After a near death experience in 2012 Abigail Barnes, marketing and productivity strategist and founder of Success of Design, realised that she had been wasting much of her time “prioritising things that didn’t matter”. She was on a business trip to Boston when she had a stroke that nearly killed her. It was after this experience that she embarked on a journey to help professionals get the most out of their time.

“The only thing that matters is how you spend your time”

Abigail spoke to Crafty Counsel to give some advice for busy in-house legal professionals about how to make the most of their time and maximize their productivity.

She says the Covid-19 pandemic was a “wake-up” call for many to question what they are trading their time for. She says that the questions that come up with clients include “what am I doing, what is my life purpose, where do I want to work from? And what kind of life and lifestyle do I want?”

“We are always trading our time for something. So we’re trading our time for money with our jobs. We’re trading our time for enjoyment with our friends, with our family. We’re trading our time for knowledge if it’s education. So the question has to be, is what I’m trading my time for what I want?”

Abigail Barnes, time management expert

Abigail acknowledges that it is “a privileged conversation to be having”, but it is an “exciting” one, because “we’re now in a place where we can really rewrite the rule book, start over again.”

What causes poor time management?

There are four things that are the root cause of most people’s poor time management, says Abigail. She lists them as:

  1. Efficiency – not making the most of their time
  2. Prioritisation of tasks – not prioritising the tasks that “move the needle” of what they need to be working on
  3. Focus – distractions causing scattered focus
  4. Procrastination – putting off the important tasks that need to be done for later
Time management and productivity tips for in-house lawyers

Advice for in-house lawyers on how to improve time management

Abigail works with a “traffic light formula” and says each colour of the traffic light represents a certain way of classifying a task:

  • Green – client-facing activities, bill paying, fee paying, charging activities. “Identify those because those absolutely have to be done today” explains Abigail.
  • Amber – activities, like longer term projects, that are not business critical today.
  • Red – admin activities that need to be done that could be delegated.

Identify the time of day to deep work

After identifying what needs to be done people need to work out when the best time of the day is to do focused work. Abigail cites the work of Nathaniel Kleitman, who was a Professor of Physiology and a sleep researcher at the University of Chicago. He identified the circadian rhythm, which is that people sleep in 90-minute cycles. He also found that people work in similar cycles during the day and that is known as the ultradian rhythm. Abigail says people need to identify the times of day when they “can work in a 90-minute cycle and really go into that deep focused work.”

“Identifying those peak performance times and then performing in those times is going to guarantee that you are more productive, making the most out of your time” she says.

Abigail recommends that during this time people should “turn off notifications, not have meetings, not need to be on calls, not need to be available for people.” The best times to work in this way are usually “first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening” , says Abigail.

Time management and self-worth

“Time management is really about self-worth,” says Abigail. She says tackling people’s beliefs about themselves and what their time is worth is key in changing their habits around time management, “your beliefs are driving your metaphorical bus of life” she says.

She says, “if you demonstrate yourself disrespecting your time, people will disrespect your time”.

Language and time management

How people speak about the time is important, says Abigail. She teaches people to reframe phrases such as “I don’t have time” and to rather say “that’s not my priority”. She also teaches people how to say “no” to requests that will take them away from other more important tasks. For example, she recommends that people say something like “I’m on a deadline right now. I can help you after four.” She says the key is to say “no” without actually saying “no”.

She also recommends that people verbalise what they are working on when a more senior member of staff asks them to do something and then to ask whether the incoming request ought to be prioritised over what they are working on.

Three of Abigail’s top tips

  1. Time management, not task management – she says people can’t “manage time”, but they can “manage their tasks”. Focus on the “needle moving” activities.
  2. Protect the asset – Abigail says that, like high performing athletes, people should look after themselves by sleeping enough, eating well, getting exercise and getting massages. “There is science behind the fact that massages can improve your performance and your productivity,” she says.
  3. Use checklists – Abigail recommends that people use pen and paper checklists “first of all, you’re protecting your cognitive resource, i.e. your brain and then second of all, you’re going to give yourself a mini dopamine hit when you cross through that activity.”

When Abigail works with professionals she firstly recommends that they read her book Time Management For Entrepreneurs and Professionals. She then takes them through a process of identifying how they spend their time and how they can improve. This starts with doing an audit of their time, which is a timesheet from when they wake up to when they go to sleep. The final step in the process is creating a time management action plan.

You can find out more about Abigail on her website and discover more tips with a copy of her latest book.