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Time Management

Dealing With High- And Low-Payoff Activities

Time management is a key skill for family lawyers to master. The good news is that time management techniques remain fairly constant over time. So you do not need to necessarily search for the newest trick, technique or product (although these do exist). Rather, you need to remember to consistently use what you know.

The challenge with managing time is that it is not a one-time process or an annual event. You must be alert to creeping disorganization and bad habits. Watch out for the little things that keep popping up to steal your time away from what really matters. As you progress in private practice or ascend to partner, the low-payoff little things transform, making them harder to identify. But they are still there.

The busier you become, the greater the challenge. It can be a constant struggle to sift the “important” from the “urgent.” High-payoff activities are those that will provide a significant valuable payoff in the long run. Dealing with high-payoff activities can be difficult, because they are frequently large, complex or time-consuming tasks. The average family lawyer has very little uninterrupted time to concentrate on these sorts of activities, and so they often get delayed, ending up on a back burner. Low-payoff activities are often short, quick and easy to do, hence they crowd out the high-payoff items.


Here is a quick test to determine whether you have been seduced by low-priority tasks, which is when you begin to focus on efficiency at the expense of effectiveness, and begin to speed up in an attempt to cram more into your busy schedule. An efficiency focus sounds like this:

  • Can we speed up this process?
  • It's faster to do it myself, so I will
  • This task needs to be perfect
  • Let's call a meeting about this issue
  • Meeting all deadlines is the goal
  • Doing things right


However, an effectiveness focus sounds like this:

  • Should we be doing this process at all?
  • Who else can I train so I don't have to keep doing it?
  • Is it worth the extra time and effort?
  • Is there an alternative to a costly meeting?
  • Achieving objectives
  • Doing the right things

Managing High-Payoff Activities

  1. Schedule your day around high-payoff activities. High-value activities do not proliferate as quickly as low-payoff items. That is why trying to take care of all the "little things" will suck up your entire day. Schedule low- payoff items in whatever time is left over after focusing on your high-payoff activities.
  2. Leave your immediate work area. When you have an activity that requires concentration, get away from the distractions in your office and on your desk. Use a spare conference room or an absent colleague's desk.
  3. Set deadlines to help create a sense of control. Establish deadlines for completing major milestones of a big case. Those milestones should allow you to finish the activity before the drop-dead date.
  4. Divide the project into very small units. It is easier to find a half-hour here and there throughout the week than it is to find four and a half hours of uninterrupted time.
  5. Stay focused. Choose the time of the day when you are most alert. Use your prime time to attack difficult things that require mental acuity.

Managing Low-Payoff Activities

  1. Delegate when possible. Are you really the best person to do a given task? Discuss with your administrative staff and your paralegals what tasks they feel could be done differently. Or that could become their responsibility. Their answers might surprise you.
  2. Systematize them. Use checklists to help complete routine things more easily and quickly. Create logical systems for handling repetitive tasks.
  3. Lower your standards. What is the minimum acceptable level of quality that can get by for this (lower priority) task? Do the least amount that you can on these items.
  4. Group activities together. Return calls or do paperwork at a set time. Fit them in between waiting times, while you are waiting for a meeting, or for your next appointment.

Every few months, take a hard look at your activities and search out those that take you off track. Keep the end result in mind. Ask yourself, "Can I save time without sacrificing results by changing the frequency, reducing quality standards, adopting new methods, or delegating?" Remember: it's not how fast you move or how long you work, it is what you accomplish and can be proud of that matters.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: odette@SmartWaysToWork.com. Visit us at: www.smartwaystowork.com call: 1-800-599-8463.

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