Goals Managing Self Planning Time

When is time not a zero-sum game?

Written by Steven Levy

Last month, I wrote about time as a zero-sum game (any situation where doing more of one thing means less of another), and postulated two core rules:

  1. If you try to do foreground Task A at the same time as Task B and maintain your normal level of quality, you will accomplish less, in total, than if you had performed each task separately with full attention.
  2. If you don’t worry about quality, you’ll be able to do both tasks in the same amount of time, but with lower quality than you normally produce.

That said, there are ways to work where we can escape zero-sum limit.

First, of course, postulate a) specifies foreground tasks. If you take a walk while pondering a problem, walking is a background task and doesn’t interfere with focus on the problem – as long as you take care when crossing the street, say. Indeed, physical activity often shakes loose mental roadblocks, giving you increased ability to address the problem in new ways. The activity can be intense, such as running on a treadmill or track, or simple. Sometimes just getting away from your computer and walking around the office can break the bindings of old ways of thinking about the problem.

Second, if you’re stuck on something and it’s not yielding to concentrated effort, put it aside. Most interesting problems – in the legal world and elsewhere – don’t yield to a brute force approach. Sure, if you’re doing research, the amount of digging is pretty much proportional to the amount of dirt you move, the number of relevant sources you uncover. But for more amorphous problems requiring legal insight and intelligence rather than hard work alone, putting in more effort when you’re stuck is as likely to get you “stuck-er” than to force a breakthrough. So put it aside and attack something else. And let your subconscious worry the problem without foreground thought. There’s no guarantee your subconscious has the answer, but if you don’t give it a chance to assist, you’ll never find out. And your frustration will grow, which affects both the other work you’re doing and your general attitude about the law, life, and family.

Third, go back to proposition b), above. What is the required level of quality for each task you undertake? The answer is rarely “perfection.” Sure, some legal tasks require you to approach perfection as best you can… but not all do. How much time is the client asking you to spend on a given task? What’s at stake? Does the client want you to spend $10,000 worth of time on a matter that’s itself worth only $5,000?

Even within a single project, not every task is equal. Look for the tasks that are either rote in nature (or close to that, given your familiarity with the area) or mechanical. Consider both how much time you’re spending on them, and when you’re spending that time. Not only should you avoid devoting more time than necessary to low-value tasks when you have other, high-value tasks waiting, consider tackling them when you’re at your worst. For example, I’m a “morning person” these days. I attack my toughest tasks in the morning, when I’m fresh, and leave my late afternoons for simpler tasks, those I can pull off effectively with less concentrated effort, initiative, and creativity. Thus I do most of my writing in the mornings, but edit in the afternoons. Afternoons are also my time to return calls, schedule meetings, cull past to-do lists to ensure I’m not missing follow-ups, etc.

If you get stronger as the day goes on, consider reversing my approach, reserving time in the mornings for meetings and calls and setting aside deep-focus times after lunch (and after the post-prandial slump that follows a meal).

However you approach it, go back to the two postulates. They’re like the law of gravity. You can only pretend you’re violating it.



About the author

Steven Levy

As the CEO of Lexician, I help lawyers around the world manage their projects, their time, their teams, and their clients. I am the author of four books for legal professionals, including the new edition of the groundbreaking Legal Project Management and the time-management guide, The Off Switch. Before founding Lexician, I was the former head of Microsoft’s Legal Operations / Technology department. You can contact me at steven.levy@lexician.com or learn more at Lexician.com.

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