Time management is a recurring issue around here. It comes up constantly as one of the great struggles for lawyers. We’ve got lots to do and insufficient time to do it.
Here are my best time management tips (they work for me).
1. Keep a list. You’ve got to have a comprehensive list of your outstanding obligations. It can be on paper or contained in a fancy task management system. Personally, I use Wunderlist: it falls somewhere between paper and fancy. You’ll find all kinds of systems for organizing the list (I like Getting Things Done). It’s essential that you get the list out of your head and into your system. Until you get it all down somewhere, you’ll spend tremendous energy worrying about what you’re forgetting.
2. Delegate. Go through your list weekly and decide what you can give away. Don’t wait until you’re on overload to delegate: do it now. The more time you give your team to do the work, the more likely it is to get done right. The more time you allow, the more likely you are to hand it off since you’ll hesitate to let it go when the deadline looms. Keep a list of the tasks you’ve delegated and set a deadline that gives you time to address the problem if things don’t go as planned. Err on the side of delegating more than you think you should: give it all away if you can. That saves you for the highest value activities for which only you are suited.
3. Take 15 minutes tonight to plan for tomorrow. Go through your list and identify the two or three high priorities for tomorrow. When you get going in the morning, you’ll know exactly where to put your focus. Never start the day by culling the list and identifying priorities: that should all be done before the day starts so you can attack the important issues first thing. Always finish today with a plan for tomorrow.
4. Stop checking. Stop the constant checking of everything that can be checked. I remember the good old days when mail came once a day. Once it arrived, it was pointless to keep opening the box and looking inside, so I didn’t waste time walking back and forth to the mailbox. Now we can check everything all day long: email, voicemail, Facebook, Twitter, and an amazing array of news sources. Do it once, maybe twice per day, and don’t look except at designated times. It’s easy to fill your day doing nothing but checking the inputs. You’ve got to regulate yourself or you’ll find yourself checking one thing after another and then clicking on link after link as you go further down the rabbit hole.
5. Stop all input. Shut down all input while you’re focusing on your task. Be very deliberate and close the door, turn off the ringer, shut down the email program, turn off Skype and instant messenger, and kill Facebook and Twitter. Don’t let anything interfere with your single-minded focus. Don’t allow instant messenger to send you popups, and make the texts stop on your phone. Figure out how to put everything on hold while you do what needs doing. You’ll have time later to check all those inputs when you’re finished.
6. One thing at a time. Forget about multitasking: it doesn’t work. We’d like to believe we’re really good at juggling multiple activities, but we’re not. Our brains are willing to start and stop and shift tasks, but the net effect is that we take more time to do less because we’re constantly starting and stopping. Don’t do more than one thing at a time. Attack your priority and stick with it until you’re done. Don’t take calls when you’re drafting a brief. Don’t talk to your paralegal when you’re on the phone with a client. Focus, focus, focus and finish the task at hand.
Time management is tricky. When we think we need help, it’s usually because we’ve stopped finishing things and we’re seeing our lists get longer and longer while we lose control. The solution is to finish things. You’ll feel better when you’re able to close out tasks and clear up your list. That’s only going to happen when you focus on finishing.