You can’t really manage time – but you can manage your activities to increase your productivity. 

By Allison C. Shields, Practice Advisor

time-management-tips200x300You can’t really “manage” time. The only thing you can control is what you do with your time: in other words, your activities. Here are a few ways to manage your activities to increase your productivity.

Give Up Multitasking

If you multitask, you probably think that you’re being productive. But the truth is that you can’t accomplish two things that require you to expend mental energy at once; you can only do one at a time. When you “multitask,” what you’re really doing is constantly switching between one activity and another. In his book The Myth of Multitasking, author Dave Crenshaw calls this “switchtasking.”

Multitasking – or switchtasking – will always cost you time; you will always be less effective if you are multitasking than if you focus on one thing at a time. According to “The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time” (Harvard Business Review, March 14, 2012), author Tony Schwartz points out that when you switch from doing a primary task to doing something else, you increase the time it takes to finish the original task by 25%.

Most lawyers will be unable to eliminate multitasking entirely, but working more proactively can significantly enhance both productivity and daily job satisfaction. Some strategies for doing so include:

  • Set specific times when you are available for meetings or to check in with those you supervise (or ask your supervisor for a time when you can meet so you aren’t trying to catch them whenever they are in the office).
  • Plan ahead: decide which tasks are priorities and be sure you are prepared for each task before you begin.
  • Work uninterrupted for a block of time on high-level priorities – during these times, don’t let yourself be interrupted by drop-ins, the phone, or email. If necessary, leave your office to accomplish this, or tell people you are unavailable for a 60-90 minute block of time.

The next time you’re in the midst of work, before you decide to answer that phone or wave that staff member into your office, consider the potential cost to your productivity.

Do the Worst First

Let’s face it – not everything you do as a lawyer is enjoyable; not every case is interesting and not every client is a joy to work with. But the more you avoid the tasks, clients, and cases that you dislike, the less productive you’re likely to be because while you’re working on other things, that terrible task is lurking in the back of your mind and distracting you.

The tasks you dread or dislike the most may be precisely the tasks you should do first. Get them out of the way and keep them from cluttering up your thinking and pulling focus from the other things you’re working on.

Once you get started, the offending task might not be as bad as you thought it would be. But even if it’s awful, you’ll feel better when it has been completed. You’ll be free to focus on everything else that needs to be done – and you’ll find it is much easier to do so when your mind is clear of thoughts about that nasty task or file.

Use the Power of Three

The principle behind the Power of Three is that the brain easily grasps and remembers ideas in threes. But once we start adding more, we start to become overwhelmed.

If you limit your daily to-do list to three main items, more often than not, you can accomplish all three. And that feeling of accomplishment translates into higher productivity and a better overall feeling about your day – powering the next day’s work and so on.

To use the Power of Three, ask yourself: “What three things will I do today so that, if I accomplish nothing else, I will feel that I had a productive day?”

Write down your three daily goals or tasks to help focus your attention on those tasks and cement your commitment to getting them done.

Schedule Time to Complete Work

Your calendar most likely contains court dates, client meetings, and other appointments that occur on a specific date or at a specific time. It also probably includes deadlines, such as the last day to file a motion or brief, the day you promised the client you would provide them with a draft of a document, etc. But some tasks don’t have built-in deadlines. In those cases, you need to create your own deadlines and document them.

But creating and documenting deadlines is only the first step. Next, you’ve got to actually do the work: you need to write the brief, prepare for the client meeting, draft the documents, write the marketing copy, etc.

Instead of just entering a deadline into your calendar and adding the task or project to your to-do list, schedule a specific time on your calendar to do the work. Some people call this “time-blocking.” You don’t necessarily need to block all of the time necessary to complete the task at once; try simply blocking time to complete the first step necessary to move the project forward. When that is complete, schedule the next step, and so on.

Treat each time block as you would an appointment with a client. If something more pressing arises that you must do during the time scheduled to complete the task, instead of simply not doing the work you’d planned, move the appointment to another place on your calendar.

Create a Daily Plan

Do you have a plan for the day, or do you constantly just react to what comes up – emails, telephone calls, or other interruptions? If you’re just reacting, you’re probably not as productive as you could be.

Before every day, week, or month begins, you should know what you plan to accomplish. When you have a plan, it’s much easier to say no to interruptions.

Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed or paralyzed by the amount of work you need to accomplish. Instead, determine daily which actions or tasks are the most important and make sure those take center-stage in your day.

Next, estimate the amount of time each activity will take to accomplish. Don’t be stingy with your estimate; estimating too little time will add stress and confusion to your schedule.

Finally, decide on a specific time when you will perform that activity and physically schedule it on your calendar. Make sure you leave some empty space or “downtime” on your calendar in addition to the personal and family time that you schedule.

Be flexible: recognize that the schedule is not entirely set in stone. It is likely that there will be last-minute emergencies, unforeseen circumstances, or client crises that must be addressed. Build in a cushion for the unexpected.

The advantage to setting specific times to accomplish important tasks is that as soon as the crisis or emergency has passed, you can return to your schedule without missing a beat.


For more time management tips, see How to do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing your Productivity and Improving your Bottom Line (ABA Law Practice Division, 2014) by Allison C. Shields, Esq. and Daniel J. Siegel. Allison is the president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., which provides practice management, leadership, marketing and business development, coaching and consulting services for lawyers and law firms nationwide.