learn more about how checklists can help you be more efficient and practice smarter. You can register to view an on-demand archive of the free, 30-minute webinar at www.kmwebinars.org.
Checklists can significantly reduce the amount of time you spend on repetitive tasks. Why is the expression “reinventing the wheel” so prevalent in law practice? Because at some point, we have all fallen victim to the syndrome. Checklists provide a framework to make sure that information necessary to perform a task is not lost or forgotten, reducing the amount of time we have to expend reviewing old cases or deals to remember how we did something that worked and that we want to repeat.
Checklists reduce the risk of making errors. By providing a step-by-step format, checklists reduce the risk that we will forget to include something important.
Checklists make it easier, and much more efficient, to delegate tasks. With a comprehensive checklist, many tasks can be delegated to more junior associates, to professional staff, or colleagues who have time but are not familiar with the subject matter. A good checklist also makes it faster to review the delegated work.
I hope you have found this look at tuning up your work/life strategies useful, and I would love your feedback on how time blocking and checklists work out for you. You can find other practice management tips and topics on my blog page at www.TheKnowledgeAttorney.biz and subscribe to my newsletter to receive new blog posts as they come out.
About the Author
Ariadne Montare is the principal of The Knowledge Attorney LLC, a practice management consultancy. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.