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Episode 129: How To Reclaim Your Time (In Just 5 Steps)

by Heather Moulder | Life & Law Podcast

Want to reclaim your time and take control of it?

Without fail, just about every lawyer I know struggles with getting enough done in the time you have. But the problem isn’t just a time management issue (or one of productivity).

Listen for your 5-step formula for how to reclaim your time.

Episode Transcript

The number one complaint I hear, no matter who it’s from, whether from:

  • An in house attorney struggling to manage a team,
  • An associate trying to juggle work for numerous partners,
  • A junior partner trying to get started building their own book of business, or
  • Apartner who’s been a partner for 15 or more years just trying to get their firm or book of business to the next level,

[00:01:10] What they say is… I have no time.

And what every one of them says they want is control over their time.

Quick note: You don’t actually control time. That’s not what you want.

What you want is better control over you – how you choose to spend the time you have. Which is exactly what we’re getting into in today’s podcast.

Hey there, this is Heather Moulder, host of The Life & Law Podcast

And I’m really excited about today’s topic because I hear about this so often. I have five steps that I’m going to give you.

What you will learn today is really the biggest difference between living that busy-rushed-drink-from-the-fire-hose existence that many of us attorneys find ourselves in (all the time) versus…

Being present.

Being intentional.

Being focused.

Which I know is what you really want, right? At least that’s what I hear. So that is what we’re getting into today.

Let me just warn you guys:

There is no magic bullet.

There’s no magic pill that you can take to ensure that you are more present, more intentional, more focused, and that you’re not going to be busy-rushed-drink-from-the-fire-hose.

[00:02:28] It’s a culmination of a couple of things – which is what we’re going to go into today. And it really does have to do with choice – with how you choose to spend the time you have. That’s ultimately what this comes down to.

And I want you to remember that because what we often think is that we don’t have a choice.

  • So and so needs this; So and so wants this.
  • I have to.
  • I should.

Those are the types of things we tell ourselves to convince ourselves that we don’t have control. Yet we do.

Are there consequences to the choices we make?

Yes, so you need to be very intentional. The choices you are making, why you’re making them, why something is a priority, why something is not a priority, right?

That’s what this comes down to at the end of the day. I want you to keep that in mind as we go through each one of these.

Because spoiler alert: none of this is going to come as a big surprise or shock. You’ve heard these things before.

My hope is that I present them to you in a way, with this thought at the forefront, where you’re finally like:

“Okay, yes, I’m ready to tackle this. I’m ready to do it. I’m ready to take these steps and actually go all in and try them out.”

And what I would say to you is – when you take these five steps, implement them – you’re going to figure out that…

This is really a process or a system.

As you know, I love systems. I love processes. If you happen to have not heard that particular show, I highly recommend you go back to it. I will put a link to it in the show notes.

This is a system or a process for prioritization.

For prioritizing properly and also for really good time management, being more intentional, and enabling yourself to become more focused so that you can be more present in the moment. Which is something I know a lot of us say we need more of.

So here it goes, step number one, and this is probably the hardest step.

It may not sound hard, it’s very simple, but you’ll see why in second.

Analyze How You are Spending Your Time

And this is the hard part: be super honest with yourself about how you’re actually spending your time.

[00:04:49] Before you go into the actual analysis, here’s what you need to do.

Sit down for like 20 min and map out how you think you’re spending your time on a daily basis.

And here’s what I want you to do. I want you to map it out on a regular workday. I get up at this time, here’s what I do in the morning before I get to work, here’s what I do at work, here’s how a typical day would go now.

No, it doesn’t have to be perfect. And yes, I know things change day to day.

But about how much time do you think you’re spending on;

  • Big picture client work?
  • Client development, if that is something you do?
  • Emails?
  • The phone? Or talking to people in your office?

[00:05:38] You know, how do you think you’re actually spending your time?

And what I would recommend is you break it into categories.

Categorize family time. And I’m talking about real family time, not the get ready crazy time in the morning.

The getting ready time, you know, getting yourself ready, getting your lunch ready, getting your kids lunch ready, whatever goes into the getting ready time for you and your family.

[00:06:01] Client time, you know, actual time spent with clients, like on the phone or emailing them or texting them, if that’s what you do with clients.

Also work time, you know, how much of this time do you think you’re spending on actual work? Work product such as:

      • Writing a brief,
      • Preparing for a meeting,
      • Drafting a loan document,
      • Whatever it is that you do.

So spend 20 to 30 min thinking through, “How much time do I think I’m spending?”

And don’t stop at the end of the work day. Finish out. Okay, How do I spend the rest of the day? What’s my drive time and what am I doing during that time? That’s actually important.

By the way, oftentimes there are hidden gems in there for self-care.

What I mean by that is those of us who have to spend a lot of time on, you know, on a bus, in a train, or in a car can either utilize that time being mad and angry because we’re stuck on the bus, in the train, in the car, in traffic.

Or we can find a way to utilize that time.

Maybe if we’re on a bus or on a train, we actually continue a little bit of work. Maybe it’s our reading time. Maybe if we’re in the car, it’s our music time to listen to the music we really want to, or our podcasting time.

That can actually be well used and well spent time.

Now you need to actually be honest though, with how you’re currently spending that time. And then into the evening too.

Are you regularly getting back to work? Is a typical day – and I would say if three days out of five on a weekday you’re actually spending one, two or three more hours once you get home working – you need to log that as how I think I’m spending my time.

So be really honest with yourself and put it into categories – work categories and home life type categories that are regular – and think through a typical day.

How much time do I think I’m spending on these things?

So that’s step one. That’s part A of step one.

Part B of step one is to then actually log how you’re spending your time.

And I recommend at least a one week period, maybe even two. It somewhat depends on you and your typical schedule. What you need to do is do it at a time that is more regular.

So do not log your time if you’re in the middle of a closing that happens four times a year, or in the middle of a trial that you have once or twice a year. I want you to actually log your time on a more typical day, right?

[00:08:26] Where you’re doing things that aren’t typical is not the time to log it.

Spend at least a one week period up to two during your workdays to actually log your time.

Now you’re going to think at first that this is easy because as an attorney – especially if you’re in private practice. If you’re not in private practice, it might not be so easy.

If you’re in private practice, you are already logging a lot of your time. But you’re not logging it in the way that I’m telling you because you do not log every time you get up and go talk to people that is not work related, you’re only logging your billables. So some of this will already be done, but you need to actually pay attention to the other things you’re doing.

How many times do you get up and go to the bathroom, and in that bathroom break you actually stop for 15 min to talk to somebody?

How many times do you, if you work from home, get up and get distracted to go fold the laundry or do the dishes or get outside or do something that you didn’t intend to do?

Those are the types of things you need to actually log. You need to pay attention to all of that so you can see “how much time am I utilizing and how much is time wasted that I could get back”? Spend at least a one week period.

So that’s step one. And as I said, this is the hardest step, but it is incredibly beneficial.

Do not skip this step.

A lot of people like to skip this step because it is a pain in the butt. I’ve just got to tell you it’s so worth it.

Here’s what a lot of people find who actually do this.

They realize that they’re wasting time on some things that they don’t really need or want to be wasting time on. And so it enables them to schedule their days a lot better and get some of their time back immediately.

They also are sometimes pleasantly surprised to find that there is time, that they don’t even recognize or they didn’t recognize before, that they are spending for self-care or getting closer to family members.

So, for example, for those of you parents out there who might spend an inordinate amount of time in the car with your kids taking them to and from activities…

We often tend to look at that as “I’ve got to get in the car and go take my kid here and there. I’m just a chauffeur.”

Maybe you see that you’re actually spending an hour and a half on average, several times a week in the car with your kid.

[00:10:48] Could you turn that into more fun time? Could you turn that into time where you talk things through to find out what’s going on with their day? This is somewhat going to depend on their age.

You could turn that time into really nice moments where you connect more.

Maybe you find that you’re in the car every day for an hour or more on your own, and you can turn that time into some much needed self-care time of, you know, listening to your favorite podcast.

There’s a lot of things you can do with that. A lot of people actually find, oh my gosh, I have areas where I can make this better.

And also, hey, I’m actually spending more time with my kids than I thought.

There are some pleasant surprises in there that you can do something with and you can make better. So that is step one.

Analyze how you’re spending your time and be super honest about where it’s going.

This is going to tell you where you can make some very quick changes and also change your mentality around…

“Hey, I might have some more time that I thought. Hey, I might have actual control over more time than I thought. I might actually be choosing more wisely than I thought.”

So take advantage of what you find and then utilize what you find to do better moving forward. So that’s the end of step one.

Step 2 is to sit down and start utilizing the Eisenhower Matrix for prioritization.

The Eisenhower Matrix is basically this: You have four quadrants: non urgent priorities, urgent priorities, non urgent non priorities and urgent non priorities.

[00:12:23] Okay, so non urgent priorities tend to be things that relate to long term goals.

They are priorities but nobody is breathing down your neck to get them done. So, you consider them non urgent.

They also can include longer term projects that are urgent maybe for clients, but there is no looming deadline.

Urgent priorities are those things that are true priorities, so they relate to your goals or they relate to client work that you actually need to be doing. And they are urgent.

I.e., there are deadlines associated with them that make it necessary for you to be doing the work within the next forty eight to seventy two hours max.

[00:13:11] A non urgent non priority

Includes scrolling social media, watching television, you know, things that are really not urgent and are not really priorities. They’re usually time wasters. They’re the types of things that are mind numbing.

I’m not saying you can’t ever do these. Sometimes there is some benefit to them. Because we needed mind numbing.

But how much of, you know, how much is there? How much of your time are you spending there?

That’s something to pay attention to, especially when you analyze how you’re spending your time.

Because you really want to limit that and be more purposeful with the self care activities you have so that you’re not just mind numbing, you’re actually meeting the needs that you have

Urgent non priorities are those things that are urgent, somebody is breathing down your neck for it because they want your help, but it’s not really a priority for you.

Maybe something you promised but you shouldn’t have. It’s not really something you should have promised to do, but you did and that makes it urgent. Those are urgent non priorities.

A couple of notes:

  • Just because something is urgent does not make it a priority.
  • If you see that there are non priorities that feel urgent, it’s usually because you’ve said yes to something you really didn’t want or need to.
  • These are areas that need standards and boundaries. This is telling you something, pay attention to it.
  • Ask yourself is this really urgent? Is somebody pushing it because they want it, but it’s not truly urgent? Is there a false or unnecessary deadline related to this so called urgent priority? Might still be a priority, but maybe it doesn’t need to be urgent.
  • Can it be pushed back? What happens if I push it back? What happens if I don’t do it in this timeline?

If you’ve got too many things on your urgent priority list, that’s an area where you need to push it back, okay?

Which yes, means uncomfortable conversations with people, but it’s going to also tell you where you over promise and how you need to deal with that moving forward.

[00:15:23] I’ve gone even more in depth into how to use the Eisenhower Matrix and a lot of these tips around how to determine what are priorities, what are not, what’s truly urgent, what’s not, how to utilize the Eisenhower Matrix.

And I am going to put a link to that episode in the show notes. It was one of my early episodes, one of probably the favorites early on.

And then there’s also a complimentary episode to that around the mindset of productivity, how to have a productive mind. I’m going to link to that as well. They are kind of a two part series. I highly recommend you go back and listen to them. It’s going to help you with this process even more.

[00:15:58] Okay, so that was step two. You’ve got to actually prioritize, figure out what’s a true priority, what’s not, what’s urgent, what’s not, get it down in your matrix so you can figure out what you’ve got on your plate.

Your next step: to offload every single thing that you can.

Remember, you do not have to be the one to do it all, even on things that are priorities for you.

Oftentimes we have bigger projects that are priorities, but we don’t have to be the ones to do everything. We can offload some of those things.

So, you always want to ask yourself:

  • What can be delegated?
  • What happens if I’m the one that doesn’t do it? \
  • Can somebody else take over or do it?

And you want to remember here, this is where our perfectionist tendencies really do get in our way.

[00:16:47] It doesn’t need to be done perfect. You do not have to be the one to do it. Who else can do this good enough?

You want to offload everything you can and delegate as much as is humanly possible so that you can leave time for the things that are true priorities; the things you truly love doing; the things you want to be doing, the things you should be doing for your clients & for your business; the things that utilize your strengths.

These are the priorities you want to do.

Anything else you want to try to delegate.

[00:17:24] So that’s step three. Offload everything that you can delegate and remember to put systems in place (processes) for delegation.

Okay, go back again to that systemization podcast that I talked about earlier.

Systems are what allow you to delegate without worry. They set standards for people to follow. So that they end up doing the best job possible. They know what to expect, that kind of a thing.

If you really struggle with delegation, you’re going to want to listen to that episode. It’s going to help you with it.

Now we move on to step four.

You have a list of things. Priorities. Some of them are urgent, some of them are non-urgent.

You also probably have in the back of your mind things that you just need to do day to day, right? Daily activities that you need to attend to, like email, returning voicemails, that type of thing.

[00:18:28] So the 1st thing you’re going to do is you’re gonna look at the non urgent priorities. And you’re going to say, “Okay, what needs more time on these non urgent priorities?”

A lot of non urgent priorities, as I said earlier, relate to bigger projects, maybe writing a brief, drafting a loan document, that kind of a thing. Review work of an associate that they’ve turned in. That’s not urgent.

You don’t have to get it out to the client for another week, but sometime in the next couple of days you’ve got to attend to it, that kind of a thing.

[00:19:00] Those bigger projects that need larger chunks of time. You want to pull out your calendar and schedule it, and then you actually do that at the time that you schedule.

The other thing you want to do is you want to look at long term priorities that relate to goals and oftentimes these relate for us lawyers to personal and professional and career development type things.

Maybe trainings that we need to attend and then business development growth activities for our business.

[00:19:32] Maybe you have a speech in a month and you need to start outlining it and then prep it, right? Maybe you need to do some research for a networking event you’re going to in a couple of weeks to ensure you’re ready and you’ve reached out to everybody who you know will be there so that you can set up meetings.

Those take time, so you need to also put that into your calendar.

Pick a time and day. Be reasonable about the time you need. Don’t overestimate, but don’t underestimate.

It’s better to actually, let’s say you think it’s going to take 3 hours and only takes two to do something. Then you’ve got an extra hour to get to other stuff. So schedule that.

[00:20:17] Use your calendar.

The other thing that you’re going to want to use your calendar for is daily or regular tasks and activities.

And what I mean by regular are things that you need to do at least once a week, maybe twice a week, or daily.

So, for example, checking and getting back to email or returning phone calls would be daily activities. And I highly recommend you schedule in time periods on a daily basis for you to do that.

Probably more than once a day. Maybe you check 1st thing in the morning and then right before lunch and then midday and then right before you leave the office. Maybe you check twice a day.

It’s really going to depend on your practice. But you want to schedule that time in and ensure you stick to it.

It’s a lot easier to do and to stick to and to not get overwhelmed by it if you have it in your calendar and you just do it at that time period.

Same thing goes for returning phone calls. Maybe at the same time every afternoon you check your voicemail, you check with your assistant, you figure out who’s called you, and you return all calls.

[00:21:24] A note about this. You need to train your clients.

This works incredibly well and I don’t care what your practice is so long as you train your clients. And what I mean by that is you need to let them know:

  • I return phone calls every afternoon between three and four.
  • And so please leave me a voicemail, and know I will get back to you.
  • Either via phone or via email (depending on what the request was) to let you know I got it, I’m working on it, to give you the time frame. Or I’ll pick up the phone and call you about (whatever).
  • That being said, if it’s an emergency here is how to reach me (call my assistant and she’ll come find me, text me).

You can train your clients and then you have to inform them on what is truly an emergency and what is not.

And let me just say that oftentimes when you’re training clients – and this goes with colleagues and peers and people that you work with, people on your team as well – they’re going to mess up.

Sometimes they’re going to think something’s an emergency that’s not. So, you just nicely let them know “Hey, appreciate you bringing this to my attention and following my protocol but this really wasn’t necessary. You could have left this as normal and I would have gotten back to you.”

You just need to tell them. Over time it will get better, people will learn, so you’ve got to train them for this to work.

[00:22:50] All right, so email, returning phone calls – Daily activities.

Another daily activity for those of you who have members of a team – maybe you have paralegals, assistants, associates, people who work with you a lot.

You need open door time, usually daily.

You need a time where they know they can reach out to you for questions.

[00:23:10] This really helps, by the way, with the interrupting chickens, they call them.

I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book The Interrupting Chicken. It’s a kid’s book where you teach kids not to interrupt you all the time. My oldest son definitely needed that as a kid, and frankly, sometimes he’s still pretty bad about it. But that’s a whole other issue, right?

So I learned early on when I started running teams that people would, you know, always come up with questions.

And then there are people who will email you or message you constantly – every time a question comes up. Which takes you away from all the things you need to be doing. And it can be a total time suck.

I also noticed there were colleagues, usually peers, who would love to just “Hey, can I bend your ear for a minute?” They’d knock on the door and come in.

This helps with that. So you need a set time. Maybe it’s a 1 hour per day or 2 hour per day.

“I’m going to be open at this time unless my door is closed and I’m on a conference call with a client because that’s when it had to be scheduled. But this is my typical time to be open to you for questions. Come with everything.”

That can really work.

[00:24:28] When it comes to weekly or several times a week, think about meetings with staff and team members.

That doesn’t usually need to be daily but maybe weekly or twice a week at the beginning and end of week. You want to schedule those in and make them regular.

And also think about time that you need for quiet processing time.

Not everybody needs this, but many of us do, especially as we get more senior and we are trying to plan bigger things for our businesses or our teams.

[00:25:03] We need leadership time. We need business growth thinking time. We need some time where we’re just quiet and we journal and we think through these bigger picture, strategic issues and come up with ideas.

Oftentimes we don’t put enough time in for that. Now maybe you don’t need weekly. Maybe you need twice a month. But you need it regularly – a couple of times a month at minimum, where you want at least an hour, hour and a half of time just for you.

So, you want to actually schedule that in and make it regular, okay?

[00:25:39] Now something to note here when you are scheduling in projects, long term goals, your daily stuff…

You’re going to start seeing that your calendar is getting pretty filled.

And you haven’t even gotten to your big to-to do list priorities that are urgent, right? You’ve only taken care of the daily stuff and the non urgent priorities. That’s okay.

But you want to pay attention again to how much of this can I offload, where can I implement systems to take me out of the equation as much as possible? It’s going to start telling you why you have so little “control” over your time.

These are the things oftentimes that are sucking too much away and the reason is some of the stuff you just don’t need to be doing – you could have others do it.

So, for example I have a client who owns her own firm who has an executive assistant who goes through her email. Probably 60 % of the email she gets she doesn’t need to look at at all. It’s not necessarily even client email. It relates to all kinds of other things.

[00:26:55] Some of it is email from clients that she only needs to know about but it needs to go to somebody else to take care of. And so her executive assistant, she has a process, they have a system where her executive assistant checks through it, sends things off to where they need to go, puts things into folders.

They organize them, and there’s always the, I’m not sure what to do with this folder, right? And they’re learning constantly, and the more they do this together, the better the executive assistant gets at knowing what to do with it.

But it’s really helped to streamline her schedule because her email was taking over her day. And it’s given her a lot of her time back just by doing that.

And you might think, oh, I couldn’t do that with my practice. I don’t know, maybe you can. It’s going to depend. But you need to be, you know, look at this with a critical eye based on how you analyze the time that you were spending and ask…

How do I offload as much of this as I can and still work efficiently and effectively?

So, that was step number four. You want to calendar your non urgent priorities and then also put regular tasks or activities that can become urgent if you don’t do this every so often, you want to get that into your calendar on a regular basis.

[00:28:26] Step five.

You have a bunch of things still that are on a to do list, right?

Some of these are urgent, some of these still are not urgent because remember, you only calendared the bigger chunks, the things you needed to take bigger periods of time for on the non urgent stuff.

You probably still have some things that are “Okay, as long as this gets done in the next week or two, it’s fine.”

Not urgent, but still needs to get done and needs to get done by you. It’s still a priority. So what do you do with all these things? You want two lists.

Step five is to create two lists. One is a To-Do List, one is a Not-Now, Later List.

So let’s start with the Not Now, Later list.

The Not Now, Later list is a list of those things that are priorities but do not need to go onto your calendar just yet or are not urgent.

And the whole point of it is so that you can keep track and not forget.

This list you want to review every single week because things on it will eventually become more urgent priorities and will go on to your to do list.

[00:29:42] The other list is your actual to do list. That day. It is the top three to five things that must get done in that day. It is due either that day, the next day.

We coaches like to talk about the rule of three – not to have more than three priorities at once.

So, for example maybe you need to send an email to a client about an issue you’ve been thinking about and that’s going to take at least a half hour, maybe up to an hour, of work because it’s a tricky email that you need to draft.

And you have another client you need to talk to. That’s going to take about a half hour of your time.

Well, that’s up to an hour and a half of time, right there. You think, oh, an email to a client, a call to a client, no big deal. But when you sit down and actually think about how much time will this take, that’s an hour and a half of time.

And you also have to draft a brief or a loan agreement or a document, and that’s going to take three to four hours of time. And that’s on you.

Well, guess how much work is in there already? You can’t fill your entire day with these three things because remember, you’ve already got other regular things on there, like checking email, getting back to calls.

Unexpected things are going to come up. Other things will pop up that you will need to take care of.

So, the goal here is not to have every moment of your day covered. You need space in there for those things.

[00:31:08] So you actually have to pick what are my top three priorities? What must get done today?

Everything else goes on the Not-Now, Later list, and look to that tomorrow.

Now I said earlier, the Not-Now, Later list should be looked at at least weekly. It might be looked at every day. It’s going to depend on how you utilize this.

Maybe you have a top five priorities for the week and each day you look at it and you go “Okay, here are my top two things I need to get done.” And the next day “I’ve got three things I can get done today.” And the next day “Okay, I’ve got one thing I need to focus on.”

That’s fine too. So if you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of teaching you a system, I’m teaching you the how-to, but the system is…

  • Every week look at your week ahead. You have your Not-Low, Later List that you start with.
  • You figure out what your actual top three to five priorities are for that week. Rule of three is best. Sometimes there are more.
  • You go through your lists and you determine based on the Eisenhower Matrix what’s a true priority and what’s not, and you analyze it.
  • You figure out what can be delegated and pushed off.
  • You ask to extend when you need to.
  • You calendar the things you need to get done for bigger chunks of time for the week.
  • And then you determine each day “Okay, I’ve got a couple of hours today not already like taken up with meetings, not already taken up with the daily tasks, not already taken up with the bigger pieces, you know, of time that I’ve scheduled. What are the top three things I want to get done – up to the top three things?”
  • And then you assign yourself those things and you do them.

Now if for some reason you run out of time, because sometimes we do, it just goes into the next day. Sometimes that’s why we stay up later and we get it done.

Sometimes we realize, I thought it was a priority for today but it didn’t get done and now I’ll just do it tomorrow. It’s my number one priority before I move on to other things.

This is how to be more intentional with your time.

You need a system for how to do this, which I know sounds boring, but it’s necessary if you want to actually get control over how you choose to spend your time.

[00:33:28] And by going through this process, what it’s going to do for you is it’s really going to start showing you all the things that you are doing that you really don’t need to be doing, that you could be delegating, that you must say no to.

It’s going to show you where you need boundaries with clients, colleagues, and others.

By the way, you might find that you need boundaries with family members or friends, right? You know, maybe at church they always ask you to do something for them that you don’t always have time for, and you want to say yes to some, but you can’t say yes to all.

There are lots of areas, so don’t just look at your professional life, look at your personal life as well. Where do you need better boundaries?

[00:34:14] Boundaries, y’all are one of the biggest things for taking control of your time. You need them, they’re necessary.

A boundary is what enables you to actually prioritize the things that you say are most important to you, so be sure you have them. I do have a whole episode on boundaries, so I will put a link to that episode in the show notes so that you can go and listen to that one as well.

Okay, that’s it for this episode. We will be back next week, which is a new month. Cannot believe we are already headed into November, y’all. Bye for now.