Reprinted from December 9, 2015
Everything’s urgent these days. Get this file out. Talk to that person. Revise this. Write that. Listen to me, him, her, them.
But how much of it is important?
You have two real jobs – one in the legal profession, and one in your life. They intersect, overlap, conflict.
One way to manage that intersection is to get on top of a meta-job, winnowing the important from the urgent.
When tasks land on your plate, consider sorting them into this matrix (modified from one Stephen Covey proposed many years ago).
For each task, consider these questions:
- Is it truly important?
- Can I personally do something to move the needle noticeably, advance the ball down the court?
It’s up to you to determine what “important” means in this context. For a senior lawyer, for example, is the eighth deposition of a similar potential witness so important you can’t trust a subordinate? In the office, at home, in life, you make choices.
Let me add two rules:
- For the purposes of this exercise, your only answers are Yes and No, not Sort-of-Important.
- You have to answer No sometimes.
Looking at the matrix, how do you want to spend your time, at least that part of your time over which you have control? Let me suggest some numbers. (The particular numbers don’t matter – and you’ll never get it exact anyway. I’m suggesting a target. If you don’t like my numbers, pick your own.)
- Spend the vast majority of your time in the upper-left quadrant – it’s important and you can do something about it.
- Spend a little time in upper-right: not important but I can solve it quickly. These are the small actions that not only keep office life flowing and home life manageable, they give you a sense of satisfaction. If you spend the entire day wrangling only the important, you’ll invariably end the day with some frustration, because such issues generally don’t resolve within a given day. So give yourself some wins.
- Spend a little time in lower-left: important but I can’t move the needle. This is the world-hunger category. We feel better about ourselves – and are thus more prepared to take on large at-work challenges – when we spend part of our time working on something larger than our immediate capabilities. Maybe you ask to the managing partner to lunch to talk about firm strategies, even though you’re not on the executive committee. Maybe you get fifteen minutes with your boss to learn what’s on his mind beyond the cases you’re working on. These talks may have the side benefit of advancing your career, but that’s not the main goal here.
- Add 90% + 5% + 5%, leaving for the lower-left: Zero! Zilch! Nada.
It’s not important, and I can’t solve it. We understand intellectually we should spend no time there, but what happens?
The tiger of urgency stalks our days.
Sure, he seems cute and cuddly from a distance, but those claws and jaws will shred your day. More and more of your time falls into the lower-right quadrant, all because someone thought it was urgent and you went along with their classification.
Is it important to that person? Who knows? But he’s made it your problem now.
I accept that things your boss considers important perforce become things you must treat as important – even when you believe your boss is confusing urgent and important. However, for most of us that still leaves enormous quantities of urgent-but-not-truly-important work that someone thinks we should do.
And maybe we can do it. But at what cost? At the cost of neglecting the important?
That’s work-work balance, understanding what’s important and focusing the majority of our time and efforts on it.
One last thing – let me anticipate the first comment. “Ah, Steve, that sounds nice, but how do I actually pull this off in the real world?” Funny you should ask. Actually, there are a number—[We’ve had to trim his column here for space requirements. Check back next time for some answers.1]
1Don’t blame Allison. I wrote that. See you next month. — Steve