Tim Taylor, a second year trainee solicitor at Hastings Legal reveals his top tips for effective time management to help avoid mental and physical burnout.
If you’re lucky, your traineeship will provide the perfect opportunity to lay the foundations for a long and successful legal career. That’s the theory anyway. Chances are there won’t be many times in our careers when we are afforded such scope to learn, develop and hone our skills. The question is: how do we make the most of this small window of opportunity?
For me, the answer is time; and in particular, how we use and understand time.
What comes to mind when you think of time management? Perhaps it’s writing to-do lists, scheduling meetings, and setting goals. Whilst these activities are undeniably useful if done well, the problem is reality has a canny knack of derailing even the best laid plans. There will be countless days when, come 5pm, your carefully constructed to-do list has barely a scratch on it. There will be a variety of reasons for this, of course, but what seems to be most damaging to productivity, in my experience, are the unforeseen urgent tasks that hijack the working day. That unexpected client meeting that runs over, that task that requires immediate attention, or that spanner in the works that no-one had anticipated but is suddenly your responsibility to fix.
In other words: The Tyranny of the Urgent.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, there are only eight hours in the standard 9-5 work day. When work gets a bit mad, often the default reaction is to either stay late in an attempt to ‘keep your head above water’, or to let the work pile up until inevitably something gives and the floodgates open. Mental and physical burnout, here we come. Sound familiar?
There are many ways to avoid this dire scenario, three of which I’ve discussed below: (i) prepare (ii) plan, and (iii) execute.
1. Mindful preparation ( time management vs. energy management)
First let's consider the difference between time management and energy management.
Without sufficient energy (and by extension sufficient mental focus), trying to implement time management strategies is akin to whistling in the wind. A sports car with no fuel in the tank isn’t much use to anyone. Instead of focusing solely on time spent throughout the day, also consider energy spent in your daily routine.
Looking after your physical and mental wellbeing is crucial to professional longevity. It sounds simple, but basic things like getting enough sleep, regulating caffeine intake to avoid energy peaks and troughs, going for a daily walk to get the body moving, and trying to eat healthily can make all the difference to your energy levels. I’m certainly no doctor, but I’m confident that adopting easily implemented, sustainable habits like these will help prepare you for those tough days at work when it feels like the world is against you.
Turning up to work ‘match fit’ will give you the best possible chance of overcoming those unforeseen obstacles.
2. Effective planning (no time vs. not a priority)
Now that we have enough energy to sustain our mental focus, we can turn to how we plan our time effectively, by way of prioritisation.
The importance of setting goals is a whole topic in itself, so I won’t dwell on it here. However on a day-to-day level, many people tend to use the trusty to-do list, in one form or other, to track their priorities. Any activity that requires attention goes into the to-do list. That’s fine, but without a sense of perspective or strategy, that list can get out-of-hand pretty quickly. Draft document, meet client, buy cat food, send email, progress project, fix problem, order this, reschedule that. We end up thrashing around and scoring off the easy tasks, but not really getting any meaningful work done. Organising a load of filing and tidying up your desk may feel productive, but has it moved you any closer to achieving your goals?
There is little use having tons of energy at work if we have no sense of direction, this is why planning your time effectively is essential. It’s not through lack of time that most jobs don’t get done, but rather through lack of prioritisation. Being an effective planner means being deliberate about what goes into your to-do list in the first place. Think about your priorities, and chart a course accordingly.
3. Efficient execution (my time vs. our time)
Once the preparation and planning is complete, all that is left to do is execute.
If planning is about having the right tasks in your to-do list, then execution is about completing those tasks as efficiency as possible. To maximise our own output, we can prepare and plan as discussed above. Beyond that, there are myriad other tactics that can help boost productivity, such as switching off email notifications, ‘eating the frog’ (ie. doing the hardest thing first), and utilising the Pomodoro technique (well worth looking up!). In fact, there are hundreds of books and podcasts dedicated to the topic. If we are going to take our productivity skills to the next level, however, we also need to utilise the time of others. We need to learn how to efficiently leverage time.
We’re probably all familiar with the standard fee structure of a law firm – a partner charges X per hour, an associate Y per hour, and a trainee Z per hour. This tiered system works well because time is leveraged by way of delegation. Appropriately complex tasks are undertaken by appropriately experienced people.
As a trainee, if you’re lucky enough to have access to dictation facilities, you too have the ability to delegate. Dictation is perhaps the best way to start developing delegation skills as a young lawyer. Yes it’s a bit weird hearing your own voice at first, but the payoff is worth it. Not only can you get more done, but your time is also freed up to focus on higher value tasks that cannot be delegated/dictated, and of course those unforeseen urgent tasks too.
Ultimately, leveraging time is about the right people undertaking the right tasks to maximise overall output. As trainees we begin solely as delegatees, but as we become more experienced, an expectation will emerge for us to become delegators as well. Fully utilising your firm’s dictation facilities can provide vital experience and allow you to get comfortable with leveraging time efficiently, which in turn frees up time to get the important jobs done.
Bringing it all together
Mindful preparation, effective planning and efficient execution are my three suggested steps to help overcome the tyranny of the urgent. Especially when work feels like a bit of a slog, I find that these three steps give me a fighting chance of finished each day in better shape than when I started, no matter what obstacles present themselves.
Tim obtained his First Class LLB from Edinburgh Napier University and Diploma from the University of Edinburgh. Before joining Hastings Legal, he was a Duty Store Manager at Lidl Scotland, Court Production Officer at Lloyds Banking Group, and Senior Legal Analyst at Ashurst LLP. He successfully completed the 2050 Climate Group’s Young Leader Development Programme 2016 and is the founder and chairman of Scottish Borders Young Professionals. He is due to qualify in July 2018.