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Husnara Begum, editor & careers consultant

Time is arguably one of our most precious resources. It’s non-recyclable because once it’s gone it’s gone forever. Therefore, it is vitally important to use every hour of each day wisely. Strong time management skills, as well as the ability to prioritise and where appropriate delegate or indeed say NO, are especially important for solicitors because it’s a well-known fact that most of you often have to work long hours whilst juggling a heavy workload with competing deadlines. What’s more, saying there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done simply won’t cut it with clients and/or senior colleagues.

Thankfully, time management is another essential soft skill that almost anyone can master even those of you who leave finishing your essay until the eleventh hour when the internet is most likely to let you down and the printer has run out of paper or ink or worse still both. Effective time management should also help positively impact the standard and quality of your legal work because it’s about working smart and focussing your efforts on tasks that are both urgent and important.

Below are some of most helpful time management tips I’ve come across since focusing on skills training and wish someone had told me about when I was a trainee solicitor.

Eat that frog!

Are you the type of person who keeps putting off your biggest and most important tasks? Do you watch it slide down your to-do list as you dedicate your time tackling the easier or more frivolous items in your in-tray. Then you need to get into the habit of starting your day by eating that frog! As this quote from Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog suggests – Your ‘frog’ is your biggest and most important task, the one you’re most likely to procrastinate over if you don’t do something about it now.  It is also the one task that will have the greatest positive impact on your life. Or alternatively, if left undone will carry the most serious consequences.

And if you have to eat two frogs, go for the ugliest one first. This is another way of saying that if you have two important tasks confronting you start by tackling the most complex and important one first.

Get into the habit of eating that frog!

Many of us waste valuable time each morning preparing our to-do lists. Instead, have you thought about doing this is at the end of each workday? Such a tiny tweak ensures you’re ready to crack on with tasks as soon as you hit your desk. Indeed, rather than wandering around the office with a cuppa gossiping with colleagues try and discipline yourself to get up, get ready, walk to your desk, sit down and start on your most difficult task, without interruptions, before you do anything else. Ticking off completed tasks from your ‘to-do’ list can be very satisfying and should help you to keep track!

Just like daily planning, the optimum time to map out your week is at the end of your previous week. When doing this – there’s no need to be overly concerned with the same level of detail as for your daily do-do lists. The aim here is to ensure that you’re not caught on the hop. So, think about what information you might need to ask for on Monday to ensure it’s available for a task that needs to be completed by Friday. When planning each working day, as well as mapping out your week, avoid the temptation to be overly ambitious in the number of tasks you set yourself.

Also, don’t over book meetings as it will leave you with little space to action the stuff that inevitably comes off the back of each one. If at all possible, I also recommend allowing some slack to take on unexpected work. Next, review your list using the ABCDE Method and 80/20 Rule set out below.

ABCDE method

The ABCDE method is a very useful way for determining the importance and urgency of items on your ‘to-do’ list.

Complete the tasks in alphabetical order

  • ‘As’ – these are important and urgent must-do tasks with non-negotiable deadlines, which left alone face serious consequences. When tagging items as A it’s worth challenging both the notion of importance and urgency by asking yourself urgent and important for whom? For instance, a demanding and/or manipulative colleague might persuade you that what is important to them should feature just as highly on your agenda. And as you know this may not always be the case.
  • ‘Bs’ – important but not urgent. This category generally presents the biggest problems, with many of us guilty of either ignoring or postponing such tasks, and allowing other less important but superficially more urgent or attractive jobs to take precedent. Without giving them the proper attention they deserve such items can suddenly become urgent with a looming deadline handing over you. Or, in the absence of a meaningful deadline will simply never get done. Incidentally, one of the best examples of an important but non urgent task I can think of is filing your personal tax return. Despite having months to complete many of us are guilty of leaving our returns until the day before the 31 January deadline!
  • ‘Cs’ – urgent but trivial – these jobs are nice to do, but carry little or no consequence. As such, it’s important to ask yourself why you consider them urgent? Often you’ll find that it’s a gloss applied by others or you may well be the culprit – letting something that should be a simple matter of day-to-day routine build up to a point where it becomes pressing. Where an urgent but unimportant task arises from another person’s perception of its importance, learning to say ‘NO’ is an important technique in effective time management.
  • ‘Ds’ – these are jobs you can delegate to someone else – delegate all of these so you devote your time on activities only you can do.
  • ‘Es’ are tasks that are neither important nor urgent so can be eliminated altogether.

Pareto’s 80/20 rule 

In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto created a mathematical formula to describe the unequal distribution of wealth in his country, observing that 20 per cent of the people owned a whopping 80 per cent of the wealth.

In the late 1940s, Dr Joseph M Juran inaccurately attributed the 80/20 Rule to Pareto, calling it Pareto’s Principle. Whilst it may be misnamed, or indeed, the accuracy of this relationship disputed, Pareto’s Principle or Pareto’s Law as it is sometimes called, can be a very valuable tool to help you manage time effectively.

The 80/20 Rule means that in anything a tiny few (20 per cent) are vital and most (80 per cent) are trivial. What this means in terms of managing your workload is that in your typical to-do list of 10 items, just two of those items will generate 80 per cent of the return you get from your entire list. When looking at your list, you’re likely to be tempted to clear up a few small items first so you can check them off and have a sense of accomplishment.  However, those items may not be significant to your overall economic activity.

So, what’s the answer?  The most difficult part of any task is getting it off the ground.  Time management is essentially about taking control of the sequence of events that affect our lives. The most effective and indeed productive lawyers train their brains to address the most important task first, always. In other words, they discipline themselves to eat that frog.

Husnara Begum, careers consultant and owner of CheekyLittleCareers