2018 Update: We still stand by this advice on how to manage your time — but you may also want to check out our other discussions on time management.
How do you manage your time, either to meet billable minimums, stay motivated and productive, or to fit everything into your life? (2016 mini update: do check out this cool billable hour spreadsheet tool.) February is time management month — and we haven’t talked about how best to manage your time in a while. Here’s Reader T’s question:
Would you consider doing a post on billable hours – specifically, what people’s minimum requirements are, and how they go about meeting and/or exceeding those minimums? My firm requires 2000 hours and I had a horrible time last year just making the minimum. I swore this year would be different, but it seems I am back to my old ways. What do people do to stay continuously motivated and productive?
I recognize that this question is geared toward the lawyers who read your site, but maybe others have similar goals/requirements that they have to satisfy?
Great question! I haven’t been in a billables environment for a while (and even then, my firm had no required minimum), but time management is something I still struggle with daily, so I’m curious to hear what readers say. My top tips are:
- Avoid email and the Internet. There are levels to this. I remember realizing at one point when I was a lawyer that if I left some work on my desk (such as hard copies of things to read, edit or review) and avoided turning my computer on entirely, I was far more productive for the first hour or two of my day. I still could check my emails on my Blackberry to make sure there were no fires, but even now I prefer replying and processing emails when I’m sitting at my desktop. Other avoiding email suggestions:
- Check and see how often your computer is “fetching” new emails. If it’s every one minute (which I think was the Outlook default, at least a few years ago), change it to 15 minutes — you may also want to consider turning off notifications (such as dings or bells) that new email has arrived.
- Choose set times to look at (and respond) to email throughout the day. This depends on your job — for some people you can limit it to 12 PM, 3PM, and 6PM, and be done with it.
- Adopt a system to keep your inbox clear of clutter. I’ve recently started using Mailbox and love it, but it only works with Google email addresses (or businesses using Google Apps). I haven’t read Getting Things Done in a few years, but I believe the advice there is to put a “2 minute” rule on email — if you can reply to it within two minutes then do it immediately, otherwise save it for a specific time in the day.
- Reassess the usefulness of G-chat and other online chatting services. For the most part, I have refused to use these since 2009, so I’m totally out of the loop — they were just way too big of a time waster for me. My husband and I text throughout the day, but we don’t really have a running conversation.
- If you can’t avoid the Internet, use Leechblock. I still use this sucker daily. Facebook seems to be a particular time suck for me (I have clearly “liked” too many publications’ pages because I barely see any news from actual friends in my newsfeed), and I have Leechblock set to redirect me from Facebook after one minute every hour. I also have Leechblock set to stop me from going “down the rabbit hole” with particularly sticky websites — you know the ones, where you go in to read an article, and suddenly realize two hours have passed? BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Jezebel, Mashable, and a few others are all limited to eight minutes per day, total.
- Corollary: Avoid getting sucked into articles, and otherwise handle information overload. A lot of my time was wasted online by reading articles — I’m not sure if it’s a new feature, but I’ve recently become aware that I can hover over an article link, right-click, and save it to Pocket (without opening up the article in my browser at all). I’ve also started using Evernote to clip (and file) articles that I want to read eventually but have no immediate application to my life, such as Tim Ferriss’s recent “definitive list” of the resources for how to write a bestseller.
- Use a time tracker, like RescueTime. I still use RescueTime to track where and how I’ve spent time. It can be a time waster itself, though, if you go in to look at your reports/categorize etc. You may also want to keep a “real time” tracker on paper for a few days on paper — set up an Excel spreadsheet that starts and ends whenever you want to finish your day, maybe in 15 minute increments, and manually write in what you’ve done with your time (including things that don’t make it into your billable report, like “got snacks, talked to __” ). Then sit down after a few days or a week of doing this and see what it is that you’re doing with your time, and where you’re losing it. If you seem to have naturally productive times every day, protect that time by avoiding scheduling meetings and more. On the flip side, if you seem to have naturally unproductive times — a lag in the afternoon, for example — see what else you can put there. A late lunch? A midday workout?
- Use a set time system, such as the Pomodoro time management technique. When I’m being good I do use this — the idea is that you work in a 25 minute increments on ONE THING AT A TIME. When 25 minutes is up, you get a 5 minute break, and then another 25 minute increment (or “Pomodoro”) starts. I’m currently using the Clockwork Tomato timer on my Android.
- Look for the bottlenecks in your time. If you spend a lot of time waiting for other people, find a way to make that waiting time more productive.
- Finally: know where you should be with your billable hours. With something like law firm billable hours, you know what your minimum is for the year, and you can figure out what your minimum should be each month — so schedule a check-in 10 days before the end of the month (or some such) to see if you’re on track. If you need to, pick up more work, cancel some personal engagements (e.g., lunches with friends), or go in on the weekend.
Readers, how do you manage your time, whether it’s to meet your billable requirements or just juggle work and life?