By Cliff Ennico
“I have a one-person management consulting practice. I’m doing extremely well since my expertise is in great demand. Maybe a little too well.
“I’m deluged with phone calls and e-mails — 40 or more each day, every single one of which must be responded to.
“I want to give my clients the best and most responsive service I possibly can, but it’s getting a bit overwhelming now and I don’t want to hire people.
“Since it seems you operate the same way I do, do you have any good suggestions as to how I can keep everybody happy and still stay sane?”
My answer can be summed up in two words: “not really.”
After 36 years of practicing law, more than 20 of those as a lone wolf working out of a home office in bunny slippers and a bathrobe, I can tell you one thing about time management: Once you reach a certain point, it becomes nearly impossible to pull off. It becomes a little bit like that Abe Lincoln quote: “You can keep all of the people happy some of the time, you can keep some of the people happy all of the time, but you can’t keep all of the people happy all of the time.”
Like any solo professional, I can’t answer every e-mail and voice message in real time. While I can certainly work on several projects simultaneously, I can only work on one thing at any specific moment in time. Multitasking is a myth (especially for those of us with Y chromosomes). There are no unimportant clients, and sometimes the most urgent matter isn’t the most important thing you should be doing at a particular moment.
Having said that, here are some time management principles I currently use to keep things under control. None of these are perfect, but at least they will keep you from committing malpractice or ticking off an important client (or worse, your spouse).
“Segment” Your Work Day. Block off certain times each day when you don’t answer e-mails or voice messages. For me those times are 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., and again from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. During those blocks of time, I am drafting contracts and correspondence or writing books and articles. If it’s right before a big closing, I can be interrupted for messages relating to that transaction, but nothing else. When you start your day, pick one of the projects on your “to do” list, start it and finish it before you even think about e-mails and voice-mails.
Don’t fall into the trap of spending so much time each day answering voice messages and e-mails that the only time available to do “real work” is evenings and weekends. That is the road to serfdom.
“Triaging” Your E-Mail Inbox. E-mail is the biggest enemy of successful time management. You have no control over your inbox, and people expect instantaneous responses to their messages.
Each time you open your inbox, take a quick look at all of the new messages — don’t start answering them yet — and do “triage” (from an old French word meaning “to divide into three”), tagging them as either “should be answered immediately,” “should be answered eventually,” and “should not be answered ever.”
Everybody has their own triage method. Here’s mine:
When I open my inbox, I first delete all of the obvious junk messages. I don’t even look at them. The really weird ones I mark as “spam” so I never see them again.
Next, I look for messages relating to projects I am currently working on for clients. I answer these quickly, in a sentence or two, if I can. If I can’t, I ask to schedule a phone call to discuss the subject of the email. I don’t like engaging in long-winded e-mail exchanges with clients and other attorneys — on the rare occasion where I have to do that, I make sure to charge for my time.
Finally, I look for messages relating to new projects or clients. I give priority to: 1. New projects requested by existing or former clients, 2. New projects requested by new clients that are relatively easy for me to do and will generate significant revenue, 3. Opportunities for speaking engagements and writing projects (preferably with compensation) that will help me promote all the things I do, and 4. Questions I can answer in this column.
That leaves all the rest of the voice-mails and e-mails, which generally consist of requests for free legal advice or requests for services I cannot render because I don’t know the area of law, the reward just isn’t there or because I’m not admitted to practice where the sender is located.
If I have time, I may refer some of these folks to other attorneys (especially those in the second group), but mostly I just discard them, secure in the knowledge there will be more in my inbox tomorrow.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.”
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