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How young lawyers can tackle time management challenges in their practice

Time Management

Juggling all of your daily responsibilities can be difficult for lawyers at any stage of their careers, but it can be particularly challenging for young lawyers who are new to the practice.

Our recent webinar covered some of the most common (and most difficult) time management issues faced by lawyers and law students alike.

Unfortunately, you cannot really “manage” time.  The only thing you can control is what you do with your time – in other words, your behaviors.  This post highlights some tips shared in the webinar with a few bonus tips to help you increase your productivity.

Stop multitasking

If you multitask, you probably think that you are being productive. But the truth is that you cannot accomplish two things which require you to expend mental energy at once; you can only do one at a time.  When you multitask, you are constantly switching back and forth between activities.  In The Myth of Multitasking, author Dave Crenshaw calls this “switchtasking.”

Instead of saving time, switchtasking actually costs you time; studies show that switching increases the time it takes to finish the original task by 25 percent.  Switchtasking also increases errors, which can harm relationships with clients and colleagues and undermine your reputation.

Though eliminating multitasking entirely may not be realistic, you can minimize the risk by:

  • Working uninterrupted for a block of time on high-level priorities (see below)
  • Turning off popup email notifications on your computer
  • Turning off your computer screen or closing your email program when you take a phone call to limit distractions
  • Setting specific times when you are available for meetings and likewise allotting times to check in with those you supervise
  • Planning ahead, prioritizing and ensuring you have the materials and information available before you begin a task

The next time you are in the middle of a task, before you answer that phone or wave that staff member into your office, consider the potential cost to your productivity.

Use your calendar and create a daily plan

Do you have a plan for the day, or do you constantly just react to what comes up – emails, telephone calls, or other interruptions? If you’re just reacting, odds are you are not as productive as you could be.

Before every day, week or month begins, you should know what you plan to accomplish. When you have a plan, it’s much easier to say no to interruptions.

Your calendar most likely contains court dates, closings, client meetings and other appointments that occur on a specific date or at a specific time. It also probably includes deadlines, such as the last day to file a motion or brief, the day you promised the client you would provide them with a draft of a document, etc. But some tasks don’t have built-in deadlines. In those instances, you should create your own deadlines and document them.

  • Creating and documenting deadlines is only the first step. Next, you must actually do the work– you need to write the brief, prepare for the client meeting, draft the documents, write the marketing copy, etc.
  • Estimate the amount of time each activity will take to accomplish. Don’t be stingy with your estimate; estimating too little time will add stress and confusion to your schedule.
  • Decide on a specific time when you will perform that activity and physically schedule it on your calendar. You don’t need to block all the time necessary to complete the task at once; try simply blocking time to complete the first step necessary to move the project forward. When that is complete, schedule the next step, and so on.
  • Make sure you leave some empty space or downtime on your calendar in addition to the personal and family time that you schedule for unexpected emergencies or just to give yourself a break.
  • Treat each time block as you would an appointment with a client. Don’t allow interruptions. If necessary, leave your office to accomplish this, or tell people you are unavailable for a specified period. If something more pressing arises that you must do during the time scheduled to complete the task, move the appointment to another place on your calendar to ensure it gets done.

Use the Power of Three

The human brain easily grasps and remembers ideas in threes—any more than three can be overwhelming and reduce productivity.

If you limit your daily to-do list to three main items, you can usually accomplish all three. And that feeling of accomplishment translates into higher productivity and a better overall feeling about your day.

To use the Power of Three, ask yourself:

What 3 things will I do today so that, if I accomplish nothing else, I will feel that I had a productive day?

Write down your three daily goals before leaving the office or at the start of your day.  Before you leave work for the day, spend the last 15-minutes organizing your office and drafting a list of your most important items the next day.

Whenever possible, complete those three tasks before moving on to other things.

Bonus productivity reminders

  • Learn to delegate—Delegate responsibilities qualified team members or hire an experienced freelancer to assist
  • Leave buffer-time between tasks and meetings—the brain works best when it is rested, even if it is only a brief reprieve. Schedule appointments realistically and build in time to clear your mind, recharge by going for a brief walk or doing a quick meditation.  Most studies show the human brain can only focus for approximately 90-minutes and some have cited as little as 50-minutes
  • Say no! Practice saying no or declining some things without guilt. Keep your response simple and remember you are not asking for permission to say no–be firm and direct.

Want more time management tips? Check out the recording of the “Tackling Time Management Challenges in Your Practice” webinar on the ABA website here and How to do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing your Productivity and Improving your Bottom Line, Allison C. Shields and Daniel J. Siegel published by the ABA Law Practice Division.