How to win at time management: cultivate awareness of your choices

“The more conscious you are in your choice-making, the more likely you are to get what you want.”[1]

As a coach for attorneys, I teach skills and processes to manage time and workflow better. When I work with clients, we examine their daily behaviors regarding their use of time – right down to the last minute. Yes, the microscope comes out!

In my years of coaching, I have observed several barriers to a person’s success. One of the most common challenges clients experience is a lack of awareness about their own minute-to-minute choices. Recognizing how you contribute to your own time management challenges is vital to developing skills in this area.

It can be easier said than done, because it’s confronting to acknowledge your own part in the process. But the choices we make in each moment are the way we manage our time. Errors and poor choices are inevitable. But realizing you chose an action that didn’t get you the result you wanted means that next time you may be more likely to make a different choice. It’s a form of mindfulness – which you need to bring to your working life if effective time management is your goal.


Clues in the words you use

Start by examining what you tell yourself and others about time-related choices.  Here’s an example: let’s say you’re late for an important meeting.

Scenario A: You walk in late, explaining that you overslept because your toddler unplugged the alarm clock, the plumber showed up late to fix the leaking toilet, and then you got stuck in heavy traffic. The message is: “I couldn’t help it – it was one obstacle after another. I tried.”

Scenario B:  You walk in to the meeting and tell the others you realize you are late, and you regret that your actions inconvenienced them.  You respect them and know their time is valuable.  You will take steps to change your morning routine at home to ensure that it does not happen again.  Then you actually take those steps to give yourself more leeway in the morning to arrive on time. The message is: “I accept responsibility for my choices and actions.”

In scenario A, you portray yourself as a victim of circumstance.  In scenario B, you accept that you made choices – some of which led to you being late.  You chose to be accountable, and next time you will take actions – set a backup alarm, schedule a plumber at a different time, and avoid driving at a time when you might encounter heavy traffic – to manage your time better.

Now, the idea here is not to make you feel bad. There are many things in the world you can’t control. Instead, focus your attention on the elements you have control over, and you will expand your vision about what you can do. This way you move from being a powerless victim to working from a place of power and choice. If you accept that you have a choice over when and how to schedule meetings, plumbers and commutes, then you move towards your goal of arriving on time for that all-important meeting – and other meetings in the future.


Beware of “playing the victim”

“They assigned me too much work, so I had to stay late and miss your party.”

“I tried to get it done by the date you requested. But Susan took so long to get back to me that I couldn’t do my part on time.”

“There are so many fire drills at work – I never have time to get to the gym.”

“It’s out of my hands. Opposing counsel is being unreasonable, so there is no way we will make the deadline.”

“But I can’t stop checking my email all the time. My boss would have a fit if I didn’t always respond right away.”

The cost of “being helpless” is that you cannot improve or effect change in your own life. Increasing your awareness of the time-related untruths we tell others – and ourselves – allows us to grow and create positive change. In doing so you’ll have to let go of excuses, sympathy, an image of being perfect, and the comfort that comes with avoiding change. But the reward for letting go of “victimhood” is progress toward your goal – whether that is to be a better time manager or a better lawyer.


Actions speak louder than words

Here’s a summary of the steps you can take to increase accountability in your own thinking about time:

  1. Notice your everyday “victim of circumstance” thoughts and statements about time-related issues. Ask others you trust to let you know when they hear you speaking in this way.
  2. Review your calendar and time entries daily and journal about what you notice. Do you tend to get sidetracked at a specific time each day, or is there a mistake you seem to make over and over?
  3. Next time you find yourself adopting a victim stance after a time management flub, ask yourself this:  What are all the choices I had in this situation?

The more awareness you cultivate, the more you will observe patterns in your own behavior. This will help you to bring greater mindfulness to your decision-making. It’s important to remember that practice makes perfect, and that behavioral changes happen over time – not overnight. Being aware of the way you speak and think is paramount to effective time management. It’s often the vital difference between staying still and stuck – and being accountable and creating growth.

[1] Coaching For Attorneys, p.33.  Authors Cami McLaren/Stephanie Finelli. 2014. American Bar Association Publishing.