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Five ways to improve your time management skills today

Time Management

We’ve saved the best for last – or potentially, I’ve just been avoiding this topic because time management is an area where I need to be taking my own advice.

If you ask a lawyer what one of their biggest issues is, you’ll find that time management is top of the list. Especially when it comes to maximizing billable client time.

The place to start with this is in law school. It’s where you can start to improve your business communication skillsdevelop your presentation skills, or capitalize on networking opportunities.

Let’s look at five things you can do today to start to improve your time management skills.

Be a scheduling maven

I love schedules and lists. I’m not a slave to them, and you needn’t be either, but in order to make the best use of your time, you’ll want to become good friends with them. There are three parts to this:

Prioritize Work

This takes a few forms, and it depends on the area that you’re focused on. For me, I start with a yearly plan, with overall goals and strategies. Obviously individual courses and, once you’re involved with client work, will impact this in different ways. But you can still start with a yearly plan and some overarching goals. I then review this quarterly – not terribly in depth, but briefly – to see where my progress is, what I may need to revise and rework, and what I may have forgotten that needs some focus.

Next, I do a monthly plan. This is new to me this year, and it’s a simple handwritten list that covers the major projects I’m working on, and the milestones I want to hit that month for each of them. Some of it is based on my goals and strategies, and some is based on the things that have come up throughout the year. Again, I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time doing this, but I’ve found that it’s actually saved me a lot of time, because I’m more on top of what needs to be handled each month (so I’m not left scrambling at any point) and can plan my time better – more on that in a moment.

I then use this to inform my weekly plan. I keep a written agenda (I’m not a technophobe, but I relish the feeling of crossing things off in here – feel free to use whatever works best for you!). Each week, I take a look through my monthly plan (on Fridays, typically), and jot down any tasks that will advance forward progress on my projects for the upcoming week. I then review the daily tasks – first, for the following day at the end of the work day, and then at the beginning of the day to refresh my memory. That helps me to decide how I’m going to focus my day. Priorities obviously fall early in the day, with more long-term projects happening in the afternoon.

Use deadlines and a schedule

As part of this process, I keep a focus on deadlines and scheduling. There are two types of deadlines that we all face – short term and long term. Long term projects can be tough, because we need to focus on them and make incremental advances in progress, but often, we find ourselves pushing them off because of more immediate concerns. To address that, I break those projects into smaller tasks and assign individual deadlines to them – I may jot it down as a task each day for a week, and know that one day, I’ll spend 20 minutes on it, while another, I’ll get an hour done. The key is scheduling it well in advance, so that it’s part of my regular projects, and not a last-minute effort that causes me stress and pressure.

In terms of the short-term deadlines, these are obviously the most pressing. And that’s where your prioritization of projects comes in handy. When you develop your weekly and daily schedules, you can easily see, based on what your priorities and deadlines are, what can be pushed back, what can be rescheduled, and what needs to be addressed as quickly as possible. Having that overview schedule on a monthly and weekly basis helps to minimize surprises and decrease stress (something I think we all could use!).

Sync Calendars

Whatever means you’re using to keep track of your schedule, I do recommend leaning on technology to help keep you on track. I’ve found myself over and double scheduled a LOT recently because I’m keeping too many calendars. While it’s often not entirely seamless, it is possible to sync calendars across Outlook, Google, and, it turns out, your Amazon Alexa device (I presume that’s true for other home devices and calendars as well). It took a bit of time investment for me and will take a new process to ensure that I’m copying everything into my Google calendar, but it’s been working quite well – my items are now on my mobile device, my phone, and my desktop, as well as my Amazon devices. And, when I remember, also written in my agenda. It’s not good time management for me to constantly be checking various calendars, needing to reschedule appointments that I’ve double booked, etc. (plus, it makes me look unprofessional), so this is a fantastic solution. I can see my calendar for the day when I check in with my Echo Show, and any time I’m making an appointment on the go with my mobile device.

Delegate tasks

This may seem a strange suggestion for law school students, because it’s difficult to delegate anything at this point. But not impossible – while I’m not suggesting you delegate your law school work, by any means, other things may have to fall by the wayside. This is something I’m learning the hard way, as I get started with marathon training, continue my full-time job, where I’m transitioning to Executive Director, run my household, and attempt to kick off a side photography business. How is it possible to manage?

When you’re considering your overall schedule and workload, it’s important to think about the entire universe of things that you’re responsible for – not just your law school course load. Are you also cleaning your apartment/house? Buying food? Caring for children/pets? Working?

This is where drawing up a list and prioritizing can be key – what are the things that are must-dos, and what are the things that must be done by you? You may find that you can actually outsource some things – for example, can you order your groceries online, and pick them up instead of shopping in person? You may end up eating the same thing a lot, but if it saves you an hour or two a week, that’s valuable. Can you hire someone to help with cleaning your home or walking your pets? Can you sit down with family members and discuss how the division of labor can help to support you, your goals, and your schedule while you invest the time in law school?

I’m majorly guilty of believing that everything has to be done by me and has to be done right now. But when I dig deep and ask myself whether that’s really true, I find that I can do more delegating, and SHOULD do more delegating.

Block distractions – no multitasking!

It can be challenging in the current environment to work without distraction. Depending on where you live/work/study, it’s often hard to do that without being interrupted. But taking steps to minimize the impact of those interruptions can make you more productive and efficient (which will result in you having more time at the end of the day to use for other things). Things such as:

  • Limiting how much you check your email/social media and turning off any alerts for these, both on your computer and mobile devices.
  • Turning your mobile device to a silent or sleep mode that only allows certain people to reach you in case of emergency.
  • Relocating yourself to certain quieter spaces for projects that you know need your full attention (this isn’t always possible, but if you can, for example, move yourself to the library for studying or writing for a couple of hours, that’s preferable to a loud coffee shop).
  • Closing the door on your room or office when you need to fully focus.

You can promise yourself a reward if you need to for buckling down and getting through the time you need to dedicate to various tasks – if you’re addicted to social media for example, and a bit of a procrastinator, maybe you allow yourself 15 minutes to surf the web guilt-free after you do your hour of work. Or maybe you buy yourself that coffee you’ve been craving once you’ve finished that paper.

It’s also important not to multitask (and again, I’m guilty of this). There are many studies that say we’re less effective and efficient when we multitask (yes, even women, though I know we do tend to be better at it). So, we need to stop pretending that we can do more than one thing at a time. We can’t really listen to a lecture and answer emails or watch tv while taking notes or listen to music while writing a paper. We’re most effective when we concentrate fully on the task at hand. If you are still not sold, at least give it a try on your next project – dedicate yourself fully and see what happens.

Use your downtime

This can sound like I’m encouraging you to burn out, but I promise I’m not. I don’t mean the downtime that you have with family and friends. I’m talking about the moments here and there that are being wasted that you can put together to good use.

For example, when you’re waiting in line for coffee, sitting in a doctor’s office or any waiting room, waiting for a train or bus, that’s typically un-leveraged time. Generally, we’re on our phones, but most likely, we’re not doing some that productive. We can make better use of those few moments.

Use them to answer emails that don’t require lengthy responses, to check in with your social networks that you’re building for professional purposes, to edit the article, blog post, paper that you recently wrote, to review some of the plans and schedules that you have coming up, etc.

Yes, I realize that I just finished telling you NOT to multitask, and this is exactly that, but this is an exception – these are tasks that wouldn’t require as much of your full attention, so make use of this time for those types of things.

Learn to say no

This can be a tough one. I’m a people pleaser, so I like to be able to help out when people ask me for something. But in order to maximize my time and be as valuable as possible to the people that I’m working with and for, I need to be able to say no to the things that don’t fit in well with my goals and strategies.

That’s part of the reason we develop yearly plans – so that we know what those goals and strategies are, and the decision to say no is a clear one. We can be kind and polite about it, but if you don’t have the bandwidth for something, don’t agree to it and then try to fit it in. You’ll develop a resentment towards that person, and not give your best to the project anyway. You (and they!) are better served by saying no and allowing them to find someone who has the time and passion for it.

What are some of your tried and true time management methods? It’s a tough set of skills to develop, but very worthwhile in order to maximize your own value and happiness, along with leveraging your time effectively for (your eventual) clients.

Lindsay Griffiths Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s director of global relationship management. In this capacity, she works with the network’s executive director to identify and implement marketing opportunities both internally and externally and develop new approaches to business development needs. She regularly blogs at Zen & the Art of Legal Networking.