Interruptions, email, multitasking and a dozen other different distractions cause significant loss of productivity, which translates to lost money.
And, the bigger problem is not the distraction itself, which could only be a five-minute chat with a co-worker popping into your office. It entails stopping the task, reorienting to a new situation, then starting the task all over again and trying to reorient to that task.
In order to improve their productivity and time management, lawyers should identify what derails their plans for the day or the week, said Elizabeth C. Jolliffe, of Your Benchmark Coach, a legal coaching firm in Ann Arbor, Mich.
In her discussions with other attorneys, Jolliffe said some of the main culprits include:
- Interruptions by other people
- Constant emails
- Inability to delegate
- Misjudging how much time something will take
- Inability to say “no”
- Perfectionist tendencies
- Bright, shiny objects
“Keeping track of all of your time, billable and nonbillable, will show you where your time goes,” Jolliffe said. “This is similar to what people do when they need to learn how to stick to a monthly budget. They first have to realize where they are spending their money each month.”
Goldie Y. Pritchard, co-director of the Michigan State University College of Law’s Academic Success Program, said that time management is such a critical issue for lawyers – and would-be lawyers – that the school offers time management support for its students in their first year.
“Time management is an issue a lot of students – a lot of people – have an issue with,” Pritchard said. “And especially new law students; they have a lot of changes and time-consuming things to do.”
A lot of time people just look at the enormity of all the things they have to do, and often it’s a matter of breaking those big jobs into more manageable tasks, Pritchard said, in addition to setting time aside and setting deadlines along the way.
“We encourage them to look at the big picture, then set individual monthly calendars, and see where their deadlines are, and working back from deadlines set tasks and manage things into smaller chunks,” she said. “Then also looking at things week-to-week; my suggestion is printing a calendar and blocking out non-negotiables – creating a time audit.”
Some students set alarms on their phones or computers for deadlines, and others prefer paper documentation so they have the satisfaction of crossing off tasks as they are completed.
“Keep lists at all times – waiting until you are stressed out is too late,” Jennifer Bluestein, director of attorney professional development at Greenberg Traurig LLP’s Chicago branch, told Michigan Lawyers Weekly in an email. “I love David Allen’s Getting It Done methods. I divide up my list into a chart separated by type of task.”
Failure to prioritize
Jolliffe said that overcoming the “yes” reflex when asked to help someone, and learning to say, “I can’t right now but I can at 2 p.m.,” or suggesting other options, makes a tremendous difference for lawyers who struggle with saying “no” and therefore lose control over their time. This is true for experienced lawyers as well as new lawyers.
Other techniques include shutting your door and enlisting your assistant’s help in controlling your interruptions, Jolliffe explained. In addition, she recommended blocking out time on your calendar so that other people can’t set meetings on your calendar, turning off email notifications for periods of time, and setting up rules to filter email effectively.
“Several clients of mine have tried and found that standing up when someone enters their office prevents the other person from sitting down and taking more time than necessary,” she said.
Lawyers are often anxious to please, which causes them to unintentionally overcommit and overpromise, and are often afraid that if they say no, colleagues won’t ask for their help again.
“One thing to do is say, ‘I’d like to help but can’t now, but how about this afternoon or tomorrow?’ or learning to ask other questions to find out how important or time sensitive it is,” Jolliffe said.
It’s giving them enough information so they can make a good decision about whether to ask someone else or wait.
“Lawyers, especially younger and newer ones, tend to assume that when a partner or senior lawyer comes to them that it needs to be done right away, before they even know what the deadline is,” Jolliffe noted. “It often helps for the more junior lawyers to say, ‘I would love to. I am working on XYZ now and Z is due tomorrow. When do you need this?’”
Everyone has priorities, Jolliffe said, and don’t let others come at your expense if you can help it. Failure to prioritize and to stick to priorities is a big problem in time management, she said.
“You need to keep asking yourself: Is this the best use of my time right now? What is most important?”
Hey, you’re on TV
One way to improve productivity and to manage time is to imagine a TV crew following you around all day and filming what you do, she said.
“You probably wouldn’t do many things you do, like Facebook, or surfing the Internet, or talking to your sister for an hour in the afternoon,” Jolliffe said. “It’s the same thing really; the idea is you’re asking yourself every time you’re doing something, ‘Is this the best thing I should be doing at the moment? How does this work in what I need to accomplish today?’”
One of the biggest problems can be plain old procrastination, Jolliffe said, but it’s not usually a matter of laziness so much as it is a job the person did not want in the first place.
Some of the common warning sign behaviors include agreeing to do something outside your comfort zone, or agreeing to do something you know from the start that you don’t want to do. Jolliffe said lawyers – like anyone else – try to avoid unpleasant outcomes, arguments or the thought of disappointing someone, so they often take on those tasks to avoid that confrontation.
“A lot of people feel from the beginning that this is something they don’t want to do, they should pay attention to that instinct and they should learn not to take on that kind of projects,” Jolliffe said. “If you have a feeling that this is something you don’t want to do, figure out a better person, delegate, refer it to someone else, because procrastinating is not beneficial to your reputation.”
Pritchard said one piece of advice she gives is to try to tackle those dreaded jobs at a time of day you know you’re at your most efficient and alert. You’ll have a tendency to work faster, and can do more fun things – less hated things – when your energy level is lower.
In the end, though, it’s not all about work, Pritchard said, and everyone should be sure to block off some down time, some fun time for yourself.
Actually, fun time can be used as a tool to reward yourself once you get certain tasks done or when the job or program is complete. That gives an incentive, something to look forward to.
Gary Gosselin is editor of Michigan Lawyers Weekly.
Some handy time management and productivity tools
Elizabeth C. Jolliffe, of Your Benchmark Coach in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Jennifer Bluestein, of Greenberg Traurig LLP’s Chicago branch, recommend these time-management methods:
- Use checklists and standardize documents for common types of files and projects. Entire practice groups should do this, too.
- Use and update to-do lists with the priorities marked. Have your assistant help you update them and complete them.
- Use technology to be more efficient and productive. This includes task managers, email filtering rules, One Note or other tech tools to keep emails/notes/docs/links on one matter all tied together and accessible electronically.
- Change your environment to eliminate your usual distractions. Go into a conference room to write a brief or letter. Go to a coffeehouse or an empty office down the hall. Take only the project you need to work on.
- If people stay a long time in your office, put things on your chair to prevent sitting or stand when you need them to leave. It will be body language that tells them to leave. If they don’t pick up on it, don’t be afraid to say, “I wish we had more time to chat, but I have a deadline. But thanks for stopping by.”
- Schedule into your calendar the things you want to do and advance deadlines you want to impose.
- Schedule working out or your hobbies into your calendar as a recurring appointment.
- Only schedule 75 percent of your day to avoid stress.
- Consider when perfection truly is needed. A brief before the court? Yes. Organizing your desk to avoid extreme anxiety? Yes. Responding to every random email within two minutes instead of getting your draft written? No. Keep your focus to maintain your quality.
- Drag all information into your meeting entries in your calendar – address, email and phone number, and whatever you might possibly need.
- Keep your big picture goals on a whiteboard in your office. Sharing them with the world creates accountability and having a visual reminder helps you stay focused on them.