How the busiest people get so much done

Lawyers in City firms can regularly work in excess of a twelve hour day and while most accept this is what they signed up for many lament how difficult it is to make plans outside of work and stick to them. Yet medical studies show that regularly working long or antisocial hours can lead to burnout or impair physical or mental health. Top lawyers need to be in shape mentally and physically and this is only possible if they manage their time effectively.

Here are some strategies I use with my clients to help them manage their workload, stay focused and productive.

Work out what are your priorities

The goal is to achieve at work whilst still being able to enjoy a life outside of work. If at this point you are thinking, there simply aren’t enough hours in the week for both, watch Laura Vanderkam’s TedTalk “How to gain control of your free time.” Based on studies of successful women who also have a fulfilling personal life, Vanderkam argues, we need to stop trying to save bits of time here and there in order to do the things we want and work out what our priorities are and focus only on those tasks that contribute to them.

Time management expert, Stephen Covey, illustrates this point by asking clients to imagine a large bucket. Put four large rocks in it and the bucket appears full. But you can still pour in some gravel and then sand which fills around the rocks and now it is really full. Repeat the experiment in a different order, put the sand in first then the gravel. You’ll find it’s only possible to get two of the rocks in leaving two out. If we don’t prioritise what’s important our time will be consumed with less important tasks.

The rocks are the important things in your role that really add value and align to your department’s goals and the firm’s strategy. They should also reflect as much possible the areas you excel at. The gravel might be meetings or responding to requests from others, the sand, those parts of our role that do not add value. We can’t change the size of our bucket, which equates to the number of hours in a day or week, so we need to work out what our rocks are and make sure they go in our bucket first, each day, each week.  Then let some of the gravel and sand fill in around.

Do, delegate, or dump

Junior lawyers often have competing calls on their time which can be a challenge to manage. Many of my clients find the Eisenhower Matrix a helpful framework to prioritise requests of their time and manage expectations when working on multiple deals with different partners and clients.

Draw a box and divide it into four quadrants. Place urgent and important tasks in quadrant one. These require our immediate attention and can work towards fulfilling long term goals, typically a deadline or a crisis. In quadrant two place your rocks, tasks that don’t have a pressing deadline but are important work or personal goals. You can plan when you work on these, although there will be some occasions when we need to work on them urgently.

Successful people focus on these important items and not just what is deemed urgent, indeed paying attention to these can help to reduce the number of urgent tasks you have.

Beware of quadrant three which contains urgent but not important tasks. While these may demand your immediate attention and help others they don’t help accomplish your goals. Politely decline the majority of these or delegate. The last box is for tasks that are not urgent or important, these are time wasters, so wherever possible dump them.

This matrix can be applied as effectively to your personal life. Work out your non-negotiables and take time to identify what is important to you both inside and outside of work and prioritise these with laser precision. Stay in the office when it is critical that you do so and have the confidence to leave when your work is done and being present really isn’t what’s required. You will give others the impression that you are efficient with your time and you’ll be happier and more productive for doing so.

Emma Spitz is a Director at the Executive Coaching Consultancy.