The immediate deadline. The call that absolutely must be made or returned before lunch. The pre-bills that have to be checked this afternoon. The case law that needs to be scoured so that tricky motion can be finished up tonight. The filing that’s due in the morning. The mediation tomorrow afternoon. . . .
The overwhelming majority of your time during the day is spent attending to a pressing task at hand. Once you’ve handled it, you check it off the list and move right to the next discrete, time- or pressure-sensitive task. Your day passes with your head down, attending to each thing right in front of you until it’s time to leave the office.
Now, if you’re feeling very productive, this task-to-task movement can be satisfying — at least for a while. But it’s almost certainly keeping from spending time on activities that Stephen Covey famously described as “important but not urgent.”
These kinds of activities — such as finally resolving an inconsistent policy, or updating your contacts list, or teaching your assistant how to optimize a frequently used procedure — are far more valuable to you because they build future capacity. Once executed, they save you time every day and help you (and your team) to be more consistently effective.
In our law firm consulting work around time management and productivity, we hear it over and over: the standard rationale for not engaging in these kinds of high-payoff, capacity-building activities is, of course, that you don’t have time for them. But you know that’s ultimately just an excuse. The most successful professionals do not indulge the “don’t have time” excuse. They consciously cultivate such activities on a regular basis, and you can too.
Start by identifying one capacity-building activity that, once executed or routinized, would improve your performance on a regular basis. Then, identify the first specific action to take to begin implementing that activity. It may be as simple as coming in on Saturday morning with a few trash bags to finally dump the mounds of unneeded paper that clutter both your space and your brain. It might be scheduling a 45-minute block of time with your assistant to finally document the correct checklist of pretrial file preparation.
Set a goal for yourself to concretely improve how you practice by focusing on one important-but-not urgent activity that will help you build your capacity to function more effectively from now on.