Exercising reasonable diligence, providing competent representation, and clearly and timely communicating with clients are critical professional responsibilities. When these ethical duties are neglected, lawyers are vulnerable to missing deadlines, producing sub-par work product, getting angry telephone calls from frustrated clients, and being reported to the bar disciplinary agency.
How do lawyers combine the essential skills of diligence, competence and communication to get important tasks done well and on time? How do they resist distractions, minimize interruptions, clarify their focus areas, and make purposeful progress on their highest priorities?
One essential productivity technique is time blocking. Also known as time boxing, this involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.
Here are the 5 steps to implement time blocking to get essential tasks and projects done, while weeding out the non-essentials:
1. Do a brain dump
The feeling of overwhelm comes with having too many goals to reach and carrying around too many ideas in your head. By recording your to-dos, intentions, and plans in a notebook, on a sheet of paper, or in an electronic app like Evernote, you can capture all the things that occupy your thoughts.
Pick a certain day of the week (e.g. Sunday morning or Friday afternoon) to list out the stuff – small tasks, big projects, short-term goals, and long-term projects – that take up mental space. Strive to get everything out in one session, although you may add items to the list sporadically, as they pop into your mind.
The brain dump is the first step to figuring out what to prioritize and get done within a certain time frame, as well as what to delegate, defer or drop altogether.
The process will also help you organize your projects and break them down into small, manageable steps (next actions) toward the desired outcome. If your list includes “write legal brief for X matter,” jot down the individual tasks involved in completing it. These include reviewing the file, narrowing down the legal issues, creating an outline, doing a first draft, and revising and editing to produce a final draft.
By capturing the steps it will take for you to reach an objective effectively, you can start to organize your projects, create a concrete action plan, and begin to make progress through time blocking.
The brain dump leaves you with random priorities. You then need to decide which are your must-dos and, on a daily basis, focus on the three most important tasks (MITs) or the one big thing that will make the most noticeable difference. Narrowing down your top priorities gives you room to deal with emergencies, delays, interruptions, and distractions outside your control.
The Priority Matrix – also known as Eisenhower’s Urgent-Important Principle – is a useful tool for prioritizing significant, time-sensitive projects, building necessary knowledge and skills, and letting go of the distractions. It distinguishes between importance and urgency. Important tasks contribute to long-term accomplishment. Urgent tasks require immediate attention.
The system includes four different quadrants that enable you to prioritize tasks based on their importance and urgency. It reminds you that not every task is created equal and you may decide whether to tackle it now or defer it.
The Priority Matrix involves putting your tasks in one of four quadrants:
|QUADRANT 1: Important + Urgent.
Examples: filing a legal brief by the deadline; appearing for a court hearing; attending a scheduled appointment with an important client
Significant, time-sensitive projects
|QUADRANT 2: Important, But Not Urgent (at least not yet)
Examples: writing and publishing an article; preparing for a presentation; taking a course in your field; evaluating your work
Knowledge learning and skills development; planning and strategizing; mindful reflection and purposeful breaks
|QUADRANT 3: Urgent (usually to someone else), But Not (always) Important
Examples: dealing with your boss’ last-minute request, attending an impromptu meeting, handling a colleague’s need to “pick your brain”
Time-pressured distractions and interruptions and random communications (like telephone calls, emails, text messages)
|QUADRANT 4: Not Urgent, and Not Important
Examples: checking social media, surfing the web for news and videos, online shopping
Mindless activities and time wasters
3. Schedule priorities like appointments
After deciding on your top priorities (big rocks), your growth-based projects (pebbles) and recurring tasks that may become emergencies if you neglect them too long (sand), you next set a focused block of time to deal with them. Schedule the time blocks on your calendar at the start of your day or at the end of your day.
Be sure to match the task with your energy level, personal circumstances, and external environment. For example, do your deep work when your mental clarity and attention span are at its peak, you have the fewest interruptions, and you have access to a quiet workspace (or can at least choose your background noise). Shallow work can be done when your energy is low (e.g. afternoon or end of day), you are more distraction-prone, and your workspace is noisier and more chaotic.
Estimate how long a task will take and strive to carve out the ideal amount of time to spend on a particular activity. For complicated tasks that require deep thinking and high concentration, you could start with an hour and work your way up to two or three hours as you build your focus muscle. For shallow tasks, limit the time you spend on them to 25 minutes.
The Pomodoro Technique is one way to develop the skill to concentrate on one task at a time. First, you identify the task to do. Second, you set a timer (typically 25 minutes). Third, you work on the task only until the timer goes off. After the timer rings, you check off your task. And if you give in to interruptions and distractions (e.g. checking emails, getting a snack), you reset the timer.
If you have fewer than four check marks, take a short break (5 minutes), then go to step 2. If you have at least four check marks, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, and do the steps all over again.
Studies show our ultradian rhythm allows our brain to focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs a break. So take purposeful, necessary breaks that involve stretching, hydrating, and calming your mind. Engage in rest and reflection that truly allow you to decompress and reset. Go outside for a walk, meditate, read a funny story or listen to instrumental music.
4. Eat the frog before the candy
In Eat That Frog, author Brian Tracy writes, “Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it.” He writes:
The first rule of frog eating is this:
If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.
The second rule of frog eating is this:
If you have to eat a live frog at all, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at it very long.
If you have two important tasks, start with the more difficult one. And take immediate or prompt action rather than mull over it for too long. Tackle your major task – the one that’s high-value but you’ve been postponing – first thing, when your willpower is at its peak.
Be intentional about when you check your emails, watch online videos, scroll through web pages, and engage with social media. Make it as hard as possible to reach for your digital devices at any time of the day. Avoid them first thing after you wake up (when you ought to be gearing for your most significant projects), and right before bedtime (when you ought to be winding down and clearing your mind).
You don’t have to respond to emails, telephone calls and text messages as soon as they come in or within second or minutes. By end of day or next day is usually more than enough in most cases. Go online during chunks of predetermined time blocks on your own schedule. That way, you stay responsive and connected without being bombarded by digital distractions throughout the day.
Before you start high-focus tasks, close your web browsers and keep your smartphone out of sight – preferably in another room – with the Do Not Disturb mode on. (If you’re expecting a truly important call, you can set your phone to have it go through.)
While you’re engaged in deep work, stay away from social media, online news feeds and other digital distractions that clutter your mind. If you feel the urge to go online, remind yourself that your time block is for real work or purposeful breaks.
To reduce digital temptations altogether, remove automatic alerts, like the pop-up messages and sound alerts you get each time a text, or email comes in. Disable push notifications from social media. Try online filters and website blockers like FocusMe (paid service), Freedom (paid service) or StayFocused (free service for Google Chrome users).
Another way to tackle your MITs or one big thing is to theme your days. Set aside a day to concentrate on a high-cognitive demand task, such as writing an article, studying and analyzing a complex issue, following up and communicating with important clients, and making progress on a particular matter.
Block out time for your miscellaneous, low-cognitive demand tasks that require attention. Batch similar activities like replying to random inquiries from prospects and responding to requests for information or updates from clients.
5. Review whether actions reflect priorities
Do an honest assessment of your daily actions to determine whether you’re addressing your real priorities or just getting distracted with busy work.
Keep an activities log and record when you did each task and how much time you spent on it. Are you investing more time than necessary on low-cognitive, shallow work that contributes little to your success? Does the task appropriately align with your energy and focus levels? Have you been doing your MITs or one big task first thing or do you procrastinate on what you really need to be doing? Are you overscheduling and failing to build margins or leave white space in your calendar?
Tracking your time raises awareness of how much is spent on the meaningful versus the meaningless. It gives you a visual cue of important areas that need your attention. It motivates you to drop time wasters and energy drainers that steer you away from your preferred path. You learn to rework your plan and modify your scheduling to keep yourself accountable, stay on task, and make progress on the most important matters.
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By taking the 5 steps to time blocking, you get to work on your important, high-value tasks, free of distractions and interruptions, without neglecting the routine, low-value tasks. In effect, you set strategic deadlines and cultivate productive habits that enable you to get the right things done effectively and efficiently.
Time blocking helps you develop long bouts of focus on complex problems and increases your flow state. It encourages you to batch small activities into restricted time blocks, instead of having them eat up your precious day.
Use time blocking to make steady progress and avoid procrastination on significant, time-sensitive matters (Rule 1.3, diligence); build knowledge and skills and prepare adequately for representation (Rule 1.1., competence); and communicate clearly and deliberately with your clients (Rule 1.4, communication).
To learn more, read the related article, Deadlines & Daily Habits: Why Time Blocking Works.
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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.
The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance.