Managing Your Workload

Workloads in a legal office are demanding at all levels. How we manage these will influence how we perform as well as how we feel.

There is a well-established principle of dividing what is important from what is urgent and of spending as much time as possible on things which are important and spending no or minimal time on things which are not important (urgent or not).

What is ‘important’? Well, this is generally understood as something which helps us to achieve our goals or something which supports our values. In the work context, this includes things like doing a good, efficient and professional job, delivering a good service to a client, being a valued member of the team, preparing a polished, carefully thought- through report, keeping within agreed service levels, or developing or improving a skill, e.g. project management, confidence, assertiveness.  The importance of a task is the personal aspect of our workload – what importance does it have for us directly or indirectly?

Whether or not something is urgent has to do with time pressure and deadlines. Time pressure and deadlines undoubtedly increase stress levels. Whilst the pressure to get on with something boosts motivation through increased adrenalin and other stress levels, we can unwittingly create extra unnecessary stress by leaving certain important but initially non-urgent things to one side – allowing them, simply by the passage of time, eventually to become urgent. Dealing constantly with things which are urgent is tiring, places too much of a demand on us to operate efficiently and can deny us a feeling of satisfaction of a job well paced and well done. Urgent things are often imposed upon us by others (frequently because of their own poor planning). We need a certain degree of spare capacity to fit these things in, so if we are persistently firefighting just the urgent things, this capacity is reduced and we can become overloaded.

So, here are the four main divisions between ‘important’ and ‘urgent’:

  1. Urgent and important: To the extent that these things can’t be delegated, they need immediate attention. If you need help, seek it out.
  2. Not urgent and important: Aim to spend as much time as possible on these. This investment will pay off by reducing the number of things which ultimately become urgent. Using the salami technique here (slicing up the whole task into small manageable chunks, delegating aspects of these where possible or appropriate, making sure that gathering all the information and documentation you need from the outset is a priority and diarising each chunk where possible) is very useful. A steady, measured pace then builds; you have time for reflection as the job progresses and it is completed before becoming urgent.
  3. Urgent but not important: Whilst these things may have the appeal of the thrill of urgency, if they are not actually important, they will distract you from what is important. They do not deserve your attention.
  4. Not urgent and not important: These are the things which may seduce us into doing something about them just because they provide an opportunity for some rest or distraction amongst the firefighting. They are not important: Do not be taken in by their charm. The need for rest and time to reflect is important, but there are other ways of building this into your life!

The focus of this article is mainly on work. Yet in order to function well at work, other important aspects of our lives need to be nurtured too: things like friends, leisure, time to unwind and reflect and giving and receiving attention. These things can often suffer if neglected as non-urgent, but they are extremely important, not least as they underpin our ability to work well and in balance.