Another Way For Lawyers to Think About Time Management

Law students, lawyers and judges are always pursuing time.  Watches on our wrists act more like compasses than time keepers as they point us in directions we must march.  A search on Amazon for “Time Management” books resulted in 632 titles.  The wizards of time who penned these templates for success cover familiar ground: organization, prioritization and scheduling. 

Yet much about the practice of law is fear driven: dire consequences will follow should we fail to get things done.  Perhaps that’s why there are over six hundred books on the subject, many purchased by lawyers, and scores of articles on the topic for lawyers on the run. 

“That’s just the way things are” is the legal profession’s anthem to the status quo of fear driven law. Time management isn’t embraced so much as an empowering experience, but more as a life preserver. I’m not going to offer any “solutions” to time management, at least in the traditional sense.  If you need the more “how to” remedies, check out these books: “Time Management In an Instant: 60 Ways to Make the Most of Your Day” and “The Time Trap: The Classic Book on Time Management.”  Here are some  helpful articles on time management for lawyers:  “How to Use Effective Time Management” and “Do You Have Time? A Few Thoughts about Time Management for Attorneys.”  There is also a website devoted to time management for lawyers called “Time Management for Lawyers.”  On the site you’ll find plenty of articles on this topic.

We often don’t think of time management as a reflection of our self-worth, but it is.  Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, M.D., author of The Road Less Travelled, once wrote: “Until you value yourself, you will not value your time.  Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.”

How much, we must ask, do lawyers value themselves as they slug through the ten hours a day or more they spend at their jobs?  If it’s primarily about the money, the danger is that they can become defined by the almighty $ and all it can buy.  That’s dispiriting and depressing, yet so often a reality for lawyers.  By frittering away their days not fully and passionately engaged in what they are doing, lawyers are devaluing the totality of who they are.

Lawyers lose the perspective that all of us only have 1440 minutes in a day and when they’re gone, baby they’re really gone.  As the novelist Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” We all have financial obligations of one sort of another.  But if we funnel all of our energy and time into meeting this one aspect of reality, sorrow will surely follow.  At the end of our lives, do we want to look back and think that our lives have been spent managing our time to gain more status, power and money?  To do so doesn’t necessarily make us “bad” people. I would suggest that it reflects a lifetime of little awareness; an inability or difficulty to separate the trivial from the truly important events of our lives.  Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

Getting things done moves us through our days. But, we have to make time to savor these experiences both large and small. Making the resolution to do so is a noble. But the degree to which we adhere to this goal often waxes and wanes – as do our earnest plans to watch less T.V., eat better and exercise after our morning coffee.  The waning could because we are discouraged, tell ourselves that we’re not particularly well disciplined or some other plausible excuse.

I have come to believe that the reason we don’t savor our legal experiences is because we have defined success too narrowly. We tend to buy into the clearly defined and conventional ideas of success offered up by the legal establishment.  For too many lawyers this involves waiting for successful moments to happen and trudging through their days.  As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes warned, “Many people die with the music still in them.  Why is this so?  Too often it is because they are getting ready to live.  Before they know it, time runs out.”

Living the music in you involves learning to be more process than product driven; as equally concerned with the journey as the destination.

We shouldn’t think of time management as just a good skill to develop, but also as something we are going to do because we value ourselves. Many “how to” books on time management fail to make us better at managing our affairs because some lawyers don’t like what they’re required to do to keep their jobs. How then do you “manage” work that you’re not crazy about doing in the first place? 

To be honest, I don’t think you can over the long haul.  Whether we recognize it or not, there will be a steep price for us to pay if we go down this path.  We can’t keep doing things over a long period of time driven by fear and anxiety with impunity.  The bill always comes due.  Our bodies and minds keep a tally of how we have treated them.  If we have ignored their carnal needs for love, affection, rest, exercise and purpose, in a sense we have betrayed them.  The result is often exhaustion, stress related illnesses, anxiety disorders and depression.

Let’s begin anew.  A New Year is around the corner.  Let’s start to think of time management as not just something to make us more productive, but as a way to learn to take care of ourselves.  Built into our time management must be time for ourselves.  I created my own personalized “Self-Care Tool Kit”.  Each of you should have one of these in your emotional garage.  When I felt helpless in my depression, I would pull out my lists of things I could act on to help me feel better.   Acting on these things was also a way to demonstrate to myself that I wasn’t helpless, a common cognitive distortion with depression. 

Try not to think about time management as getting things done so much as getting you going.  It can be enormously difficult for people with depression to finish projects.  In my experience, however, it is even more difficult for them to begin.  They often have a sense of being lost and not knowing how to start a task.  I would sit at my desk and look out the window waiting for the angels to move my fingers on my keyboard.   I viewed all tasks as an all or nothing proposition – another cognitive whammy that depression throws at us.  Against the steep benchmark of getting everything done during a depression, I would do nothing.

I learned to retool my approach.  The only thing that worked was to become very concrete and deliberate about work.  I began to pay attention and make an inventory of what did and didn’t help me get things done.  Sitting at my desk pounding out a brief for three hours didn’t work when I first experienced depression.  Working on the same brief for a half hour, stopping to return two phone calls and then a 10 minute coffee break did.  This sounds simplistic, but it’s a testament to how small changes in our behavior can change the character of our days.

Make a list of ways in which you currently work.  What are the obstacles?  Some of those problems are pragmatic; some of them are more existential. See time management as another way to value yourself.  You’re going to manage your time because you need to practice valuing yourself.

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2 thoughts on “Another Way For Lawyers to Think About Time Management

  1. I didn’t ponder this much when first posted, but since then I’ve been thinking about it.

    When under great stress, I have a heck of a time getting started. I don’t know why, but I really do. I don’t know where the time goes, when in that frame of mind.

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