Firm Blog

Time Management: Are Seven Days A Week Enough?

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Michael Bogdanow, Managing Partner, Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow, P.C.

People often complain that seven days a week aren’t enough to get done what they need to do. It’s a good thing they don’t live in the Belgian Congo of the 1950’s. In Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel “The Poisonwood Bible,” a missionary family in the Congo encountered a society built around a five day week. In 1929, the Soviet Union also tried a five day week. The point is that we we create systems and structures for time. We should control time, and not allow time to control us. Here are some suggestions.

View time as coming in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Make sure your activity matches the shape and size of the time you have to work with. You only have twenty minutes until you are leaving for lunch? Fill that time with a twenty minute +/- project, and not a ten minute or one hour one.

Learn from your grocery store: give yourself an express lane. You can knock off several quick projects when you arrive at work. There’s no reason for a five minute project to be postponed until the end of the day – when it will then get postponed again, because you can’t postpone the 5:50 commuter train.

Prioritize. Do you gravitate to the fun tasks and postpone the can’t-really-call-them-fun ones? Great, it sounds like you are a human being. But perhaps the really enjoyable project isn’t due for several weeks, isn’t as important as the one you are trying (successfully) to avoid and won’t require nearly as much time. Postponing an important project, one that may not be among your top ten favorites, only makes it worse. It leaves you insufficient time to do it well, and it hangs over you like a cloud until it is done. Be objective, and make time decisions based on priorities.

View time as a collection of beautiful, small, red bricks. When Tolstoy began War and Peace, not one word of it had been written – by the end, manuscripts of his drafts totaled nearly 4,000 pages. Thinking about writing 4,000 pages could be daunting, but thinking about laying the first brick, and then the next one, is manageable. Your lengthy appellate brief can be written, but it will take a lot of time. So be consistent. If the brief is going to take you 100 hours to research and write, and it’s due in 50 days, the math isn’t so complex. Don’t try to write it in the final week. You’ll have to write too quickly, something else will come up and you won’t have enough time, or you’ll go to an overpriced, well respected restaurant with a name you can’t pronounce and get food poisoning, which will slow down the brief writing process. Instead, consistently allocate a few hours per work day, and perhaps a full day whenever possible (which is rare). This will ensure that even if something else comes up at the end, it won’t present a major obstacle to finishing the brief.

Delegate. Whether you are a young associate or the most senior member, there are tasks that you should pass on to someone else. If you are an associate at a law firm, think about whether you are doing something a paralegal could be doing, and discuss it with your supervisor. He or she may appreciate that you are trying to be time efficient with your time and the time of your firm. As a senior partner, you may think it is easier to “just do it yourself.” But sometimes it doesn’t make sense for you to be doing what an associate, assistant or secretary could do, it’s not a good use of the firm’s resources. Spend your time doing what you should do, and delegate other activities.

Plan. A stitch in time saves more than nine, but “a stitch in time saves twenty-seven” just isn’t very catchy. A house painter who puts time up front into washing, prepping and priming will do a much better job than one who rushes in to painting. It’s the same with a brief: plans and outlines will not only improve the quality of the brief, but will also make writing it much more time efficient. But planning doesn’t mean you should be a machine; you still need to be flexible when you write. Be objective and honest, and if the argument or structure you envisioned didn’t work as well as you expected – change it.

Pause. As Robert Grudin said in his wonderful book Time and the Art of Living, “If there is any point in the course of a project when stopping and resting is particularly advisable, it is just before we put the thing into final form.” Grudin recognized that this will defuse “potentially destructive haste” and allow for “a new perspective.”

Time efficiency doesn’t mean working all the time. On the contrary, a healthy, productive work life requires breaks: daily, weekly and yearly. Some professionals also take sabbatical years every seven years. I meditate every day, try to take some form of Sabbath on the weekend, and some breaks during the year. We all need breaks to keep us refreshed and positive – which in turn makes us more productive.

My friend David Yas recently reminded me of Tom Hanks’ line in Castaway, playing the part of Federal Express manager Chuck Noland: “Time rules over us without mercy.” Look what happened to Chuck! Let’s prove him wrong, and, with some mercy, let’s rule over our time.

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