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The Key to Time Management—and Achieving Work/Life Balance

11.05.2012
Good time management does not consist of following numerous rules for handling emails, telephone calls, errands, crises, or the myriad assignments and distractions we face every day. Instead, it comes down to one fundamental rule: Do everything now that you now know you have to do. This may sound like mumbo jumbo or a fortune cookie message, but it is actually quite simple, relevant, and potentially life changing.

What does it mean? At any given time, we can list many things we know at that time we have to do. Some of these tasks have imminent deadlines, while others have seemingly distant ones (several days, weeks, or even months away). Most people plan formally or intuitively to start and complete these tasks at or around the time they are “due,” i.e., close to the actual deadline. This is a formula for disaster.

Why? Because what we know about the future at any given moment will be overtaken in the coming days, weeks, and months by other events we cannot foresee. Deadlines may be pushed up, and more and more tasks—and opportunities—will arise between the current day and our deadlines. So if on any given day we calendar everything we then know we have to do, and plan to start and complete those tasks only as we approach their deadlines, we risk lacking sufficient time to finish those tasks due to the emergence of intervening events.

Waiting to tackle assignments presents another problem, too. Because none of us can fully appreciate the scope of any task until we start it, we almost always fail to appreciate certain of its aspects. As a result, we typically underestimate the complexity of what we must do and the time required to do it well. Therefore, when we plan to start an assignment right before the deadline, we risk not allowing ourselves enough time for preparation, care, reflection, refinement, revision, and follow-up.

How do we cope with these challenges? Within reason, and with some appreciation of priorities, we must start and substantially complete right away everything we know at any given time we will have to complete eventually. Obviously, this requires some ranking of tasks to address those that simply cannot wait (e.g., true emergencies or fielding calls or emails requiring an immediate response). But subject to addressing our most pressing obligations, we must strive to start now—and make serious headway on—everything we know we have to do, even those matters with more distant deadlines.

There are corollaries to this rule. Within reason, it requires us to work “overtime” on projects that do not have imminent deadlines. I often work evenings and weekends to start, and substantially complete, tasks that are not due for many weeks or even months. This helps me identify the contours of the project and allows me sufficient time to conduct any necessary follow-up. Importantly, it allows me to reflect on projects while they sit. I am also able to circulate my work or thoughts to others involved, giving them plenty of time to provide meaningful input at their convenience. This process immeasurably enhances the quality of my work, almost always ensures that I get it done “early,” and, most important, virtually eliminates stress or the crises that often occur when we are confronted with true deadlines.

Does this mean we must work slavishly without reprieve day in and day out? Actually, it means just the opposite. If we stay ahead of our work, we can integrate into our schedules time for ourselves, our families, and our friends. We are less likely, however, to squander time that we should use productively on our work or more purposefully in our personal lives. We are also less likely to experience guilt or anxiety when we do choose to take time for ourselves, families, or friends.

To manage the thousands of daily chores and interruptions that cross our desks, we simply apply the same rule to everything we do. This means we let nothing wait. Within reason, we must constantly move through emails, phone calls, and other assignments to ensure we are always on top of them. Obviously, some work requires concentration, and we shouldn’t interrupt it by checking email every 30 seconds. And sometimes we simply can’t, as when we are in a meeting, at a hearing, or driving. But we should check in when we reach logical break points. If our day gets consumed by the urgent, we need to work late to deal with the important, even when no actual deadlines loom. This keeps us from pushing those projects off to the eve of their deadlines, compromising the quality of the most important things on our calendars.

When we are personally swamped with one project (e.g., a trial or closing), delegation comes into play. Even when we can’t personally move the ball forward on projects we know we have to address, we can task someone else with doing so, making sure they understand they must approach the project at the earliest possible time, too, and not on the eve of its deadline.

I’m convinced following this rule is the only truly effective means to achieve work/life balance. Doing so gives you control over your life in a way that nothing else can. You will always be ahead of your work. So if you plan to work an evening or weekend to start or complete something that is not actually due for many days, weeks, or even months, and you would like to take that time off instead for something important to you—for example, to see a play, spend time with your loved ones, visit friends, read a book, exercise, or pursue a hobby—you can “give yourself the night off.”

But if you have waited until the eve of a true deadline to complete the assignment, you’re stuck. You have to forfeit your family or personal time because you’ve given yourself no flexibility. If you are always working against continual deadlines, you will always be out of balance in your personal life. Conversely, when you stay ahead of your work, you are truly working for yourself on your own terms. When you allow your life to be controlled by imminent deadlines, you are always working for somebody else. That is oppressive, and you will resent it over time. This leads to a feeling that you lack work/life balance.

Occasionally, of course, we all face true emergencies. But we rarely resent those. They are often challenging in a positive way, and managing them can be very rewarding. But we are able to plunge into them aggressively and effectively, without imperiling other obligations, only if we have other matters under control. Emergencies we create through our own procrastination, by contrast, must be avoided. There is a much greater risk that these “faux” emergencies will arise frequently and become a way of life, creating needless stress and personal tradeoffs.

Finally, if you follow this rule, you will always be free to jump on unexpected professional opportunities. If your work is under control, you can leave it for awhile to pitch a new client or handle an exciting piece of work on a short fuse.

I am not alone in advocating this rule. Abraham Lincoln once said: “Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today.” Well said, Mr. President.

 

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