In time management tip #2, we talked about getting everything out of your head. If you’ve done that, you’ve got a huge list of things to do and piles of work that needs to be done. Now it’s time to decide what gets done first – and what shouldn’t get done at all.
In a recent Life Hacker article, Dan Shipper makes the point that showing up and working hard are important, but you need to be conscious of what you are showing up for. Although his post is about evaluating your job to see whether the system you are working within is capping your opportunities for growth and success, the same principles apply to the systems of your own making – the systems you use on a daily basis to determine where you’ll spend your time and energy.
Or perhaps you have no system at all – you’re just reacting to what is around you and to others’ urgencies. That’s no way to live and certainly no way to run a law practice. So how do you make a change?
Prioritize: Effectiveness vs. Efficiency
To be truly effective, you need to define the activities that are of highest value to you and focus on those tasks. In other words, you must prioritize. Unfortunately, this is where many lawyers go astray. They work hard (often too hard), but they are not always focused on the right things.
In order to be successful, you need to focus on two things: being efficient and being effective.
- Being efficient means doing things the right way
- Being effective means doing the right things
Time is wasted due to a combination of inability to identify the right activities (inability to say no, lack of direction, interruptions, etc.) and an inability to perform those activities efficiently (procrastination, ineffective delegation, lack of organization, etc.).
Prioritizing tasks helps you to determine in advance what the right things are and where the majority of your time and energy should be focused. Instead of always reacting to what is around you and to priorities imposed by others, you’ll be purposely proceeding according to what is most important to you.
Set Limitations and Choose the Essential
In order to maximize your time and energy and be as effective as possible, you must set limitations. That’s what managing your activities is all about: recognizing that you can’t do it all. Choose the most essential tasks.
To decide which tasks are essential, rather than focusing on the task itself, think about why you are performing that task in the first place. What will the result of this activity be for your client or your practice? What tasks are of highest value to you or your clients?
Devote your time and energy to the tasks that further your core values, are the most profitable and require your personal participation or expertise.
Essential tasks have: (1) an important purpose and (2) a high value outcome. If the task has an important purpose and a high value result, make it a priority.
Urgency Doesn’t Trump Importance
In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the late Stephen Covey talked about the relationship of urgency and importance, and observed that just because something is urgent doesn’t necessarily mean it is important. In fact, a lot of things that seem ‘urgent,’ (like the ringing telephone or the email sitting in your inbox) may not be very important at all.
Most people’s instinct is to deal with the urgent first, without stopping to assess whether or not it is important. This is how many of us get off track, and how the items or tasks that are important get overlooked. But if you make a habit of prioritizing and focusing on those items that bring you the most return, you can avoid the urgency trap.
Core Values and Long-Term Thinking
When defining what is essential, remember to think big-picture. Consider your core goals and values and what will benefit your firm in the long term.
Identifying the right activities isn’t always easy. Billable work can be easily mistaken for the highest value work because that’s what clients pay you for. But sometimes billable work is less valuable to your firm in the long run than ‘non-billable’ work such billing (the client can’t pay you if you don’t bill them), business development (you have to have clients to work for), or strategic planning (your firm needs to have a clear direction and plan to satisfy clients and ensure cash flow).
For some questions to help you establish priorities, read my post, Do Something! Prioritize, here.
Sometimes, identifying your priorities is easier when you think about what you don’t want to spend your time on – we’ll discuss that further in our next time management tip.