Get More Done by Doing Less
Intro: In our accelerated world of cell phones, email and Blackberries, clients’ expectations of immediate response have increased, and so have the number of daily interruptions. Yet lawyering still requires a lot of heavy-duty brainwork with full concentration. Stopping the onslaught for even just one hour per day of uninterrupted time can work miracles.
For fast-acting relief – slow down. ~ Lily Tomlin
Life is full of paradox. If you feel harried and stressed at work every day, if you are always putting out fires, stop everything else you are doing and read this article. Three steps will revolutionize your practice.
I know you are in a hurry, so here they are:
1. Create blocks of quiet time.
2. Prioritize your work each morning.
3. Stop multi-tasking.
Some of you are rolling your eyes and muttering disgustedly, “Get real!” or “ Give me something I can use.” You may be the ones who will have the most difficulty implementing this advice. You will also be the ones who will benefit most from it.
Creating Blocks of Quiet Time
This one step makes the single biggest difference in the efficiency of the lawyers I coach. In our accelerated world of cell phones, email and Blackberries, clients’ expectations of immediate response have increased, and so have the number of daily interruptions. Yet lawyering still requires a lot of heavy-duty brainwork with full concentration. Stopping the onslaught for even just one hour per day of uninterrupted time can work miracles.
That requires discipline of yourself, your staff and your clients, however. Your clients are actually the easiest to train. They can’t see you and they already expect you to be unavailable when you are on the phone, in a meeting with another client, or in court. Their anxiety at not reaching you can usually be soothed if they receive a specific hour when you will return their call. Provide your “gatekeepers” with suggested scripts for handling incoming calls. They can say something like “He’s behind closed doors now, Ms. Smith, but I know he will want to talk to you. Can he call you at this number around 11 a.m.? Is there something I might be able to help you with right now?” If you normally answer your own phone, change your voicemail daily to indicate the hour when you will next return calls, and provide another contact person’s number for urgent matters. Make sure that contact is scheduled to be available during your quiet time.
Lawyers and staff in your office must be retrained because you have trained them that it is ok to interrupt you at their convenience. Keep a tally to identify the most frequent offenders and the subject matters. You may need to grant more authority or give some additional training to remove yourself as a bottleneck in their workflow. Ask them to accumulate their questions until a scheduled time at the end of your quiet time. If you schedule your uninterrupted block at the same time each day, they will be able to schedule their needs for you more efficiently and adjust their expectations more readily. Accountability to a coach or buddy helps shore up the self-discipline required to implement new policy. Some of my clients have found it easier to actually leave the office for an hour each day. When they began to experience the benefits of the uninterrupted time, however, it strengthened their resolve to protect their time in the office.
Prioritizing Your Work
Many busy lawyers allow emails, phone calls and the priorities of other people to determine which projects they work on each day. Then they stay late or take work home because they are stressing over “not getting anything done today.”
Avoid those pitfalls by taking the time to make a running written list of everything you need to do. That will free up the RAM in your brain normally used to run the reminder loop all day. You’ll think more clearly and be more effective. Each morning before you begin work, review and update your list and identify the three most important items on the list. Yes, there may be 57 items on the list, but you know you won’t get them all done today. So first keep the focus on the three most important ones. When you complete them, you can return to your list. If those are all you manage to accomplish today due to genuinely important and urgent matters that crop up, you’ll have the peace of knowing that you accomplished what was most important.
Implementing this time management tip provides the second highest improvement in productivity for my clients. It’s not new or revolutionary, but do you actually do it now? Some lawyers feel they must review their morning email before updating their list, in order to incorporate new matters coming in. They use accountability to a coach to help them avoid heading off on the rabbit trail of responding to low priority emails before identifying their most important tasks of the day.
I gasped when my coach requested that I stop multi-tasking for a week. My deadlines and stress level had creeped up on me again. The stress had gotten so uncomfortable that I was willing to try anything that didn’t add another to-do to my long list.
I found the shift challenging at first. As I drove to the office, I grabbed the cell phone to return a call, then realized that would be multi-tasking. I turned off the phone and even turned off the radio. That was hard. To keep from reverting to multi-tasking, I had to focus more intently on whatever I was doing. I started seeing things I had never noticed before.
As I gave myself permission to do just one thing at a time, I began to relax. The phantom sense of helicopter blades whirring in my head faded away. I let go of trying to accomplish a hundred things today because I had committed to doing one thing at a time. Knowing I could do only one thing, I paused and chose each next task deliberately. That night after dinner I almost enjoyed doing dishes as I focused on why the job needed to be done and how I could do it efficiently.
Over the next days as I continued the experiment, I had the mystical sense of time expanding to permit me to accomplish what really needed to be done. At the end of the experiment I had managed to meet all my deadlines as they arose. More importantly, however, I had regained my serenity.
As I reflected on my experience with some measure of awe, I realized that I had unknowingly engaged in what Buddhists call mindfulness practice. Through that practice I had experienced some of what author Eckhardt Tolle calls “the power of now.” I have shared my experience with others and several have tried creating a “multi-task free” zone themselves. They too report increased peace of mind.
I haven’t completely given up multi-tasking, but I do direct more effort to fully focusing on what I am doing in the moment. If I feel myself building up stress, I go back to doing one thing at a time. Try it. You may be surprised.
Debra Bruce (www.lawyer-coach.com) practiced law for 18 years, before becoming a professionally trained Executive Coach for lawyers. She is Vice Chair of the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas, and the co-founder and past leader of Houston Coaches, the Houston Chapter of the International Coach Federation.