A moment of your time, please...
by David J Bilinsky
It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming let me out! ...
This is ourselves under pressure
Words and Music by Queen and David Bowie
You have just settled into your chair with your morning cup of coffee, intent on completing work on a file that you promised would be done by the end of today when the phone rings. Then clients drop in and the phone rings some more... Your secretary then brandishes under your nose a reminder of a lunch appointment. On returning from lunch your partner drops by to discuss some matters on another file and before you know it, it is 5:30 pm and your spouse is calling: “Did you remember that we had promised to go to….” Your temples start to throb as you realize that another day has just slipped through your fingers. As a result, you will have to work late tomorrow just to catch up on what you wanted to do today…
While life is defined as a series of interruptions interrupted by interruptions, there are ways to manage your time and juggle priorities, conflicts, goals, crises and stress. Let us explore some suggestions put forward in this area:
How can things go according to plan if you never had a plan? Here is an exercise: close your door, turn off the phone and take a few minutes. Imagine you are at the end of your life, looking back over the things that you have accomplished. What were the highs? The lows? What things should you have spent more time on? Less time? What events made your life special or worthwhile? What things wasted your time? What were the real priorities? Now come back to the present. How many of those important life goals have you accomplished? Next, how can you make them come about? By focusing on these really important goals today, we can take meaningful steps to make them a reality tomorrow.
Moving to the micro view, at the start of each day, take a few moments and ask yourself: What is my goal for today? Establish one goal at the start that will make your day a success. Then move heaven and earth to get that goal accomplished.
I don’t like To-Do lists because they list things to be done without any specific time within which they should be done - resulting in “deadline stretch”. Also, realistically, when was the last time that items #5, 6, 7…were actually considered, much less done? Here is an alternate method. Take your calendar. Block off specific blocks of time against specific tasks or projects. This does at least two things. One, it forces you to be realistic in terms of how much you can actually get done today. Two, once your time is committed, you are less likely to take on a new task that would otherwise bump a project over to never-never land.
Who owns our time? The answer is, ultimately, we do. Yet, how often do we allow others (clients, committees, partners, etc.) to determine our priorities and our tasks? We all have responsibilities, but which responsibilities we take on and how we fulfill them is up to each of us. Furthermore, as lawyers, our training is to respond to problems. However, the problem-response model is not the most effective one if we are trying to be pro-active. Use the acid test: Is this committee/board/task (insert whatever it is that is threatening to eat up your time) taking me along towards or further away from my goals (which could be financial, personal, career etc)? If closer, fine. If not, get rid of it as quickly, ethically, and gracefully as you can. Psychologists call this boundary setting.
We are awash in it, particularly our desks. Once you pick up a piece of paper (letter, memo, magazine) don’t put it back down unless and until you have done something with it that gets it off your desk. Period.
We have them all-- telephone calls, faxes, letters, email, drop-ins. Worst of all, dealing with these interruptions is precisely what we are being paid to do. What can be done? Divide and conquer. Set aside time for uninterrupted work followed by time to deal with the communication onslaught. Make promises to return calls during fixed periods and keep those promises. No one expects you to be available for calls continuously. Establish a “code red” procedure that you are to be interrupted only if certain persons call. Guard your time as you would your money -- it is really one and the same.
Most of us try to use the lunch hour to meet with clients or to carry on partnership discussions. Here is an alternate suggestion. Go off for a quick lunch with a completely different crowd and then take a walk. Or just get some exercise. Either way, you will clear your mind and do something good for your heart. It will also help relieve stress.
All of us have at least one thing that we need to do that we don’t want to do. As a result, we procrastinate, delay, engage in busy-work--anything to avoid doing what we need to do. Alternate suggestion: Right after you decide your daily goal (see above), jump on your most unpleasant task. Make a habit to get it out of the way as early on in the day as you can. This way you can break the logjam that may be preventing you from tackling difficult or unpleasant jobs.
We all have it -- in spades. What to do about it? First, write out all the factors that are causing stress, be it money, career, etc. Then decide which factors you can change, which you cannot and how you can manoeuvre yourself out and away from the latter. Take positive action--even if is only to establish a plan to get out from where you are now. Anything is better than being eaten alive.
I recently went to an antique car museum and remarked how good a certain car looked that was manufactured in my birth year. Our learning and our skills are depreciating - rapidly! The half-life for knowledge now is shorter than it ever was before. Yet what steps will ensure our relevance and worth--tomorrow? Invest in your own renewal to keep from becoming an antique.
The economists have it: what gets measured gets done. Track your time--not just on billable matters but on everything. See what you spend time on and what you don’t. Becoming aware is the first step in becoming focused.
While the world keeps on turning just a little faster each day, perhaps with the right tools we can wrestle the time monster to the ground and start to take control of our time and our lives (again).
David J Bilinsky is the practice management advisor at the Law Society of British Columbia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of BarTalk and is reproduced here with permission of both the author and the Canadian Bar Association, British Columbia Branch.