One of the top concerns for most lawyers is time management. We all have so much to accomplish in so little time, and it often seems that we’re always trying to cram more activities (whether professional or personal) into the non-negotiable 168 hours we have each week. Most of my coaching clients bring time management issues to the table at some point, and time pressures are largely responsible for the high levels of stress that many lawyers face.
One distinction, “urgent” versus “important,” can form the basis for effective time management. Urgent vs. important is a simple distinction that applies equally to the substance of a lawyer’s work as well as to practice or career management. Stephen Covey has written about time use and devised a four-quadrant chart to help us judge where we spend most of our time:
Urgent and Important: Crises, problems, deadline-driven projects. Preparing for a client meeting that will occur in a few hours is a Quadrant I activity. Hallmarks of Quadrant I activity include intense focus, high stress, and limited opportunity for review and reflection.
Not Urgent, but Important: Preparation, problem prevention, planning, relationship building, values clarification, true recreation (”re-creation”). Preparing for a client meeting that will occur in several days is a Quadrant II activity. When you’re operating in Quadrant II, you’ll likely be focused (because your task is important) but you’ll feel less pressure and you’ll have more opportunity to consider all aspects of what you’re doing simply because you’re not staring down the barrel of a deadline.
Urgent, but Not Important: Interruptions, some phone calls, some meetings, some email. When you’re forced to deal with something that’s not especially important at a certain time, you’re in Quadrant III.
Not Urgent, Not Important: Junk mail, spam, busywork, trivia, “escape” activities, mindless web surfing, etc. We all spend time in Quadrant IV, but spending time on those activities produces little or no meaningful results because the activities by definition are not meaningful.
Where do you spend most of your time? While it’s undeniable that Quadrant I requires attention and Quadrant III calls for attention (though the call may be illusory), Quadrant II is the critical zone. That’s where the real work occurs that truly moves us forward.
Clients appreciate lawyers who work in Quadrant II. All too often, lawyers send important documents to their clients and request a fast response. That’s disrespectful of the client’s time. It creates the impression that the lawyer simply couldn’t get his or her act together in time to plan in advance and complete the work early enough to allow the client time for meaningful review. Clients appreciate lawyers who handle matters during an emergency, but they tend to resent those who act as if every event is an emergency. Living in Quadrant II will increase the quality of your client service.
I worked with a client I’ll call Sheri, who was having a great deal of trouble getting everything done that she needed to in the office. She found herself staying at the office later and later, then going in earlier and earlier, and before long she was exhausted and angry that her personal life had disappeared. We started with the urgent/important distinction and looked at the kinds of tasks on her “to do” list through that lens.
After our first conversation, Sheri cut Quadrant IV activities completely and worked to get better at identifying Quadrant III activities so she could eliminate as many of those as possible. And then she looked at the Quadrant I tasks she’d listed to see whether any could be delegated or otherwise handled. And then our focus shifted to Quadrant II.
Sheri developed a schedule that guaranteed her planning and strategizing time (pure Quadrant II activities) and found that by spending time on those tasks, she was able to prevent problems and facilitate the orderly accomplishment of important aims. Her stress level decreased, as did the number of hours she had to spend putting out fires. Most importantly, when she did have to put out a fire, it was a real emergency, not a self-created one.
Your assignment for the week: look at how you spend your time. Review this week’s task list and mark every item according to its quadrant. If they’re all Quadrant I, you have plenty of room for improvement. And then, take a moment at the end of each day to look back at how you actually spent the day. Did you spent 30 minutes looking for a file or other document? Did you spend so much time sending “one quick email” that you didn’t even get to your top five tasks for the day?
Merry Christmas to those who celebrate!