Prioritization Models — Urgent Doesn't Always Mean Important

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A frequent refrain from harried lawyers is, "I'm so overwhelmed that I just don't have time to take care of myself." Do you feel the same way? If so, do you think you are providing your clients with the best service possible?

Some would say it's all a matter of time management. For lawyers, no resource is more valuable than what Abraham Lincoln called our "stock in trade" — time. Attorneys don't really sell time, but time typically measures our effort. With billable-hour collection targets looming, the urgency of unread text messages, and the stress of family pressures, the need for more time can be overwhelming.

The reality, though, is that we cannot manage time; we can only manage ourselves and our priorities. Most lawyers who claim that they have too little time generally fail to prioritize. If you haven't prioritized, you're likely to feel like the typical harried lawyer.

How can you develop a practical approach to prioritizing in order to change the scenario? Get out your calendar and schedule time for addressing client issues, marketing and networking, engaging in professional education, and relaxing with family and friends. Scheduling disciplines you to prioritize how much cumulative time is devoted to each and what you value more.

The schedule won't be perfect and will be subject to change. But by making the effort to construct and adhere to it, you will be far ahead of most others, and certainly far along the path of controlling your own environment rather than being a slave to it.

Prioritization models

Two prioritization models to consider incorporating into your life are the Urgent-Important-Trivial model and the Manage-Focus-Avoid-Limit model.

  • Urgent-Important-Trivial model

    Developed by Stephen Covey, author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," the four quadrants are as follows:

    1. Urgent and important

    2. Important but not urgent

    3. Urgent but not important

    4. Trivial/busywork

    The first quadrant, in terms of time, is doing what is urgent. It's what comes across our desks that we have to get done and get done now, even though we didn't expect it.

    The second quadrant is what we want and should do for our long-term benefit, but can't always get to it because we're immersed in quadrant 1.

    The third quadrant includes urgent but unimportant items.

    Finally, the last quadrant is trivial stuff, such as shuffling paper — often, we do those things just to keep busy because we just don't want to deal with quadrant 2.

    We spend most of our time on quadrant 1 instead of on the second quadrant — the most important quadrant for future success — because we allow ourselves to let deadlines creep up or other people to set our priorities. In other words, we do not properly control the "urgent" factor.

    Most would agree that we can't change the fact that we must do what we have to before we can do what's most important to us. But what we can change is the number of urgent matters crossing our desks. In order to change that dynamic, you need to organize and plan ahead.

  • Manage-Focus-Avoid-Limit model

    Another way to look at prioritization is another model developed by Covey, which has the following four quadrants:

    1. Manage (crises and pressing problems)

    2. Focus (on strategies and values)

    3. Avoid (interruptions and busy work)

    4. Limit (the trivial and wasteful)

Essentially, the model provides a way to address the quadrants in the Urgent-Important-Trivial model. Again, if you can control quadrant 1, you can maximize your future success by concentrating on quadrant 2.

There is no single plan that is right for all lawyers. What helps one attorney better utilize his time inevitably only will add to the stress of another. The important thing is to embrace a plan that works for you.

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