Check your email. Draft a sentence on your brief. Open Westlaw. Go back to your email. Answer your phone.
Draft a paragraph on the brief you’re working on. Attend a meeting. Put out a fire. Check your email. Answer another phone call. Realize two hours have gone by and you’ve gotten nothing done on the most important task of the day: your brief.
Sound familiar? If it does, don’t beat yourself up. It’s the kind of day that many of us lawyers have experienced at one time or another. No matter how much we tell ourselves we’re going to sit down, dial in, and get the work done, the day manages to float away.
Some of us (the lucky ones) have natural time management skills. The rest of us have to work hard to keep our priorities and schedule in check. Especially for lawyers, it’s super easy to fall into days- or weeks-long periods of “faux busy-ness”—the kind of work style that makes you feel manic and exhausted but not very productive.
You don’t have to be a slave to a chaotic schedule. Check out eight tips to get a handle on time management.
1. Track your time.
Now, we’re not talking about tracking your time for billing purposes like most lawyers are already required to do.
What we mean: Download a time-tracking app to your personal cell phone to get an idea of where your day goes. If you track consistently for about a week, you’ll get a handle on where you’re spending the bulk of your time.
And you can track it all: conversations with colleagues, time spent fielding phone calls, sleep, workouts, family time, emails, grocery shopping, driving. You may find yourself shocked to see how much of your time you’re utilizing in a way that doesn’t make you happy.
Once you know where your time is going, you can start to shift towards better time management techniques.
2. Find a productivity system that works for you.
You need to find a productivity system that you love. By “productivity system,” we don’t mean frenetically jump from task to task while clinging to the hope that you’ll finish one at some point, right up until the end of the day arrives and you’ve finished nothing (we’ve all been there).
We mean a tried-and-true productivity system that resonates with you and that you feel you’ll be able to use consistently for years to come.
Your productivity system can be as basic as a To-Do list that you check and reorganize every night—as long as it helps! Some additional suggestions:
You’re bound to find something that fits among the many choices available.
As much as we all love our paralegals and assistants, we can’t deny one thing: Lawyers have difficulty delegating. Especially because most of us are perfectionists with the “I do it best” mentality.
While that may be true, you’ll never get a handle on time management if you don’t get better at delegating. And once you start delegating, you’ll be surprised at how much clearer your plate feels.
You may find yourself obsessively checking and re-checking everyone’s work at first, but once you realize it’s all going well, you’ll be able to relax, check it once, and enjoy your newfound extra time.
4. Keep your email window closed.
This one seems so difficult for us lawyers. But do it! Just do it: Keep your email window closed!
We’re not suggesting that you never check your email again (although, if we could all get away with never checking our email we’d be thrilled). We are suggesting that you set specific times of the day to check and respond to emails, and then keep it closed for the rest of the day. This can be a challenging thing to do, especially if you’re working as a Big Law associate, but by setting boundaries, you’ll make sure the most pressing tasks come to you in a different way (through a phone call, for example).
5. Do one thing at a time.
We’ve been told that multitasking is a great way to get many things done at once. But the truth is, multitasking is a great way to get not much done in a whole lot more time. When we multitask, we can’t fully focus on any of the tasks we’re trying to do. By the end of our multitasking session, we end up feeling like we’re still at square one on our task list. Because we really are.
Instead, focus on doing one thing at a time, very well and with all your attention. Even if you need to retrain your brain to calm down about “single-tasking,” you’ll quickly start to see its benefits.
6. Do the most difficult or intense task early in the day.
The idea is to complete the most difficult or challenging task early in the morning. Especially if it’s a task you aren’t looking forward to, it’s better to get it out of the way as soon as possible. Once you tackle your most laborious task, you’ll get a jump on that productive feeling and be able to carry it with you through the rest of your day.
7. Create a prioritized task list at the close of each day.
Before you wrap up your day, create a prioritized task list so you have a plan for the next morning. A prioritized task list is much more helpful than a To-Do list. Instead of just listing the things you need to do, you write down all your tasks for the next day and then mark them in order of importance.
You can use one of several different techniques for that prioritization, like a priority matrix. As soon as you start work in the morning, you’ll be organized and ready to go.
8. Relax and unplug.
I know, it sounds counterintuitive: Get a handle on your time management by doing nothing.
The truth is, relaxing and unplugging creates mental space. So often as lawyers, we run from task to task, or sometimes, we run from fire to fire, putting them out and just going through the motions of the day without ever thinking about what we’re doing. Taking the time to do something you enjoy can cause your internal dialogue to be less frantic, leading to more productive days, weeks, and months. Intentionally carve out the time to exercise, meditate, or just hang with loved ones. (Without your work phone.) You may be surprised at how much more refreshed you feel when you’re back at work.
It’s not at all unusual for lawyers to feel like our time is eaten up in a blur of busy-ness and not very much actual productivity. But you can absolutely get a better handle on time management and reclaim your valuable time.
Track your time for a few days and choose a productivity system that you think will best suit your needs. After you’ve used the system for a few weeks, you should (hopefully) feel more productive and effective.