For individuals and organizations alike, time management and productivity strategies can be foundational for overall well-being and success, particularly in the legal profession.
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The trick about time management is that you need to make time for it in the first place, which can feel difficult when we’re overwhelmed. Back at the end of 2016, before we reached new levels of social challenges with the pandemic and increased awareness about racial injustice, police brutality, and other terrors of white supremacy, Oliver Burkeman argued in The Guardian that “all of our efforts to be more productive backfire – and only make us feel even busier and more stressed.” He opens with a critique of the Inbox Zero trend, which may be fair — but still, the technique may be uniquely useful for lawyers with ethical duties to respond to clients. Lawyers also have ethical obligations to meet deadlines, and those that manage their own practices have to design for team productivity (and related, team satisfaction) — so we can’t ignore the ability to improve systems. After an overwhelming 2020 and much more work ahead of us, make time to pause and plan to take steps to improving productivity one at a time.
1. Overcome Procrastination
Procrastination is the most obvious obstacle to productivity. Distraction is tough enough, but it’s toughest when we’re actively seeking it out. Procrastination comes from our wiring to avoid that which we find unpleasant — avoidance we need to overcome when that which is unpleasant is also necessary. As a pattern of avoidance, procrastination can be a symptom of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Lawyers, judges, and law students in Massachusetts can schedule a Free & Confidential consultation with one of our licensed clinicians here.
Find 5 Steps to Bust Through Procrastination + Overwhelm here in a 30-minute webinar from Dr. Sarah Reiff-Hekking, and 4 motivational questions based on new research that might help. You can also find Tips for Lawyers + Law Students to Reduce Anxiety here.
2. Focus on Priorities
To stay focused on your priorities, you need to know what they are and what you spend your time and energy on, and then fix discrepancies. For help tracking your time and setting better goals, this 35-minute webinar (and worksheets!) from author Jamie Jackson Spannhake, Esq. can help.
Time management strategies abound, and the Eisenhower Matrix is a uniquely helpful one that can help us organize tasks by priority based on Urgency and Importance, identifying whether tasks require us to (1) Do, (2) Defer, (3) Delegate, or (4) Delete. Most importantly, this helps us “avoid the urgency trap” as described in this Todoist article, which provides a deeper look at how to approach tasks with one of just four responses:
- DO tasks that are both Urgent and Important.
- DEFER by scheduling tasks that are Not Urgent but Important.
- DELEGATE tasks that are Urgent but Not Important.
- DELETE tasks that are Not Urgent and Not Important. This is where distractions come in. next sec.
One other straightforward strategy to help you stay focused on priorities is a daily practice of identifying Most Important Tasks (MITs). Choosing 1 – 3 MITs is ideal for the practical approach to prioritizing in a day, and the daily review is an essential process regardless of the precise number you identify, complete, or carry over.
Our personal well-being is one priority we all need at all times, and more intensely now with more of us experiencing grief and exhaustion than ever during the pandemic. For those who struggle to prioritize self-care, consider identifying a Most Important Self-Care Task each day — such as sleep, which directly impacts both our productivity and our mental health. Our culture may place rewards along the path to burnout, but what we respond to is a matter of individual choice — Find more on avoiding burnout as a lawyer here. For additional guidance, find unconventional productivity tips that put well-being first here.
3. Minimize Distractions
Minimizing distractions, both large and small, is easier when you have clear priorities set. We’ve known for nearly a decade that multitasking is an inefficient use of time, and being able to recognize an urgency trap for what it is can help us resist the urge to multitask so many of us experience. Prioritizing is the central element of attention management — find further tips on managing attention for teams and individuals from Sarah Goff-Dupont here.
Essential strategies to minimize distractions as you work on one task at a time are (1) Eliminate pop-up notifications, and (2) Take breaks before your attention wanes. Find more in this 31-minute webinar on Distraction Management for Busy Lawyers with Reid Trautz, Esq. Those who experience symptoms of ADHD can find additional Free & Confidential support with LCL MA Support Meetings + Workshops (exclusively for Massachusetts lawyers, law students, and other legal professionals).
4. Start Small with Habits
Implementing any time management or productivity strategy involves changing habits, and our habits directly impact our productivity. Mastering habits successfully often involves starting very small, and is less about motivation and more about designing the right environment — one that makes our new effort: (1) Obvious, (2) Attractive, (3) Easy, and (4) Satisfying. Find more on keys to building habits in this recent post on our LCL MA Blog. Find suggestions for end-of-workday habits that can help productivity here.
5. Improve Systems Over Time
While all the systems at once might overwhelm us (both as teams and individuals), they can really help us with the right perspective. Project management and tech tools can make a difference, particularly together — adopting technology is a project to be managed, and tech tools can support project management and so much more. Start small, and plan additional improvements with the following resources.
3 Guidelines for Planning Organized Time (Guest Post, Mass LOMAP Blog, 2020). Essential advice to plan and calendar everything, “chunk” work into manageable timeframes, and consider multitasking in creative ways that might enhance rather than break your concentration.
Winning Strategies to Increase Productivity (Mass LOMAP Blog, 2016). Basics on email management, techniques like Eating the Frog and Using Your Power Hour, and more.
Taming Your Email Inbox as a Lawyer (Webinars for Busy Lawyers). How to structure “inbox time” effectively, manage distractions, and more.
What You Need to Know About Project Management (Catherine Sanders Reach, ABA Law Practice Magazine, 2021). Essential advice on project management with particular attention to smaller firms and options for helpful tech tools.
5 Steps to Organize Projects and Increase Productivity (Mass LOMAP Blog, 2017). A straightforward breakdown on how to get projects organized for better productivity.
Assessment: What’s Your Personal Productivity Style? (Harvard Business Review, 2015). “When it comes to personal productivity advice for knowledge workers, one size doesn’t fit all. In fact, an individual’s cognitive style—that is, the way he or she prefers to perceive and process information—can have a dramatic impact on the success or failure of time management techniques and performance enhancement strategies. This assessment is designed to help you understand your own style—how you think, learn, and communicate best—and to guide you toward productivity tips that like-minded people have found most effective.”
Productivity is About Your Systems, Not Your People (Harvard Business Review, 2021). “The pursuit of individual productivity is healthy and worthwhile. However, unless you work independently outside of an organization, the benefits of most “tricks” will be limited. To make a real impact on performance, you have to work at the system level. The author recommends four ways to improve productivity and efficiency by making changes at the organizational level.”
Further Resources — Tech Solutions:
- Top Tech Tools to Streamline Your Law Practice [Webinar]
- Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: Technology Solutions for Common Law Practice Productivity Problems [Webinar]
- Lawyer Tech Toolbox: Experts Suggest Process Substitutions
- Time Management Tech Tips for Solo + Small Firm Lawyers
- How to Do 90 Minutes of Legal Work in 60 [Webinar]
- 3 Steps to Document Automation for Lawyers
- Artificial Intelligence: 5 Tools Lawyers Need to Know About
- 10 Apps Every Lawyer Needs to Have on Mobile [Webinar]
- How Lawyers Can Be More Productive with Office 365
- Hidden Gems for Lawyers in Office 365 [Webinar]
Protecting Your Time with Time Management Practices (Mass Lawyers Weekly, 2021)
Books on How to Manage Your Time Effectively During Stressful Times (Fast Company, 2020)
4 Reasons a Retreat Into Nature Will Increase Productivity (Entrepreneur, 2021)
Why Relying on Productivity Tools Can Backfire (BBC Worklife, 2021)
Want to Be More Productive? Try Doing Less (HBR, 2020)
Time Management Won’t Save You (HBR, 2021)
Free & Confidential Consultations:
Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can discuss concerns with a law practice advisor, licensed therapist or both. Find more on scheduling here.
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A 2019 post from the LCL MA Well-Being blog, “Time Management for Lawyers: Productivity to Start the New Year Strong,” now redirects here.