Attorneys are notorious for working long hours; some even consider putting in 60-70 hours a week the ultimate sign of success. The desire to succeed and burden of responsibility are often amplified for solo attorneys or members of a small practice, who consider their business their baby. As difficult as it is to step away from our work, though, we all need to take a break sometimes to best serve our clients (and ourselves).
Time management is one of the most difficult tasks faced by lawyers, particularly when you love what you do. In this blog post, we outline some time management tips to help you stay at the top of your game.
A New Paradigm for Attorney Time Management
In her book, Coaching for Attorneys: Improving Productivity and Achieving Balance, Cami McLaren offers a new paradigm for attorney time management. A practicing lawyer herself for 16 years, McLaren emphasizes making smarter, intentional choices over where you spend your time rather than working faster and squeezing in as many tasks in during the day as possible. The latter is a sure path to burnout and dissatisfaction with your career.
Stop Fire Fighting
One way McLaren outlines to increase productivity is by moving away from “putting out fires”—reacting to pop-up tasks, rushing, hurrying, and dealing with emergencies. Attorneys who spend a great deal of time operating this way focus only on what is right in front of them, forgetting about the many other important tasks that need attention. Reactively fighting fires day in and day out can lead to a great deal of frustration with the profession, as you quickly forget how the underlying mission of your work when you can barely get your head above water. McLaren recommends that attorneys move away from this unconscious reactive mentality and embrace proactive decision-making to prepare and plan your projects and schedule—known as “fireproofing.”
One proven way to “fireproof” your day is by designating certain times of the day to check and respond to email. In his book, Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook, Michael Linenberger recommends setting up dedicated times during the day to check email. Keeping your inbox closed for long stretches during the day allows you to avoid distraction while working on other projects, while still dedicating times to clear your inbox and avoid falling out of contact. In doing so, you are training your brain to focus on one task at a time, enhancing concentration and improving your flow.
Get Tasks Out of Your Head
The “getting things done” (GTD) method is another popular time management strategy among attorneys. The mind of a lawyer is home to a constant surge of details and to-do items, and this “stuff” builds up and causes stress and anxiety, writes David Allen in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. The GTD method notes that nothing important should be kept in your head. Rather, Allen advises getting rid of unimportant “stuff” (either by delegating a task to someone else, do it now, or trash it) or converting it into an action item. Once your tasks are out of your head, you’ll be able to think more clearly and can move on to actually doing them.
Eat the Frog
As Mark Twain famously said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” If you can tackle the most distasteful item on your to-do list first, you can spend the rest of the day knowing you’ve already achieved something.
There’s a “frog” in everyone’s to-do list. Maybe it’s the deposition you need to file, the brief you’ve been meaning to write, or the appointment you still need to schedule. In his book based on that same principle, Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, Brian Tracy advocates for eating that frog first. Why? You can cross that task off your list, and you can work better because you will not experience the emotional drain of an uncompleted task.
One mistake attorneys make is selecting the day’s priorities in the morning. If you do it this way, you will never eat the frog—you’ll just keep putting it off! At the end of each day, take 15 minutes to jot down a prioritized to-do list for the following morning. By doing so, you are ensuring that the worst task doesn’t just get pushed down the bottom of the list, and you won’t waste precious time and energy in the morning trying to decide where to focus your efforts.
While it may seem like logging more hours at your desk and skipping yet another workout and family dinner will help you get ahead, the exact opposite is true. The harder you work, the more you need to balance your leisure time. You will be a much better attorney, leader, advocate, spouse, parent, and friend when you take the time to focus on your basic needs and achieving balance outside of the office.