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It’s All in the Hands
Time management is about prioritizing and managing your workflow.
By Denise Templeton
Jul/Aug ’02 Issue

Ever notice how the second hand on a clock is in continuous motion, jumping nervously from one second to the next? Never pausing, it conveys constant activity. Compare it to the big hand, which moves imperceptibly but steadily forward, marking large chunks of progress hour by hour. Which hand best describes your work style throughout the day?

Unlike the mechanical predictability of a clock, most people’s workday is subject to a vast array of starts and stops, often at the hands of others. Consequently, time management has become the holy grail of the 21st century corporate workforce.

Time management implies balancing workflow and achieving goals within prescribed time periods. But for many paralegals, time management efforts are deadline-focused rather than action-oriented. The former, although a familiar mode, requires one to react according to external constraints set by others. An action-focused approach, on the other hand, requires conscious thought and intentional planning. First, you must think about what you are doing, and then act on what you are thinking.

This strategy sounds much easier to implement than it is.

“There can be a temptation to fill up your day doing easy, but nonessential things, and bill your eight hours, versus tackling more substantive work that requires more brain power — often what really needs to get done — even if you don’t end up billing as many hours for the day,” said Jennifer Holden, legal specialist with Merchant & Gould in Minneapolis.

Choreographing the flow of your workday ironically takes time. Holden assesses her work at the beginning of each day and prioritizes each task according to its deadline or logistical status.

“I try to figure out what I need to accomplish and then break down the different steps I need to take to get there,” she said.

Still, the best-laid plans can be thwarted when newer, more urgent deadlines emerge. “I can have my plans set for the day, and that’s great, but we all know it seldom turns out that way,” said Lee Ann Riordan, paralegal with Altheimer & Gray in Chicago. 

But prior planning still pays off. Instead of hitting the panic button when she gets thrown an unexpected task, Riordan said, “I look at my list, reevaluate my projects and deadlines, and figure out a strategy — either pulling in new people for support or seeing where I can buy time on another project.”

The important part is having prioritized goals in the first place. Research has shown people who plan and set goals effectively suffer less from stress and anxiety, concentrate and perform better, show more self-confidence, and are happier and more satisfied.

According to David Allen, president of David Allen & Co. (www.david.co.com), a management consulting and training company based in Ojai, Calif., there are several good   practices for managing one’s workflow:

  • Get everything out of your head, then process your thoughts into outcomes and actions

  • Make decisions about actions required when they show up, not when they blow up

  • Organize reminders of your projects and the next actions on them in appropriate categories

  • Keep your system current, complete and reviewed sufficiently to trust your intuitive choices about what you are doing and what you are not doing at any point in time.

Liz Montanez, paralegal and program manager with Navigation Technology Corp. in Chicago, makes great use of these techniques. Together with others in her work group, she captures, processes and organizes information using the electronic task-action register in Microsoft Outlook.

“We can track project status, time, details, billable hours and more — it’s very helpful,” she said. The group then reviews each project in weekly status meetings, determines next steps and assigns new tasks to key players. 

In reality, such practices are played out everywhere, and many paralegals are happy to share their successes and insights, as well as their struggles and concerns.

Other reliable practices include:

Invest in concentration. Create uninterrupted time. Shut down your browser and forward your phone for an hour. If you are in a high-traffic area or cubicle, relocate to a closed-door, quiet workspace for a block of time so you can focus.

Ask questions. At the outset of an assignment, make sure to get details so you can accurately estimate the amount of time it will take. Establish the “real deadline,” so you can prioritize it accordingly. If you are unsure, ask your supervising attorney or paralegal manager how to prioritize.

Riordan said she recalls feeling overwhelmed at times when she began her paralegal career seven years ago.

“Balancing a caseload is not something you learn overnight, but over the years, I’ve learned to handle it,” she said. “My advice is to find a more experienced paralegal whom you feel comfortable with and ask a lot of questions. At the same time, I try to make other people feel comfortable around me so they can ask questions.  I know how it feels to be there.”

Offer support. Creating a collaborative work culture can be one of the greatest antidotes to feelings of stress and overload.

“I feel really blessed to work in such a team environment — you can just raise your hand, ask if anyone else has extra time, and people will help out,” Holden said. “I seldom feel stressed because I never feel like I’m not going to make it through the day.”

Group similar tasks together. Flip-flopping between multiple projects throughout the day means you are reacting instead of being in control of your workflow. Try organizing your time to approach similar tasks in the same block of time. You will be more efficient and focused, generate better work product, and achieve a calmer, more composed work style.

Delegate. Even if your highly organized to-do list gets scrapped, which is likely to happen at times in spite of your best efforts, you still can retain a consistent sense of your priorities. That includes judging when others can step in and help out.

“As paralegals we often think that no one else does things the way we do, so we have to do it all ourselves,” said Shannon West, paralegal with Looking Glass Networks in Oak Brook, Ill. “I try to give up ownership on certain tasks and have others help accomplish them. But we all have our own standards, so that’s hard.”

Adapt your method and mode to your audience. Communication is one of the most powerful tools for effective time management, but it also can bog people down on both sides of the equation. Some people prefer phone or face-to-face dialogue, while others prefer e-mail or written memoranda. Tailor your approach to the person and situation, but always be clear and concise.

“E-mail can be either a great help or a great distraction. Sometimes a simple question ends up becoming an all-day back-and-forth adventure,” Holden said. “Be cognizant of what you’re trying to get done and be sensitive to other people’s time in helping you accomplish it.”

Know your limits. A side benefit of goal setting involves seeing what you have accomplished and learning what you are capable of. Seeing your own achievements gives you confidence, but at the same time, it should provide a reality check for when you are up against the unrealistic.

“We tend to believe if people keep giving us projects, it’s because we ought to be doing them,” West said. “We forget that other people’s expectations might be unreasonable and that sometimes we’re asked to do the impossible.”

“Also remember that there are people with different strengths and weaknesses all around you,” Riordan said. “I’m not perfect in the least, but I always suggest things that have worked for me, and I ask for suggestions from others — I’m always eager to learn something new.”

 Reliable practices such as these can help balance your time. With practice, using an action-focused approach subjects you less to the starts and stops of the workday, and provides you with a stable way to manage workflow under the constant tick tock of the clock.

Denise Templeton is the president and chief executive officer of Templeton & Associates, a legal staffing firm based in Minneapolis. She has been involved with the legal assistant profession since she graduated from the Institute for Paralegal Training in Philadelphia in 1972. Her professional career includes work as a paralegal in the public and private sector, as well as seven years as the director of the paralegal program at the University of Minnesota. In 1985, she founded the Minnesota Paralegal Institute, a private post secondary certificate program. Templeton was also a founder of the Minnesota Paralegal Association, the American Association for Paralegal Education and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations.

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