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managing time, using systems for efficiency

Block Letters: Time Management for Lawyers, Part 4: Systemic Solutions

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This is the fourth of six installments in our series on time management. To recap: part 1 covered basic solutions, part 2 email management approaches and part 3 technology tools. Now, we come to part 4: systemic solutions. To that end, I mean ‘systemic’ in both senses of the word; it is ‘of or relating to a system’, and should be pervasive, i.e.–when you choose a system, or combination of systems, it should permeate everything you do, the entirety of the approach you take to managing your business.
This post will highlight six strategies for improving your time management, trending from more to less complex.
Let’s start with Getting Things Done, an aptly-named time management system if there ever was one. GTD is based on a 2002 David Allen book of the same name. The object of the system is to distill and automate task management to the point where you free up mental resources to handle more substantive matters. The GTD apostle collects responsibilities, and organizes them. Once the organization phase has been completed, items are acted upon, or filed, to undergo a future reorganization. Then, it rinses and repeats. Again! GTD is a method for mastering your to-do list. There are a number of online graphics serving as visual representations of how it all comes together. Certain business management softwares, like Daylite (which is popular with Mac attorneys), are built on a GTD model.
2009’s ‘The Checklist Manifesto’, created by brilliant author Atul Gawande (watch yourself, the late James Joyce), stands for the proposition that everything is better with checklists. The book examines the usage of checklists in various industries, to show that even simple checklists are effective, including for structuring complex matters. Checklists reduce errors, especially simple mistakes. In addition to preventing negative outcomes, the use of checklists promotes the positive result of increased consistency, across repeatable tasks. If lawyers can view workflows for specific case types as unique checklists, the benefits probably become even more obvious. From a time management perspective, the more consistent you are, the more efficient you tend to be, the fewer mistakes you make, the fewer mistakes you need to clean up. Checklists may guide you to that level of performance.
Franklin|Covey’s Focus is a time management matrix that attempts to categorize tasks by value, with the theory being that you perform high value tasks first, and lower value tasks last. Urgent, important tasks are primary; not urgent, not important tasks are filtered to ‘last’ on the to-do list. Here is a graphical representation of what this breaks down to. At its simplest level, this means: ‘put out the fire‘, don’t play Candy Crush. If you can avoid less pressing tasks with more regularity, and manage more pressing tasks faster, it means that you will have more time for yourself. You’ll ‘sharpen your saw’/mind, and end up working (and playing) in a more focused manner. If you use the system properly, and attach an importance criteria to tasks, you’ll be more likely to break your ‘urgency addition’, through which nearly every task placed before you is most important, in that moment. Without a hierarchy, you’re a dog chasing its tail.
The Pomodoro Method is named after a timer shaped and colored like a tomato. (Pomodoro is Italian for ‘tomato’.) And, that’s appropriate, because the way this system works is by chunking out your day into 30 minute segments — specifically, you’ll work for 25 minutes, then take a five minute break; in theory, the 25 minutes is interrupted, and the five minutes is your reward, howsoever you wish to reward yourself. It takes some discipline to employ a system of this nature; but, if you are dedicated to the proposition, you can guarantee yourself over an hour of break time for every eight hours you work. Or, maybe that sounds better in reverse . . . Worse?
The following has been attributed to Mark Twain: Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day. That’s probably true most days — unless it’s a jumping frog you eat. Part time management tweak, part procrastination remedy, the frog trick just means that you do the task you are least relishing, first. You then won’t waste time thinking about it, or coming up with ways to avoid it. Get it done, and everything else will seem like a piece of cake. If you’re a particularly dedicated frog-eater, you could create a list of frogs of various sizes and tastes, and run down the list: eat the most heinous frog first, and descend in order of heinousness from there. Maybe you’ve got some discovery requests, then a motion to draft and a research project. Rank those amphibians, then kiss ‘em. This guarantees that, by the end of your day, you will have left only to perform a favorite work task. That’s old Mark Twain for ya.
Another American humorist, Jerry Seinfeld, is an advocate of yet another system: don’t break the chain. When Seinfeld was a young comic, he developed his craft by writing a new joke each day. His only job was to make an ‘X’ on the calendar for every day he wrote a new joke. In this way, he formed a writing habit. Habits are difficult to develop, but also hard to break. The play here is that repetition, practice builds skill. If you use a part of your time each day to manifest a habit, and build a skill, over time, the process will become second nature. If you can master critical skills in this way, you’re far less likely to revert to bad habits, or to forget the rudiments of your actions.
Certainly, there are as many combinations of effective time management strategies as there are persons. The above is a non-exhaustive list; but, one, or a few of these, tactics may be just what you need to jumpstart your performance.
. . .
Liner Notes
Yeah, I’m renaming it back. I’m not above admitting to a failed experiment.
Back in the early 1970s, the BBC hosted a number of up and coming performers in stripped-down concert settings. The series was called, probably appropriately enough, ‘X in Concert’. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reviving these old shows, you’ll be staggered by the crispness of these artists, now considered legends, exhibiting all the powers imbued of youth.
To get you started, check out:
James Taylor
Gordon Lightfoot
Joni Mitchell
Neil Young
JT rolls up a version of ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ that is probably the most amazing cover song I have ever heard from the standpoint of: ‘that guy just made that song seem like he wrote and sang it first’. James Taylor makes it a James Taylor song. Finger picking and smirking the whole way. Like he do.

CATEGORIES: Law Firm Management | Planning | Productivity

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