Thursday, 8 October 2009

Too Busy to Manage your Time?

I met up with a Executive in a busy law firm the other day and we spoke about stress and time management. He looked tired and complained of being so busy that he couldn't see how busy he was! "All this stuff!" was a refrain. We spoke for a while about a few methods that he might adopt to try to retake control of his life and he left, I hope, a little more positive.

There are many time management resources out there (Catrin Mills has some great suggestions on her site "The Lawyer Coach"), but as my stressed executive pointed out, he was far too busy to spend time looking at a bunch of web sites. "Getting Things Done" or GTD, made most famous by David Allen, is a whole process which has lots of associated tools and techniques, but which can seem to be too complex for most lawyers I've spoken with.

I suggest just two techniques to begin with - both of which, however, will require a little practice and - yes - some investment of time. The first thing to do is to consider that there are two useful ways of measuring any task - is it important and is it urgent:

Every task that you will be faced with can be thought of in these ways. The extremes are easy to deal with. If a task is important and urgent - you've got to do it, and probably got to do it before most other tasks. If a task is neither important or urgent, you probably shouldn't waste another second on it (unless it's a task for the Managing Partner, in which case you will probably take a moment or two to explain why you'll be passing the task onto someone else (see below).

The complexity comes in dealing with things that are either important but not very urgent or urgent but not very important (boxes two and three above). It can, however, be quite simple - important trumps urgent. One of the most important things you can do is to make sure that the urgent doesn't always get in the way of the important. It's very easy for this to happen and the consequences are that you put off important tasks because urgent matters get in the way, and then the important task suddenly becomes urgent too - and suddenly you're running out of time again, and spending long evenings in the office. If a task is urgent but not that important, try to delegate it to someone else. If something is important but not (yet) urgent, allocate some time each day or every couple of days to work on it so that you complete important tasks in good time, and so are not faced with a number of important tasks "going urgent" at the same time.

Try to get into the habit of considering every task in this way. It becomes easier and easier with repetition and will soon become second nature.

This leads to my second technique. This is by no means an original idea, but one arrived at after consideration of the many experts in the field. I call it the "Law of Ds". Look at every task you have on your list (and please don't tell me you don't have a list of your tasks - no list = no chance!) and look at every email you get and do one of the following:
  1. Do - if it's an easy email to deal with or an important and urgent task, then do it right now.
  2. Delegate - if at all possible you should delegate a task, or dealing with an email to a member of your team. Don't just dump the dross on them either - let your team deal with urgent matters (see above) and let them gain experience with the important things too. Excellence in your team will reflect well on you.
  3. Delete - not urgent or important. You can probably delete it. This especially applies to emails. Don't get drawn in to answering mass emails that don't really need a reply. When you are searching around for things to do, yes, but I'm working on the assumption that you are not in this position at the moment.
  4. Design - a plan or timetable for the task. This is how you deal with the important but not urgent tasks. Slot them into your day over the time available and then stick to your plan.
  5. Defer - if you have to. I'm not a big fan of deferred tasks, but if a task doesn't need to be dealt with yet but will become important next month, for example, then put it in the Deferred folder and take it out when it's time comes.
You can set up email folders to match these "Ds" so that you have easy ways of dealing with items as they arrive. Be brutal. Your team will probably cope with more than you think they will, and will generally be pleased to be trusted with work. Get your colleagues used to the fact that you will not reply to jokey or "send to all" emails - delete any email that is remotely junk immediately.

These two simple measures can help you get control of your time again. It will take a little though and practice to begin with, but this investment will payback almost immediately and you will be able to do your job again, rather than dealing with the task of finding your job in the mess.

Give it a try - claim your time back!

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