Time management skills: is a task urgent or important?

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 the high levels of stress that many lawyers face derive largely from time pressures.  One distinction, “urgent” versus “important,” can form the basis for effective time management.  Let’s dig in.

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:

QUADRANT I: Urgent and ImportantCrises, problems, deadline-driven projects.

QUADRANT II: Not Urgent, but ImportantPreparation, problem prevention, planning, relationship building, values clarification, true recreation (“re-creation”).

QUADRANT III: Urgent, but Not Important: Interruptions, some phone calls, some meetings, some email.

QUANDRANT IV: Not Urgent, Not Important: Junk mail, spam, busywork, trivia, “escape” activities, mindless web surfing, etc.

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 that truly moves us forward gets done.

For instance, suppose you’ve decide to leave your current job.  Quadrant I may demand you update your resume, call a recruiter, and set up a job agent on a job search website.  Quadrant III is returning a call from a recruiter who has the perfect position — except that it’s in Salt Lake City and you have no desire to live there — and it’s most interviews.  (Note that in this example, it’s hard to evaluate in advance whether something is important or not!)  Quandrant IV is browsing all the legal jobs in the U.S. on a website — things that may look like they’re related to your job search but really do nothing for you except waste time.  And Quadrant II is where you spend time when you stop to think about what exactly you want in your new job: firm or in-house?  Small, medium, or large firm?  Should you work with a recruiter?  What geographic location suits you best?

Quadrant II yields the strongest results.  That’s where the real work happens, where we’re able to engage in analysis that will help move us forward.  It may be helpful or even critical to spend time in Quadrant I; we all spend some time in Quadrant III, but we can be aware of that time and choose to limit it; Quadrant IV is best avoided because it’s neither productive nor refreshing time.

Question for reflection: both in practice and in your career/practice management, where are you spending your time?  Are you visiting Quadrant II enough?

According to a 2001 article published in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly:  “Lawyers are good subjects for coaching because they are results-oriented professionals. But like most busy professionals, it is hard for lawyers to consistently focus on things that are important, but not urgent. In addition, while attorneys may get good training in “lawyering” in the early years of practice, they are less likely to get any consistent and focused training on how to develop their professional and personal lives. A law degree can still open up a lot of doors for you, but real career satisfaction takes both hard work and planning. Having the degree, and working in a good law firm, are not enough.  Many of us do not take the time to reflect on what we really want. Some of us do not know what steps to follow to get what we want. Still others know the steps, but cannot figure out how to rearrange their professional and personal lives to make room for these important, but not urgent, activities. A coach can be the key ingredient in making things happen.”  Do you need a coach?

I’ll close with an example.  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 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.

Sheri decided to cut Quadrant IV activities completely and 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 delegrated or otherwise handled.  And then our focus shifted to Quadant 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.

Sheri was delighted to discover that working out qualified as a Quadrant II activity, and she planned a half-hour walk or visit to the gym five days a week.  As a result, she began to feel better physically, which also decreased her stress level and increased her energy so she could get more work done in the hours she had available.  By further focusing on categorizing tasks in the quadrants, minimizing time spent in Quadrants III and IV, and maximizing the time she spent in Quadrant II, Sheri developed work habits and a daily schedule that allowed her to get her work done, to feel good about it, and to have some time and energy for her personal pursuits as well.

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  1. […] Time management skills: is a task urgent or important? « Life at the Bar Life at the Bar It’s about life and the law… And living as a lawyer « Congratulations to the women of Kuwait! Email hazards » Time management skills: is a task urgent or important? Today is one of those strange quasi-holiday days. […]

  2. […] coaching a client this week and introducing Stephen Covey’s Urgent/Important quadrant system for prioritizing and completing tasks, I explained that true recreation — something that’s reenergizing, that […]

  3. […] I suggest starting each day with the most important task.  It may be a phone call that takes 5 minutes or a drafting project that requires 5 hours; […]

  4. […] suggest he ask, “Am I busy, or am I productive?”  The question is an adjunct of the Quadrant II time/priority management system that Stephen Covey teaches, and it takes that system to the next level because the question makes […]

  5. […] Sources taken from: Carolyne’s pages of interest Setting the Right Priorities Time management skills […]

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