Earlier, I posted portions of this to help you with time management techniques with 5 rules to follow for effective time management. This post addresses in more detail, how you should prioritize tasks.
Manage Your Time and Work Efficiently; Put Your Mind at Ease
You may have gotten through life without a good time management system, but you won’t be able to succeed in practice without a system to keep track of all the details you need to manage as a solo business manager. In fact, you will not do well in any legal environment without a systematic approach to manage your workload and keep track of all the details. So you must learn to develop a system which allows you to retrieve information and control your workflow, or you will stress yourself unnecessarily and turn to drink or other unhealthy distractions.
A True Story
My first legal job was as a public defender in a rural area in Michigan. I was assigned to defend clients who were charged with felonies. My first day on the job, I was told I would be responsible for nearly 200 active files. To keep track of all the details of those cases would have been an impossible task without a systematic approach. It wasn’t like I could work a case from beginning to end, close it, move to the next file in sequence, and put the old file away. Legal practice doesn’t work that way. How, then can you know of all the critical deadlines, and keep track of all the details of every case without dropping the ball?
When I was assigned responsibility for 200 cases, I had to juggle multiple balls in the air, at all times. This was a task that neither I, nor you, could do in our head without losing sleep each night with worry. Would it be possible for me to keep pace with all the work and all the deadlines in all 200 cases! My mentor told me to triage all the cases, identify the tasks to be done, and create task lists and calendars to track all my activity. You will be faced with the same challenge; maybe you won’t be faced with two hundred files all at once. And initially, you may feel you can keep up. But as the workload builds, and the pressures and demands of your business weigh in, you will find yourself overwhelmed. You will not be able to cope with the pressures of tracking all the details of your legal practice. As my mentor said after I documented each of my tasks, “Now, forget about it!” He made the point that you cannot clutter your mind with all the details of each case. You need to establish a system to allow you “to forget about it”.
What follows are 5 rules that I believe will help you sleep at night knowing that you have captured all of your tasks and will allow you to pace yourself and not miss deadlines. These are simple steps, but they work.
- Get a system. The system you use must have a task list and a calendar. You can use a paper or electronic system or some combination of the two. You can use your smart phone or tablet- but get out of the “Post-It” mentality. There are a lot of systems out there and many apps available for download on your computer, smart phone, or tablet. One system that I was trained on, and has helped me through my career, is Franklin Covey™. You can find it on line at http://franklinplanner.fcorgp.com/store/
One of the apps that I use is Planner Plus™ and it can be downloaded at https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/planner-plus/id560450229?mt=8 or at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.appxy.plannerplus&hl=en for your Android. These have calendars, task lists and the ability to write comments. They are all very portable and easily accessible.
2. Keep it with you always. This is important as it allows you to schedule an event, write down a task, or note important information you wish to retrieve later without relying on your memory to recall it later. Mark it down once and forget about it! If you memorialize the task as it is assigned, you will capture everything and not forget to log an item later. As you read on, you will understand how you can be confident enough to forget about it.
Customize your system– personalize it so you will find the features well suited to your particular way of doing things. Make it yours and work to identify and implement all the features available to be efficient. Force yourself to use a system you really don’t like and it will fall by the wayside from disuse. And you will find yourself missing appointments and deadlines. Keep trying systems until you find one you really like.
3. Check it everyday. This is your “tickler” system. Set aside 20-30 minutes each day to schedule your activities for that day. Make it a habit to do this at a set time, early morning or the evening before the next day. Look at the calendar and your task list for the next day and the week ahead. Then schedule time to complete each task during the “soft” or “open”time periods. When others attempt to distract you or follow their agenda, unless it is really urgent – tell them that you are scheduled for that time period. Offer to schedule it during a time that you plan. Your time is important and distractions are wasteful time thieves. Don’t be reactive – be proactive and use your time wisely. Checking it everyday means that this is your “tickler” and those tasks you made note of earlier will be picked up and planned out on schedule. You can sleep at night with full confidence that nothing will be missed.
(sidenote; turn off that notification on your computer and cell phone for emails, texts, etc. Do not look at them throughout the day as they will take you off task. Set aside times during the day when you check them en mass as opposed to constantly pulling away from your focuses agenda. Getting back on track each time costs valuable time and wasted energy.)
4. Prioritize and moderate your tasks. Classify your tasks into three classifications;
“A”, critical – must complete today.
“B”, important – try to complete if possible.
“C”, complete as time allows.
This is a simple categorization. But for another method which reflects the true value and urgency of a task, watch the video below at Eisenhower Productivity Tools where you will find a matrix and an explanation of how to distinguish “urgent” and “important” tasks from one another. An urgent task is one that is time sensitive and must be completed in a timely manner, whereas an important task is a task that requires your attention but may allow some flexibility in terms of time of completion. You can have tasks that are urgent, but not But, if you have a task that is urgent and important, it will rank the highest in priority. The grid that you will find at the “Tools” site demonstrates the difference.
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Dwight D. Eisenhower
Categorize all of your tasks according to their urgency and importance so that you treat the most important and urgent tasks with the greatest priority. Those that are urgent but not important should follow and those that are important but not urgent should follow the first two categories. That way, you will prioritize your time to complete everything timely and with the greatest value first leaving those items of low importance which are not urgent to the very end or delete them all together.
5. Chunk your tasks into 20 or 30 minute modules so that they can be completed without boredom or distractions setting in. Take that complex case and break it into chunks that are doable in short bursts. By having a system, you can pace yourself and spread the work out over many days and keep all of your case work moving forward.
Do this, follow these rules and you will be able to plan your life and set lifetime goals. Use those goals to identify 20 year goals, annual goals, monthly goals and daily goals moving you incrementally forward small steps – but making very real progress. Plan for retirement both financially and with targeted time-frames.
Attorneys who do this are the ones who come to court with just a few files. At counsel table next to them is the attorney who struggles everyday trying to catch up. He comes to court with piles of files hoping he has in that pile what he needs to answer questions from the judge. In the meantime, the attorney (with good time management skills) only brings a thin file with what he needs in it. He is well prepared. As a result, he is able to answer the judge’s questions before the disorganized attorney can find the information in his pile. The organized attorney has a reputation for being professional and prepared. Who do you think gets more favorable decisions when the judge can exercise her discretion? Need I say more?