Moving on from to-do lists: A matter of time

A group of business people walking down the stairs.

As featured in the Law Society’s Managing for Success magazine – July 2022 edition

How do we effectively manage our time while accounting for client meetings, internal meetings, drafting time, personal time and the very many bits and pieces that overcrowd our days? What are the strategies that people who effectively get done what they want to get done employ?

This article summarises the many conversations, trials and errors and reflections on what works well when we strategize time management. Before exploring what these effective strategies are, I will deal with one bit of pars destruens: why to-do lists do not work.

1. To-do lists lack real consideration of our priorities

The effort to condense the totality of what needs to get done and our many work demands is often captured into a to-do list. Managing time is, in a way, an inaccurate description of the task: It does not do what it says on the tin. What we need to manage is, above all, ourselves, our priorities and our choices and the time we allocate to these is a by-product of this very personal system.

I will, however, use the term ‘time management’ because it has a widely accepted focus on one of the key enablers: how we employ our time.

Rarely do to-do lists follow a clearly crafted priority system. Indeed, if we want to effectively manage our time, we regularly need to ask ourselves: Out of these 8 or 15 tasks, which one is my number one priority? Prioritising involves deciding what comes first and not dealing with tasks ‘as they come’ or ‘as they are due’. It involves regularly mapping out all of our tasks and ranking them in order of importance or urgency. If we receive 100+ emails a day, prioritising allows us to no longer feel anxious about unanswered emails; those emails are unanswered because they can wait. In case of fitting in social moments, if we determine that the lunch we re-re-rescheduled is not a priority, the frustration fades and allows us to plan more realistically. When we spell out and rank our priorities, our time management becomes priority-led. Time is allocated purposefully and our main benefit is that we experience a clear sense of direction.

2. How can we put in place a system that recognises our priorities?

Priorities are, ultimately, action-translations of our vision and goals. If, say, expanding our practice is priority one for 2022, everything that contributes to this goal is a priority. If launching a new team is the priority, every work that support that ambition is a priority.

When we practice focusing on our priorities and set aside interferences, we elevate our focus and produce better work. We enjoy what we do. Important and urgent matters can be organised using, for example, the Covey Time Management Matrix. This identifies 4 quadrants for dealing with our matters: important and urgent (an incoming deadline, the completion of a transaction), important but not urgent (quality time for setting our goals), not important but urgent (administrative deadlines, some pressing meetings) and not-important and not-urgent (trivial matters, browsing on the internet).

Some important matters are not necessarily urgent (for example, blocking time in our agenda each weekend to plan the coming week) but are the ones that mainly contribute to our personal and professional development.

Priorities work effectively when briefly reviewed daily (to keep focus) and set weekly (to ensure good allocation of time to priorities). Three priorities a week is usually good enough to keep focus and peel away the unnecessary. This creates a system that stress-tests what matters to us and also offers that energising feeling of being not a human-doer but the captain of our ship.

3. What are the most effective time management strategies?

I’ll now recap a number of strategies that allow for devoting quality time to your priorities.

  • Meeting with yourself 15 minutes a week to plan your time

Making the habit of regularly reserving 15 minutes a week for meeting with yourself is one of the greatest steps you can take to improve your time management. Consider what you want to get done next week. Zoom out even further: What do you need to get done this month or this quarter so that you can break down your week planning. Bring a continuous-improvement mindset to time management; for example, reflect on what went well last week and what could be done better, as well as what part of the week you enjoyed the most. Do I need anyone to support me in my next priorities? Do I need anyone to keep me on track? A lot of our time goes into inefficient schedule planning and replanning, doing and undoing, when we get our priorities wrong. Days at the end of the week (Friday or Sunday evening) usually work well for checking in because they offer the perspective of the week that is gone alongside the week ahead of us. Keeping the same time every week builds a habit – a great time-saving habit!

  • Delegating effectively and learning when it’s ok to check out

Could you delegate actions in connection to, let’s say, 20% of the emails you receive daily? Delegating is part of putting in place a system whereby we assign some of our tasks to someone else, with different degrees of involvement from our side. The different degree of involvement/supervision is where the potential to generate additional time for doing more important things lies. On the contrary, and if we fall into poor delegation, excessive involvement increases our stress level and makes us flip back to us doing the thing – we are micromanaging. Micromanagement creates a lose-lose type of delegation because we keep getting closely involved; we don’t truly make more time and the party who assumes the responsibility doesn’t really have a chance to perform it. Delegating effectively is creating opportunities for us as the delegator and for the person tasked with taking care of the matter we delegate. It has the potential to build working relationships, develop experience at both ends and fine tune our very personal criteria for deciding when it’s good to delegate.

  • Leaving time for unplanned time

Prioritising creativity is challenging. But it’s mostly by creating space in our days and by feeling that we have time to extend our thinking that we can come up with new ideas and allow our minds to expand. Creativity comes in the form of new solutions to old problems, reframing of existing paradigms and willingness to start something new. When our time management works, we are able to accommodate unplanned time – and that’s where our creativity begins.

  • Practising saying no wisely and unapologetically

It takes a good understanding of our prioritisation system (and hence our values) to say a confident ‘no’ and feel comfortable and unapologetic about it. We prune out the unnecessary to focus on what matters. We make better decisions when we are focused because we don’t zigzag around obstacles and juggle continuous requests that make us feel depleted at the end of the day. We plan how much time we want or need to devote to what is important, urgent and needs taking care of.

  • Allocating hard work to when you know you are most productive

For example, is it first thing in the morning or late at night? Do you know which is the most productive day of your week? Perhaps midweek Wednesday? Do you allocate your hardest tasks to the time you are most productive, focused and capable of dealing with a matter that feels to be an uphill marathon? If something is hard (either because it is complex or brand new), dealing with it when you are mentally and physically at your fittest increases your chances of success (vis-à-vis avoidance game and catching up) significantly. Similarly, distributing repetitive and more boring tasks during those hours when we can still perform but are not most effective (for example, after lunch) helps get things done in small-sized chunks without occupying our best time. The best way to resource and empower ourselves to get done what we want to get done is to work with our strengths, not against them.

  • Using self-compassion to bring things into perspective

When a lot of urgent work needs to be completed during the same timeframe, we can choose to step back for a moment. Breathe in self-compassion and enter another perspective: What would a person who normally supports you advise you to do? Constantly tackling urgent work brings us into a predominantly reactive mode, builds stress and, in the long run, may result in burnout. Don’t underestimate alternatives: delegation, re-prioritisation, challenge of the status quo on your own and together with others you trust. When we work on self-imposed deadlines, let’s also challenge ourselves: Are these deadlines truly fit for purpose? Ultimately, it’s important and not urgent work that gives us a sense of accomplishment and purpose in life – including in our personal lives.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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