Conscious urgency - five tips on time & task management for GC’s and legal

Written by
Natacha Podymski Ribeiro
from
saba
-
October 17, 2022

I have been working in-house for the past eight years and amongst the many things I had to learn when transitioning from a law firm was that when working in-house, your primary job is to solve problems and not necessarily to win arguments. What I have observed is that, because of our problem-solving function, we are constantly sought out from all sides of the organization and for all sorts of urgent issues. If your energy and time are not properly managed, it might lead, on the company side, to missed deadlines and deals lost, and, on your personal side, to mental health issues.

So here are a few tips I’ve assembled that have helped me better cope with heavy workloads and manage my time, which will hopefully help you too.

Tip #1 – Learn to prioritize

First, you need to be a persistent prioritizer. How? By understanding the difference between urgent and important.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, an American military officer who served as the 34th president of the United States from 1953 to 1961, once quoted an unnamed university president who said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent”.

That later on led Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, to use Eisenhower’s ideas to develop the popular task management tool known as the Eisenhower Matrix or Eisenhower Box: there’s important and urgent, important and not urgent, not important and urgent, not important and not urgent. Here’s an example of my Eisenhower Box for this week:

Urgency and importance seem synonymous but when analysed against Eisenhower’s principle, the difference between the two is crucial and with this simple tool you will realize that all of your day-to-day tasks and bigger projects will fall into one of these four quadrants. In order to improve your productivity, you should – first and foremost – make a conscious choice about what is urgent and important to you based on your desired outcome. Ask yourself what you are working towards.

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to have multiple “first” things.” —Greg McKeown, Essentialism

Tip #2 – Rethink the ever-ready “Yes”

I’m guilty of this one. I’ve always had a hard time saying no to colleagues and would say yes to pretty much every request. It’s not until recently that I’ve decided to act on it. Obviously, as legal counsel, we want to be of service to others. That’s when time management troubles typically begin; if you just say yes, you will very quickly become overwhelmed with so much on your plate and lose control of your time.

I know it’s easier said than done but remember that not every problem is the in-house counsel’s problem to solve, and despite your good intentions some requests shouldn’t be directed to you.

We are often expected to solve routine problems from other departments of the organization but ask yourself if there are employees who have the necessary competences to solve such problems from their own areas of operation, and if so, they should be the ones to solve them. Instead of falling into the temptation of handling the problem on your own, adopt a coaching spirit and walk employees to the solving process in a legal manner by guiding them through it and helping them build the confidence they may lack.

“Deciding what not to do is as important to deciding what to do.” – Steve Jobs

Tip #3 – Yes, but not me

While trying to multitask may save time in the short run, it forces your brain to switch back and forth very quickly from one task to another and decreases productivity. The reality is that there are only so many hours in a day and, if you find yourself swamped, you must delegate when you have the opportunity.

In order to effectively delegate, you will need to build the right mindset. Often, people resist deligating as it can be seen as time consuming (you have to explain the task, follow-up, provide support and then feedback) and you might also believe that you yourself can get the task done in a shorter time. But think of it this way: the extra hour you spend providing training will grant you extra hours in the future for you to focus on more important tasks.

Also, allowing someone else to take over a task can bring them a sense of teamwork and give them the feeling of helping out. When done well, delegation can be a win-win situation for everyone.

Tip #4 – Consider automation

Answering emails through your smartphone will not be enough to save time. Automation technology has the ability to save yourself and your organization hours every day. Not every task can be automated, naturally, but with the arrival and constant development of automation tools you should consider it as they are intended to make your life easier.

If you are new to this, I would advise you to start small with simple tasks such as:

  • email management: schedule emails to send later, set reminders and track responses;
  • task management: use a platform that allows you to assign tasks to a team member, track their progress, comment on it, move its stage, and finally mark it as finished (I personally find Basecamp very intuitive and easy to manage [link to: https://basecamp.com/]) – this will ease the endless deluge of emails;
  • legal research and monitoring: laws change and courts are constantly issuing new opinions so make sure you keep yourself updated by subscribing to legal alerts.

Even if you won’t be able to completely eliminate the work, this will help you scale your use of time and achieve better results.

Tip #5 – Expect the unexpected

As GC, you are likely often required to deal with critical and urgent issues which directly impact the tasks you had planned to take on. To minimize this impact, my advice would be to get the most important things on your to-do list done first, so that you leave time for genuine emergencies and last-minute matters that inevitably arise.

Apart from that, you should plan for the unexpected. Some of the problems your organization might encounter can be avoided or mitigated through robust controls, solid governance and strong culture.

Organizations are facing ever-increasing regulations, which impact the businesses, as well as crises triggered by data security breaches, alleged compliance or governance failures, catastrophic events, to name only a few.

Even though some problems are genuinely unpredictable, you can greatly minimize risk by:

(i) regularly reviewing your risk management systems (which extends beyond the legal function),

(ii) implementing a culture that embeds the importance of compliance and

(iii) creating crisis plans and providing training on crisis response to employees.

Such planning has become business-critical to mitigate potential liabilities and costs and – remember – the best time to plan for a crisis is before you’re facing one.

In conclusion

Give these tips a try and you’ll quickly free up a few hours you need to operate more efficiently and better focus on the tasks that really matter, thereby generating a better outcome and alleviating unnecessary stress.

Finally, here’s an extra tip: leave time for yourself. Set time aside consciously and allow yourself to exist without having to get anything done. This will help you recharge and improve your productivity.

Recommended books:

[1] 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

[2] Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

[3] Mindset: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck

[4] Deep Work. Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World by Cal Newport

[5] Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear