Saturday, 8 October 2011

CLSIG Time Management seminar - Susie Kay

While I have been in the workplace now for over eight years and feel pretty confident when it comes to organising my workload, I decided to attend this seminar nonetheless simply because the preview explained that there is more to being organised than just being able to manage your time. I was quite intrigued by this, as although I am generally very good at keeping to deadlines and prioritising tasks, my physical environment can sometimes become a bit chaotic, and when that happens, I am aware that I have a tendency to start jumping from one thing to the next, desperately hunting for a scrap of paper that was there one minute, but seemingly gone the next. I felt confident that this seminar would be very helpful and applicable to my working life in general.

The first area we looked at was our physical environment. Susie showed us a picture of the most untidy desk you could ever imagine, with papers piled high all over the place and the computer barely visible among the debris. We discussed the sort of impression that a desk of this ilk would create to internal clients. If you don’t present an in-control and organised image, then people will have less faith in your abilities. Similarly if you are scrabbling around for a particular piece of paper, and then you can’t find it – that too is unreliable and irresponsible and simply puts people off working with you or asking for help. One point that she also made which I felt was very important is that from a damage control point of view, a grossly disorganised and messy desk, that uses a filing system that may make sense to you only, is from a business continuance perspective highly risky. If you were suddenly unable to come into work, would someone else be able to easily pick up where you left off? It’s a valid point and one that I am always aware of, having worked in a previous job with a woman whose methods were unintelligible and I was left in a huge mess when she was suddenly taken unwell – I had no clue of where to start with some of her work. It is vitally important to be organised both externally and internally. Procedures for your role should be well documented too. All too often have I been put in the position whereby a boss of mine keeps all their knowledge in their head, then they are on holiday and I am left with a red face because I don’t know how they manage a particular task because they have never told me, nor have they written it down anywhere! I strongly believe that part of being a true professional is transparency – making sure that your deputies know how to fill in for you effectively.

We then moved onto efficient email management. Again, this is something that I am very aware I don’t always practice, so it is something that I shall definitely try and heed going forward! Suzie advised that as a rule of thumb, you should really only handle an email once, as opposed to opening it, reading it, then thinking you will leave it until later to deal with and marking it unread again! I am aware that I am guilty of this on occasion. We decided the best thing to do is to open the email, action whatever needs to be done, then remove it from your inbox, either by deleting it completely, or filing it. Don’t go through the process of reading it several times over, and just leaving it in your inbox.

I do think it’s important to keep as clean an inbox as possible, therefore over the last few years, I have tried my hardest to remove items from my inbox as soon as they have been dealt with and the matter is ‘closed’. I only keep emails in the inbox that are still being worked on or due to be worked on. When I first started working, I did not do this at all! My inbox literally had about 3000 items at one point. I suppose it’s working in law firms that has made me a lot more aware of filing emails, because as well as running my own personal filing system within my inbox, we have a firm-wide file management system that asks you if you want to file your message just before you send it. In our team we file all of the work we do in folders by practice area, so that we can find it again easily if need be, or search these folders to find out if anyone has worked on a particular topic or matter before. Again it’s of the utmost importance to maintain an organised and tidy inbox, and email system in general – and I am glad that Susie reiterated this.

With regard to the old chestnut of ‘time management’, Susie interestingly said that it’s not really about managing time, simply because we can’t really do so because we only have a set amount of hours in a day and that is never going to change! It is more about getting the most out of the time you have. I found this a very interesting way of looking at the matter of ‘time management’, because it is very true – we only have 24 hours in a day to deal with and so there isn’t much we can do about that – we can’t give ourselves more time! What we can do, however, is ensure that we plan our time well – and one method she suggested was using a paper or online calendar, and a big A4 day planning book. What you would do on a daily basis is have a double spread page each day, and on the left hand side you divide the page into boxes in which you make general notes throughout the day. So if you get a phonecall you can jot notes down in one of those boxes, or any other general notes you need to make throughout the day. You then use the other page to create columns where you will detail specific deadlines, tasks, priority level and so on. Then you can supplement this with the definitive deadlines in your electronic or paper diary.

I have to admit, I am a little dubious of this method, simply because it’s just not one I have ever considered before – I am not sure if I would be able to discipline myself enough to set up the double page every day and make sure that I only write in this book, AND remember to transfer deadlines to my diary as well! I am going to try and give it a go for a week and see how I feel about it. I think it’s partly just fear of the unknown making me a bit doubtful of the merits of this method.

One thing that we did discuss which I definitely do not think is so easy to do in my particular role, is learning to say ‘no’! Susie gave the example of when you are interrupted by someone who wants to ask you something, you can sometimes just politely ask if they would mind giving you just 30 minutes and then you will be with them. Similarly, she suggested shutting your office door from time to time, making it a policy of an open door most of the time, but when it’s shut, you are not to be disturbed. While both of those methods make sense in theory, I do not think they really work quite so well in our law library. Firstly, in terms of asking someone to come back in half an hour – it’s just never going to be feasible to say this to a fee-earner who needs help now! I understand that perhaps it could apply to a team member who wants your help with something, but not with our customers! The ‘closed door’ policy again doesn’t work in our library, as obviously we don’t all have offices, and if we shut the door of the library, we feel it’s quite off-putting to people who might just want to pop in and browse. This kind of saying ‘no’ doesn’t really fit with our image or the service we provide to the firm. However, at the same time, saying ‘no’ is something that we all need to learn to do, but is very difficult for me I must admit. It’s my instinct to accept everything and I sometimes find it hard to ask for help even when I feel overloaded. This is undoubtedly something that I need to work on – I am aware of it and the discussion with Susie brought the importance of that home to me.

Overall this was a very interesting session and one that is definitely relevant to me. It showed me that it doesn’t matter how long we have been in the workplace, we should always be open to new methods of organising our time, and moreover, we should always bear in mind the importance of being organised in the workplace, and the consequences for our colleagues if we aren’t. 

We followed this session with some drinks and tasty nibbles, and a chance to do some networking...which tied in nicely with putting to good use some of the skills mentioned in my recent post on networking skills!

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