Time Management Techniques for Lawyers
by Dr. Amiram Elwork
The main complaint that lawyers have about the practice of law, and the one they think contributes most to their stress levels, is the amount of time they spend on work at the expense of all other activities. The pain and costs that such time pressures create are significant and obvious. Among other things, constant workload stress leaves them with inadequate time for themselves and their families. This is true of lawyers across the board, but it is an even more serious problem for young and female attorneys, especially those who work at large law firms.
Since young attorneys (both males and females) are in the stages of life where they need more personal time to find a soul mate and get married or to spend with their newly formed families, they find that they can't do that and get ahead in law at the same time. Regardless of their age, female attorneys face a similar problem. In our society, it is still more socially acceptable (though not healthy) for men to neglect their families. Thus, female lawyers tend to experience more turmoil about the fact that law is simply not a "family friendly" profession.
For these and other good reasons, the words “time management techniques” are excellent at getting lawyers’ attention. The idea is simple and logical. If you are a victim a time famine, what you need to do is become more efficient at doing your work. Having done that, you can finish your work and have some time left over for a personal life. Indeed, the numbers are very convincing. Did you know that if you could work a little more efficiently so as to get one additional hour’s worth done each day, that would give you an extra 20-25 hours each month? For most of us, cutting out one hour of inefficiency per day is not that difficult to accomplish. Think of all that you could do with that extra time!
Interruptions, Procrastination & Ineffective Delegation
Throughout the day and often without our full awareness, most of us experience and participate in a number of very costly time wasters. The three that I find most useful to focus on are: interruptions, procrastination and ineffective delegation. Allow me to illustrate each of these.
It is very difficult to resist a ringing phone or a colleague who pops into your office and asks, "Got a minute?" Yet, these types of interruptions waste so much time that you must resist them. Not only does the interruption itself take you away from important work, but afterward there is a significant time-lag in regaining your previous level of concentration. The usual advice given to solve this problem is very simple: Whenever possible, do not allow important work to be interrupted.
Procrastination is such a common habit that some people have actually come to consider it as an adaptive trait. A few lawyers I know think of it as an art form. This faulty logic is expressed when some of us say, "I work better under pressure." In reality, it would be more accurate to say: " I work more efficiently when I don't procrastinate. Unfortunately, that usually happens when time has run out and I have no choice but to stop procrastinating. I wish I could stop procrastinating when I am not under pressure."
Do you see the difference? By definition, you work more efficiently and think more clearly when you do not procrastinate. Time pressure does not improve your performance; it simply forces you to stop procrastinating. Your peak performance, however, is likely to occur when you do not procrastinate and are not under time pressure as well. Not only is this preferable for health reasons, but it is also more likely to prevent mental errors and increase creativity.
An inability to effectively delegate work also can be a most debilitating and time wasting habit. Do you live by the rule that the way to get things done right is to do them yourself? Does everything your staff produces have to be reviewed by you ad infinitum? Do you get accused of being too perfectionistic, critical and controlling? If your answer to any of these questions is "yes," it is likely that you are an ineffective delegator.
It means that you cannot maximize your achievement through the efforts of others, which in turn means that you are limiting the extent to which you can leverage your talents. In short, you will find it difficult to manage other people and are doomed to being a worker bee. That is, you are more likely to work longer hours and may be less likely to earn the higher levels of income.
Easy To Say, Not To Do
Unfortunately, following this advice is not that easy. Although behavioral tips on interruptions, procrastination and delegation are the subject of many books on time management, they are difficult to effectuate until you recognize the psychological changes you will need to make first. That is, people who cannot control these behaviors commonly have unconscious motives that pull them in the opposite direction. Until you confront these motives, nothing will change.
For example, some people are reluctant to stop others from interrupting them because they are afraid of being offensive, and in turn of being rejected. In addition, there are those who allow themselves to be interrupted because they cannot stand the suspense of not knowing what other people want, and have a difficult time resisting their own curiosity. Interruptions make some of us feel important, and they help justify another major time waster, namely procrastination.
A common reason people procrastinate is out of a genuine lack of interest in their work. You say to yourself, "This is going to be boring!" In turn, this leads to thoughts about your whole identity and whether your life is fulfilling. Such thoughts may trigger a variety of emotions, including anger, frustration and guilt. Again, instead of confronting your thoughts and emotions in a constructive manner, you reduce the emotional pain by simply avoiding the boring task.
Another common emotion procrastination avoids is fear of failure. For example, a typical scenario might proceed as follows: You look at a file and say to yourself, "This is a difficult case." The underlying implication is that you are going to fail, and that triggers fear. Instead of confronting your original premise and all of its corollaries (e.g., "I'm not a good lawyer."), you get rid of the emotional pain by avoiding the task. Fear of failure can also be an underlying reason for an inability to delegate effectively. People with this disability tend to exhibit perfectionism (fear of mistakes), excessive feeling of responsibility for everything, lack of confidence in others, need for control and fear of being controlled, fear of competition from employees, etc.
To change your time wasting habits, you need to uncover the hidden motives that prevent you from becoming efficient. Try disallowing your typical behaviors a few times and record your resulting thoughts and emotions. Once you fully understand the psychological dynamics involved, try to evaluate their validity. For example, you might repeatedly ask yourself: "Is it really true that if I don't respond to every interruption immediately, people will reject me?" After you recognize the illogic of your habitual thoughts and emotions, you can work on replacing them with more adaptive ones. After many repetitions, your old habits will dissipate.
The techniques I have described are effective, but they are difficult to implement. Dealing with your underlying thoughts and emotions can be painful and tedious and it may be among the most difficult things you will ever do. However, if you can maintain your patience, and assume that progress will be measured in small steps, your efforts will be very worthwhile.
It Won’t Get You A Life
There is one other thing I should mention. Learning how to manage your work more efficiently will not necessarily result in your having more time for a personal life. Time management techniques will only make you more efficient. They will not automatically result in your working less. If you are a workaholic functioning in a workaholic environment, becoming more efficient will simply mean that you will be completing more work than ever before. In fact, many lawyers already know this and tend to unconsciously resist becoming efficient time managers, fearing that all that will do is get them an even larger load of responsibilities.
You see in order to get a life outside of work, you have to delve into the psychological motives that underlie your workaholic values and evaluate their validity. You have to develop a different set of priorities and understandings about who you are, what “success” means, and what you really want out of life. These have to be more than socially desirable verbalizations; they have to permeate your core. But, in order to even think about these things, you need to set aside some time. That takes courage!
Dr. Amiram Elwork is the Founder and Director of the Vorkell Group. Dr. Elwork provides personal coaching to lawyers, physicians, and other professionals, as well as organizational consulting to law firms, medical practices and other types of professional services firms. In addition, he is a national speaker on a variety of topics related to achieving success, and the author of a book entitled Stress Management for Lawyers, as well as the co-editor of Success Briefs for Lawyers. If you have questions or comments that you would like him to address, call (215) 661-9330 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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