For Long-Term Success, Use Short-Term Planning
By Mark Powers & Shawn McNalis
Excerpted from Time Management for Attorneys: A Lawyer’s Guide to Decreasing Stress, Eliminating Interruptions & Getting Home on Time by Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis
Weekly planning is the process of taking time to map out your week, so that you are proactively making time for the achievement of both your long-term and short-term goals every day. Research tells us that one hour spent planning will increase your efficiency by a minimum of four hours. Remember this when you are tempted to just jump in to your day or week planning ahead of time doesn’t set you back, it makes you more efficient. It may feel like you are wasting your time, but don’t be misled by your own desire to jump in planning where to jump in and what to focus on are very important.
Before you begin, follow these ground rules to make sure you’re on solid ground right from the start:
Choose the right time. Find a time for your planning session that will not be bumped by court appearances or encroached upon by any other activity. Over what time slot during your week do you have the greatest amount of control? For most attorneys, Monday mornings or Friday afternoons are the best opportunities for a planning session.
Choose the Right Setting
If your office is a place of stress, not a setting for reflection, find a more enjoyable spot (and one that will allow you to use your laptop) where you can focus without distraction. Popular choices among our attorney clients are:
- Home office, patio or deck
- Coffee shop or breakfast place
- The firm’s library
- The firm’s conference room
Review the Big Picture
To start your planning session, review your personal and professional vision statement or list of goals and objectives. They will remind you of the personal life goals you have set for yourself and the strategic goals you have set as stepping stones. Why review? The answer is simple: You will forget. Client demands and everyday urgencies compete for your attention much more successfully than your life goals do. It is a good idea to designate a planning folder and include the following items:
- Personal vision statement
- Strategic goals
- Client list
- To-do list
Finally, have your calendar either physically printed out or virtually available on your laptop or hand-held device. This is critical to your planning process.
Then proceed as follows:
- Open your calendar and review one month out, three weeks out, two weeks out and finally, one week out.
- Note the client meetings, mediations, marketing opportunities, court appearances, and any other events, activities or deadlines on your calendar.
- Work backwards from these events and deadlines by estimating how much preparation is required for each.
- Look at your daily blocks of production time. Note the specific files you will address on your calendar. Make an appointment with yourself to work on the “Smith” file or “Jones” file so that you complete them prior to their deadlines.
Prioritize Before You Schedule
Before we move on, we would like to mention a critically important part of creating your weekly plan. This is the element of prioritization. Attorneys often find themselves overwhelmed by conflicting priorities. This sense of being overwhelmed is created by the barrage of new problems they face each day, and for many is triggered each morning when they look at their seemingly inexhaustible to-do list. You may be able to relate to this syndrome if you find yourself staring at your to-do list in the morning, choosing a task at random and hoping that nothing falls through the cracks while you try to finish it.
Since most attorneys are goal-oriented individuals who strive to do everything at once and do them all well, this is a painful way to work. The simple truth is this: Having too many priorities is the same as having no priorities. In the face of no clear priority, attorneys choose one seemingly urgent, important task that is easily done just to quickly check something off the list. Be aware, however, that urgency is quite often mistaken for importance.
Though many of us are familiar with the concept, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between urgent and important when you are in the midst of many urgent and conflicting priorities. Just because something is urgent does not automatically make it important. Urgent tasks are generally much more compelling than those that are merely important. Think of the squeaky wheels among your clients. You often feel compelled to solve their problems at the expense of more cooperative clients, just because they’re making noise and the good clients are not. When you stock your practice with high-maintenance, impossible to satisfy clients you have introduced a lot of urgency into your life without much long-term gain. In such a practice, it is entirely possible to spend your days responding to the latest client crisis leaving important work undone. At the end of the month you then must face the harsh reality that you spent a great deal of time on non-billable activities. Your profit margin will suffer if you attend just to urgent activities and put off important ones.
Triage Your To-Do List
To keep yourself on top of what is truly important, we recommend that you triage your to-do list. To do this, examine all of the items on your list and then rank them according to their importance. How can you distinguish what is most important among the myriad tasks on the list? You begin by looking for what we call the A priority tasks, or the highest priority tasks. You can identify a task as A priority if one or more of these four questions receive a “yes” answer.
Does this task forward your long-term goals?
Long terms goals are those that come from your overall vision such as buying an office building, learning a new practice area or cultivating new referral sources. Read your vision statements prior to planning your week in order to remind yourself of what is truly important.
Are there pending legal deadlines associated with these files?
Block out time for these tasks on your computer or delegate them to staff. These time sensitive issues are extremely important and must be handled in a timely fashion.
Are there client expectations attached to this file or task?
Have you made a promise to a client, for example, to complete something by the end of the week? Always calendar these promises. These are your “soft” deadlines. Though they aren’t legal deadlines, they are nonetheless very important in terms of maintaining the confidence a client has in you. Monitor yourself to make sure you aren’t consistently over promising to the client and under delivering. It is much better to under promise and then over deliver with your clients.
Are there cash flow needs that should dictate your next step?
You may interfere with your own cash flow by not focusing on production. Many attorneys are the bottleneck in the system due to the number of files that accumulate in their office and remain untouched.
Once you have pulled out the A priority tasks, look for the remaining tasks on your to-do list these are the B and C tasks. How do you tell the difference? Here are the guidelines for those tasks:
B priority tasks that do not require your unique talents or abilities and can be easily delegated.
C priority tasks that are not worth your time and attention and should absolutely be delegated or delayed as long as possible until you can deal with them at your leisure.
Take Priority-Based Action: Delegate, Eliminate or Schedule
Now that you have triaged your to-do list, you have a method to plan intelligently. Delegate the B priority tasks and seek to eliminate as many of the non-essential C priority tasks as possible. Next, label the A priority tasks with A1 (most important), 2 or 3 and take action accordingly. Let actions associated with your vision statement, your legal deadlines and client expectations drive your decisions.
Though it may sound like work initially, once you are in the habit of triaging your tasks, your to-do list won’t seem like one long, indistinguishable roster. When prioritized, it becomes more helpful because you have identified the truly important tasks and won’t be tempted to pick out tasks at random just to knock something off the list. Take a little time at the beginning of each week to use this approach and lift yourself out of the daily game of catch-up in which you may find yourself.
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