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Lawyers, use this superpower to banish stress and bring control and focus to your work.

by Cat Moon

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” - Annie Dillard

Stressed out. Burned out. Maxed out.

Which one of these are you, today? (Or, which of these are you not?)

You have too much on your plate. Too many fires to put out. Too many people demanding your attention.

 

But you're a lawyer! Not a firefighter. So get out of firefighting mode.

 

You have, at your disposal, a deceptively simple superpower — one you can use to gain control, and spend your days (and thus your life) focused and aligned. Instead of putting out fires. More on the superpower in a moment. But first things first:

Why do we struggle to find time and focus?

Focus is hard enough, in this digitally-distracting age. On top of this, research shows that many of us waste a lot of time at work, whether intentionally or not.

Lawyers often are particularly prone to spending more time than necessary doing our work, as we reinvent the wheel, fail to delegate, and overlawyer ... and yes, some of this unnecessary effort is a direct result of billable hour pressures. If a partner tells you, an associate, to spend an hour researching an issue, you will spend an hour. Even if you can complete the task in .5. It happens. Every day.

I like to believe most of us aren’t padding our time indiscriminately to meet billable hour targets. So let’s assume we spend more time than necessary in part because we’re not very good at organizing our time and energy to find focus and do deep work.

For most us, there is a primary culprit: we spend our days in reactive mode. We start the day in our inbox. And sometimes we don’t leave it, we’re so “busy” responding to all the demands popping up there. Hours pass. The sky begins to darken. We look up, realize we forgot to eat lunch and didn’t get a damn thing on our to-do list done.

Then we work another three hours, once again missing date night/child’s soccer game/working out, in an effort to do our “real” work. When we’re at our lowest state of energy and effectiveness because we’re exhausted from being in reactive mode all day.

If I didn’t just describe your work life on an even occasional basis, then congratulations! You may stop reading now.

But if you find yourself at day’s end having failed to accomplish your “real” work more than once in a blue moon? Please read on. I have a very simple suggestion — a small experiment for you to run.

Essentially everyone I know who tries this and sticks with it says they feel as if they’ve found a way to manufacture time. And 100% agree they’re less stressed and anxious. Because they’ve regained some control. And it’s this — the ability to gain control and exercise meaningful focus — that is truly a superpower.

Time Blocking: a lawyer superpower.

Really, this is so simple you’re going to feel like you’re not doing anything. But you are. Tweak a few things and realize that your workday doesn’t have to be at the mercy of others, ever again.

An important note: this is your experiment, and my suggestions are but one way to go about time blocking. Use the following as a starting point. Modify as appropriate for you, your workflow, your preferred tools, etc. You’re smart. Be flexible, too.
 

STEP ONE: put everything on your calendar. Time blocking is in essence simply scheduling your entire day. Not just your meetings or calls, but ALL of your work. Put everything on your calendar so you know when you have blocks of time available.

Start with appointments, meetings, conference calls, etc. — all obligations controlled by factors external to you. Then schedule a "My Work" time block — this is when you do your “real” work, e.g. write that brief, draft that contract, finish that research. And you schedule this, just as you would a meeting or call.

And, yes, you can go ahead and check email first thing, if you must. Give yourself a 30-minute block, max. Triage your inbox, with a hard stop after half an hour.

Maybe you have a conference call next. Block off the call time, then add 5 - 10 minutes for time to debrief with yourself about the call, make notes, add follow-ups to your to-do list, etc.

The next hour to 90 minutes to two hours? This is your first block of time for your “real” work. Simply block it off as “My Work.” You react to no one during this time. You do only your work.

Immediately after this block, schedule at least 15 minutes of downtime. Meditate. Listen to a podcast or music. Sneak in some Netflix. Go for a walk. Do whatever you enjoy, that helps you decompress and relax. Why? Because we can focus only for 90 - 120 minutes at a time, thanks to our ultradian rhythm. To do good work, we need to take breaks!

The next block? It can be your Reactive Block. This is when you respond to all the fires burning around you. For example, spend 30 minutes digging around in Outlook for the email from your client with the document attached that you never saved to the client’s file, that a partner is hysterically requesting. (I’ll share another superpower in an upcoming post that will help you avoid the Outlook dig. Forever.)

Give others your time in the Reactive Block. And when the time ends, so does reactive mode.

STEP TWO: Rinse and repeat.

That’s it. Block off time, on your calendar, for ALL of your work. Not just calls and meetings, but the time you spend doing your “real” work. As well as the time you spend reacting to the demands of others.

Yes, there are a few more helpful tricks to time blocking. But not many. Consider these power-ups for the superpower:

PRIORITIZE YOUR WORK. Spend a few minutes going over your “real” work tasks and prioritize what you’re going to focus on during your My Work blocks. This sounds obvious, I know. But how often do you really review your task list and prioritize? Or do you typically focus on fighting fires — dealing with the (seemingly) most urgent thing, until less-urgent things become urgent because you’ve put them off for so long?

Try this: at the end of each day, plan for the next day’s workflow — review your to-do list and figure out what you're going to work on during tomorrow's My Work blocks. Or, review at the beginning of each day if this works better for you. The primary point: do a brief review daily to prioritize your workflow, with a bigger weekly review on Sunday evenings (or Monday mornings). Though maybe just once a week works for you? That’s okay. Remember, this is an experiment, so play around with it to find an ideal flow.

An added bonus: regular reviews are a powerful antidote to stress and anxiety. Simply knowing what you have on your plate and having a plan to get it done? This gives us a sense of control. And makes it much less likely we’ll miss something. (A feeling of lack of control is a key stressor.)

 

TURN OFF DIGITAL DISTRACTIONS. Again, optional, but I don’t know how you will stay focused during My Work blocks if your Outlook, your phone, Twitter, and Instagram are all beeping at you. Turn off notifications.

Why? Because distractions make us dumber. Also, we can only do one thing at a time, and do it well. We can't multitask effectively. So stop trying.

TURN OFF HUMAN DISTRACTIONS. A primary objection to time-blocking I hear: “People expect me to respond immediately to [X].” Well, dealing with reaction-addicted clients and colleagues is part of your little experiment.

Try this: Tell them what you’re doing. That you’re checking email, returning calls, etc. at specific points during the day. And they will hear from you then. They respect when you’re in a meeting and can’t respond immediately. Your working time blocks are no different. So don’t treat them differently. I predict you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how respectful others are of your time boundaries, once communicated (and enforced).

DO YOUR WORK WHEN YOU ARE MOST ENEGERIZED. Schedule your important My Work blocks at times of the day you’re at your sharpest and most focused. A rule of thumb: do the most challenging work first, before energy is depleted by the sheer volume of distractions coming at you. But we’re not all morning people (though research shows most of us are more productive earlier in the day).

If you don’t really know when you’re at your best — which is possible if you're constantly in firefighting mode — then experiment here, too. Shift the My Work blocks to different times of day and pay attention to what works best for you.

The bottom line: Carve out your time for YOUR work. Protect it. Being proactive in your work, and refusing to exist in reactive mode, is a strong antidote to feeling stressed out, burned out, and maxed out — which is exactly what makes time blocking a superpower.

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