A Perspective on the Use of Our Time

I frequently meet with people who are stressed to the point of distress. Often a significant contributing factor is time: trying to do too much in an allotted time, having difficulty determining how to spend time, or feeling under the pressure of time. These people speak of time pressures due to the incredible speed of information turnaround, increased workload demands and new technological capacities (e-mail, voice mail and so on). This results in increased stress, and some people who used to feel competent and capable in their work now feel less competent and less capable.

Take a moment to think about how you spend your time each day; do you notice that you sometimes get caught up in the tyranny of "the urgent" or crisis management? Do you react to situations as they occur, rather than responding in a way that takes in a larger perspective? Many issues may seem urgent in and of themselves, but when we look at them in the larger scheme of things we realize they are not so important-or, perhaps, that they are someone else's priority, which we are taking on as our priority as well.

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey speaks of dealing effectively with life's pressures not by trying to manage time but by learning to manage yourself in time. Covey has developed a model that can help us think about how we spend our time by looking at what's important, what's not important, what's urgent and what's not urgent.

A chart divided into four quadrants, assigning urgency and importance values to each task, provides a visual aid to identifying what needs to be done and what can wait.

Quadrant I: Important and Urgent

Most lawyers are good at dealing with the really important and the really urgent; we will often work hard to get these things done, because we recognize that there are rewards for doing so and/or consequences to not doing so. When a trial date has arrived, we make sure we get to it. In the practice of law, there is much that is urgent and important. Some of the questions to ask yourself about these types of issues are: How important and urgent is this? What are the consequences of doing this first, or of not doing this or of putting it off?

Quadrant II: Important and Not Urgent

We need to take time for those things that are important but don't have deadlines attached to them. These might include planning and/or preparation, setting priorities in professional development, spending quality time with family and friends, taking time for contemplation and creativity and taking time to manage time. These often are given a low priority and take a back seat to the "Urgent" items.Making time for these important but not urgent things is essential if we want to change the long-term picture of our lives. This is a simple concept, and I am sure to most of you it makes good sense. Why don't we all do it, then? Why do so many people spend much of their time in activities that are urgent but not important, and so little time on activities that are important but not urgent? The answers to that are beyond the scope of this article; suffice to say they are many and varied.

Quadrant III: Urgent and Not Important

In this area, things appear to be urgent but are not providing much value for example, meetings in which nothing or very little is accomplished, or some phone calls. It may be important to someone, but not to you. Ask yourself: Is this really important to me? Is it urgent? To whom is it urgent? Could I be doing something else more useful?

Quadrant IV: Not Important and Not Urgent

This can be referred to as waste or excess. What can happen as a reaction to spending too much time in crisis management is that we lose our balance and spend our time zoning out in ways that don't truly meet our needs, nurture us or help us regenerate our vitality.