Management Matters: A planning guide to reduce squirrel chasing
Vol. 78, No. 2 / March - April 2022
Paul Unger is a national speaker and author who offers customized workshops to help lawyers learn how to be more efficient with time management. He also performs technology assessments throughout the United States and Canada. Unger practiced law for six years, focusing on litigation and bankruptcy, before starting a legal technology consulting company with partner Barron Henley in 2000.
Legal professionals get an external interruption every three to four minutes from email, instant messages, calls, social media, and more.
There is something that can torpedo our daily schedules even worse, though ... internal interruptions. According to some studies, we switch tasks on our computer nearly 600 times a day and take 70 to 100 email curiosity breaks per day. The reality is that we sabotage our own day chasing squirrels more often than we care to admit.
Attention/distraction management is an essential skill to learn in today’s age of information overload. There are many techniques that we can employ to assist us with this problem, but one that we too often overlook is good, old-fashioned planning.
Your daily plan
Daily and weekly planning are critical if you want to change your life and habits. Few people take 10 or so minutes at the beginning or end of the workday that will save them time later. Instead, we jump right into checking our email and are instantly derailed by fighting little fires instead of first defining clear goals for the day. Many prefer planning tomorrow’s roadmap at the end of a day since the to-do tasks are fresh in their minds. Others enjoy daily planning in the morning because they are rested and have a clear mind. If you engage in morning planning, come in early – before all the fires start – because it’s difficult to focus once the chaos begins, especially if you don’t have a solid roadmap for the day.
Now it’s time to write down your goals. One great tool is a paper-based planning journal. Keep it open next to your keyboard all day, so you can look at it when you have the urge to check email 75 times. Some question why we should re-write this information on paper if it is already on the calendar in Outlook. There are multiple reasons:
- The roadmap is in front of you so you can always see it. If it is out of sight, it is out of mind.
- The roadmap doesn’t need to be displayed on a big computer monitor, so you can use your monitors for more useful functions like comparing documents or displaying reference/subject matter relevant to your projects.
- Events on your calendar may have been created weeks ago, so they are not fresh on your mind. Re-writing those events jogs your memory.
- It is helpful to time-block those tasks so you can properly allocate enough hours for projects and engage in realistic planning.
- Your plan serves as a contract with yourself to get those things done that day.
Another tool you could use is the simple index card. A pack of 100 will cost you less than $3. Use one card per day, writing three to five tasks that you want to accomplish that day. It’s fine to re-write items that are on your calendar, and if you complete those goals, grab another card and write down more tasks!
Your weekly plan
A once-a-week “get organized” deep dive is essential to successful distraction and time management. This will help you frame realistic daily planning, review all tasks and deadlines on your plate, and keep focused on the big-picture goals you want to achieve. If you think it would be helpful, reach out to a colleague to keep you on track.
Set aside 60 minutes for planning one day a week. Performing this one-hour ritual on the same day and time each week will make it infinitely easier to develop the habit. Moreover, it is proof to your team (and yourself) about how important and sacred this practice is to your organization. At each weekly planning session, these are the tasks you will perform:
✓ Review calendar two-weeks forward. Open your calendar and touch every single appointment listed. Stop, pause, and think about what you must do to prepare for this appointment. Can you move forward with it, or do you have research to do? Do you need to block out time on your calendar to prepare? If so, reserve that preparation time. If you need to look out further than two weeks (or less), adjust accordingly.
✓ Review calendar two-weeks back. Open your calendar and touch every single appointment on your calendar, going back two weeks. Stop, pause, and think about whether you did everything that you promised people in those appointments. If not, schedule time to do those things and update your task list.
✓ Review your case/matter/project list. Always have a list of all your active cases, matters, or projects, and review it regularly. Are there any that you can remove? Ask yourself with each item on that list, “Am I on-track or off-track?” If you are off-track, block off time on your calendar to do a deep dive into that case, matter, or project.
✓ Review your task list(s) and follow-up email folder. Stop, pause, and think about every item on your task list(s). Just like with the calendar above, you are not skimming. You are actively thinking about each item. If a task is complete, mark it as such. If the task is still relevant but not quite to the finish line, leave it on the list. If a task is overdue or urgent, block off time on your calendar to get it done. Consider if you need to provide status updates to anyone or follow up with someone to complete a task. Finally, and this is important, remember to check all your task lists, including your strategic planning, quarterly, or long-term lists. It is vital that we have a routine/system in place that makes us review all items on all task lists.
✓ Delete, delegate, or delay emails. Process your inbox to delete any emails that you can. Delegate any emails that you need to assign. Finally, if you need to delay acting on an email, record it on your task list, create an appointment with yourself to do it, and save the email into the case/matter/project folder so you can delete it from your inbox. Remember, your inbox is a terrible task list. If you use Outlook, you can easily convert emails to tasks by dragging and dropping an email on to the Task icon or using Quick Steps. This function acts as a “copy” and will create a task, while still leaving the email in your inbox for you to take further action like creating a calendar event or filing it away. You can convert that same email to an appointment by dragging it on to your calendar icon.
✓ Clean your desk, piles, and notes. It would be ideal to enter all tasks and do all your time blocking on your calendar immediately when the task surfaces, but we all know that hardly happens perfectly. You may be running out the door when the phone rings and someone asks you to do something. So, you jot it down on a sticky note and slap it on your keyboard. Likewise, maybe someone sent you a pile of paper that is sitting on your desk as a reminder to review it. All these things are really tasks and appointments that should be created, and then you should scan, save, or throw away those papers and notes. The result is that (1) you have a single place where you need to look and manage your tasks, and (2) you have a clean desk, which will help you concentrate.
✓ Weekly time report. Review your billable timesheets for the week. Learn how to run a report from your time billing and accounting system (or have someone run it for you). For this information, stop, pause, and think about each time entry. Did you do everything that you promised relating to the activity that you performed for this time entry? If not, update your task list and/or schedule time on your calendar to do it. Are there any follow-up items that you should pursue relating to this time entry? This will allow you to proof your time entries and remember tasks you still need to complete.
While no system is perfect, these weekly and daily planning habits will help you prepare for the tasks ahead and find “things that slip between the cracks” because we always have more squirrels surprise us than we can count!
1 Paul Unger is a national speaker and author who offers customized workshops to help lawyers learn how to be more efficient with time management. He also performs technology assessments throughout the United States and Canada. Unger practiced law for six years, focusing on litigation and bankruptcy, before starting a legal technology consulting company with partner Barron Henley in 2000.