Now that you’ve made a commitment to your well-being in 2019 and you are working to build good habits, to conclude my three-part series, we’re going to talk about specific strategies that you can implement to help you manage your time more effectively in this new year.
Scientists at Harvard University once found that we spend almost half of our waking hours thinking about something other than we are currently doing. Don’t even get me started on the research behind disorganization and clutter – let’s just say, it’s not good.
The better you manage your time and can tune out distractions, the more you will bill, successfully advocate for your clients, and even find time to take a break.
1) Tame Your Email
Recently, I learned that according to one study the average email user spends 5.6 hours per weekday checking email. Can you believe that? I can. So, let’s start there. You need to develop good email habits. If you need help creating a habit, be sure to go back to my second post in this series on habits. Here are three good email habits you should adopt: 1) don’t check your email first thing in the morning, 2) schedule time to process emails, and 3) when you are checking emails, if it takes you two minutes or less to respond, do it immediately.
Scheduling time to process emails is probably the most important. If you have your email client open all day long on your computer screen or receive notifications each time you receive an email, you will waste a lot of time and have a ton of difficulty accomplishing your big rocks. This is much easier said than done. Lawyers suffer significantly from FOMO (fear of missing out). But, in reality, you don’t need all your information ASAP, and if there is something extremely important that cannot wait, then set your email client to alert you only if you receive an email from that particular sender.
Checking email is one thing, but when paired with an immediate response it sets up an expectation to the sender that you will always respond immediately. This is not a good practice, particularly when it comes to clients, and it certainly won’t help you to accomplish tasks for that client. Try using your calendar to block out time in the morning and afternoon to process email.
Go back to my second post and read about how to make this a habit. When it comes to processing your emails, I don’t mean respond to all your emails. I mean utilize a system for sorting your email, such as deleting emails you don’t need, responding to those that take two-minutes or less, forwarding those that you can delegate, filing those that are for reference only, and flagging or using your task management system to collect those that require more thought or further action.
2) Block Time
Not only can you block time for your email, but how about blocking time for other tasks? This works particularly well with those “soft” but important administrative tasks that often play second fiddle to client-related work. Blocking out an hour of invoicing and follow up on past due bills a few days per week could lead to increases in collection rates. Do you market your practice using social media and struggle to keep up with all your accounts? Block twenty to thirty minutes a day to scroll through feeds, respond to tweets, and push out your content.
3) One Task at a Time
It is time to dump “multitasking” from your resume. People don’t multitask because they are better at it, it’s because they are unable to focus on one task at a time. By attempting to focus simultaneously on two tasks, it will take you longer to complete each task and you will be more likely to make errors. Neither of those results will benefit you as an attorney.
4) Tune Out Distractions
Distractions inhibit our ability to focus on one task at a time. In fact, when we are interrupted from our work, some studies have found that it takes the average person twelve to fifteen minutes to get back on track after the interruption. To avoid interruptions, you should turn off email notifications as suggested above as well as limit distractions from clients (i.e. set your phone to do not disturb, set office hours for your clients, use a gatekeeper to screen calls, etc.).
Distractions can also stem from your physical environment. One of my favorite studies conducted by the Princeton Neuroscience Institute in 2011 found that when your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. Clutter also creates the appearance that work is never done and impacts your stress.
Time to clean out your space. Try using the fifteen-minute pickup rule. Use your calendar (hint hint: time blocking) to schedule fifteen minutes at the end of each week to clean up your space – trash junk mail, put physical files back into client folders, move temporary files from your electronic desktop into folders, etc. This should enable you to get right to work when you return to your office on Monday morning.
5) Trim the Fat
The above strategies can help you focus in on one task, but how do you narrow down your task list to just one task. We all have that task list that keeps growing and growing without any end in sight. Just looking at a long list of tasks can provoke anxiety and stress.
Instead of wasting time and energy by reviewing your entire task list each time you accomplish a task to determine what to do next, start the day by identifying one to three of your “most important tasks”. Those are the tasks you want or need to accomplish that day. Be specific and actionable. A non-specific task would be “draft J. Smith brief” and a non-actionable task would be “J.Smith brief”; whereas, as specific and actionable task would be “do case law research on x issue for J. Smith brief” or “draft argument on issue x for J. Smith brief”. This way, you are less likely to procrastinate and more likely to complete the task, feel good about your accomplishment, and end the day with a renewed sense of motivation.
6) Use Your Energy Efficiently
In order to get your work done, you need energy to do it. Be mindful of your energy. When are you most productive? Is immediately when you step foot into your office in the morning or are you a night owl? Once you have a sense of your ebb and flow of energy, tackle your most difficult tasks when you know you have the most energy. Don’t waste that precious energy doing mindless work such as checking email or scanning newsletters, blogs, and articles. Save checking email and catching up on reading when you have low energy.
While these are all useful and proven strategies for attorneys, not all will work for you. If you are having trouble managing your time, test out a strategy. Commit to it for thirty days. Even if you forget to do it for a few days, it might still work. Don’t be judgmental; it’s ok to be imperfect. At about two weeks, set a reminder to help you remember to do this strategy. Get back on your horse and try again.
If you’d like more information about how to successfully create a habit, review my second post in this series on creating habits. If it doesn’t work out, that’s ok, try a different strategy. Chances are one of these strategies will help you reclaim some time and reduce stress. I challenge you to select one strategy and start experimenting with it today!
Heidi S. Alexander, Esq. is the Deputy Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, where she helps manage organization operations and leads the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP). LOMAP provides free and confidential practice management assistance, guidance in implementing new law office technologies, and methods to attain healthy and sustainable practices. She is the author of Evernote as a Law Practice Tool, serves on the ABA’s TECHSHOW Planning Board, and founded the ABA’s Women of Legal Technology initiative. In 2017, Heidi was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Advisory Committee on Professionalism. She is a native Minnesotan, former collegiate ice hockey goaltender for the Amherst College Women’s Ice Hockey Team, and mother of three young children. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @heidialexander, or LinkedIn.