Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 2, Part II, March 2000

Issue 2, Part II, March 2000

  • "It's URGENT!!" Your Urgency Management "Tool Kit"

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More ™
Issue # 2 - Part 2
"It's URGENT!!"
Responding to urgency is rewarded in legal practice.  It is normative in the culture of most law firms.  People seek the help of attorneys because they are experiencing some sort of crisis - and they expect you to solve it.  So urgent demands are not going to disappear.
As an attorney and goal-oriented person it's natural for you to think that you can set a specific, achievable goal of reducing urgency or regaining control.  It's appealing to think that you can find a formula that allows you to balance your life.
But life balance isn't a goal; it's a process.  More importantly, it won't happen overnight.  And trying to change everything immediately just gives you one more urgent thing to do.  So consider the suggestions I offer; take one small step at a time.  Most importantly, keep in mind that balance isn't something you just do.  It's like riding a bicycle - it requires constant readjustment.
1. Urgency vs. Importance
Stephen Covey (1) introduced the four quadrant box of urgency and importance as a means of increasing effectiveness and life balance.
Importance is defined as your most important goals, the priorities that give your life meaning.
Urgency refers to how quickly action is required.  A ringing phone is a simple example of urgency.
Draw a box with importance along the horizontal and urgency along the vertical lines.  Divide your box into four equal parts.  The top left quadrant is the high importance, high urgency box.  The top right part is the low importance, high urgency quadrant.  The bottom left section is the high importance, low urgency quadrant, and the bottom right box is the low importance, low urgency quadrant.
You'll probably discover that much of your time is spent in high urgency quadrants, some of it important, too much of it unimportant.  To lead a life of optimal effectiveness and satisfaction, you need to spend your time in the high importance, low urgency quadrant.
2. Use Importance as the Foundation of Time-Management
Typical approaches to time-management involve making "to-do" lists.  Over and over, women attorneys complain to me that their "to-do" lists tyrannize them.  They can't possibly finish everything on the list in the allotted time.  When this method fails, you can feel very discouraged.
The problem with "to-do" lists is that they keep us focused on prioritizing the urgent.
It is far more important to clarify what is important.  This is the first step in any truly effective time-management strategy.
3. Clarify What's Most Important
What if you articulated clearly what is most important to you and revisited this list weekly?
If you think there's a chance this might make a difference in your life, then try writing down what is most important to you.
Consider all of your life roles - lawyer, parent, spouse, daughter, friend, community member - whatever fits your particular circumstance.  What are your most important goals for each of your life roles?
4. Assess Whether You're Spending Your Time
Doing What's Important
Compare how you've been spending your time to how you would spend it if you were doing what is most important to you. If there are glaring discrepancies, you have your first clues about things you need to change to make your life more balanced and satisfying.
Making this comparison is only a beginning.  It does not mean you have to change everything at once or that you've been doing everything wrong.  You are simply a very competent person trying to live a life in a culture and profession that discourages life balance.  Greater balance and control are possible if you approach them in small, intentional steps.
5. Visualize Alternatives
Try visualizing yourself facing a typical crisis and handling it in a completely different way.  Be irreverent, outrageous - remember  it's only a fantasy.  The point is to begin to realize that there are alternatives.
6. Assess True Urgency
Keep in mind that not everything that demands your immediate attention is really urgent.  Many ostensibly urgent demands can wait. Some deadlines are arbitrary or artificial and some are intended to assert power or intimidate you.  Many deadlines can be changed by attorneys, clients or courts.
Try remembering a time when you didn't respond to an urgent demand -- that is, you did the work but rejected the time table.  Did disaster ensue?
7. Compare Urgent Demands To Your List of Priorities
Keep a list of what's most important to you in a visible place. Every time you're presented with an urgent demand, compare it to your list.  Will accepting the supposed urgency contribute to your highest priority goals?  If not, is this task truly urgent -- if you don't meet the deadline, is a catastrophe really likely to occur?  If not, what are your options?
Can you soothe the person making the demand so that he or she can see that their problem will be solved even if you change the deadline?  Can you show the person making the demand that she or he will benefit even more if the time-demands of the task are changed?
8. Triage
Use the concept of triage as a frame of reference.   Everyone goes to the ER believing that their situation is urgent. But the doctors don't allow the patients to define urgency.  Patients with life-threatening problems are attended to first.  Intermediate solutions are provided to ease distress for others who can wait for more thorough solutions.  People whose health concerns can wait without harm to them simply have to wait. This analogy, though limited, is still useful.
9. Anticipate Urgency
Try setting aside a specific time each day for dealing with urgent matters.  This helps reduce some of the stress of urgency and also allows you to work on what's important without interruption.
10. Make Small Reductions in Time Spent on Urgent Demands
Of course, genuine emergencies will still crop up.  But if you can reduce the amount of time you spend doing urgent but unimportant things by even 10%, you're already regaining more control over your life, making conscious choices and reducing the kind of stress that creates serious health risks.
11. Consider How a Coach Can Help
A professional and personal coach may be able to help you clarify what is most important to you. She can help you craft a plan that allows you to spend more time on what is important but not urgent, thereby increasing your sense of personal control and satisfaction. Many women attorneys find that a coach's support is an invaluable resource in meeting this challenge.
"Characteristics of successful women include the fact that they: realize the importance of a mentor or coach, know how to increase their visibility, know how to develop an effective network, have learned to communicate effectively, to balance work and home, to take smart risks, and understand the politics of their various organizations." (2)
1. Covey, S.R.(1989)."The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People." New York: Fireside.
2. Brooks, D. & Brooks, L. (1997). "Seven Secrets of Successful Women." New York: McGraw-Hill.
BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is published monthly by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., founder of  She brings 20 years of experience assisting women attorneys to her work in Lawyers Life Coach TM. is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.
Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession.
Ellen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a managing member of Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care, LLC., a multispecialty, multidisciplinary psychotherapy practice in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland.
She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a graduate of the MentorCoach Program™.
NOTE:  BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is intended for informational and educational purposes only.  It is not a substitute for a personal consultation with a mental health professional and should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, or other psychological service.
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