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Bar News - September 8, 2006

Work-Life Balance: White Space, What It Can Do for You and Your Practice


Did you ever get to the end of a day or week and wonder what you’ve accomplished in regard to serving your clients to the best of your ability and in advancing your professional and personal goals?


Here are some thoughts about how you can close the gap between reacting to imminent daily pressures, yet not getting to the tasks you know are vital for both your clients and you.


Daily life for many lawyers includes addressing a myriad of issues that are unanticipated. If you have a daily list, new issues may feel like an unwelcome distraction from what you had hoped to accomplish. But remember, the point of making a list is to help you, not to increase your guilt, anxiety, and general stress level. Think you can accomplish 20 tasks in a day? I challenge you to write down just eight of the most important things you plan to accomplish today.


But wait, before you start writing—and this is the most important part!—sit and think about the most important thing you should accomplish on this day and write it down first, and do it first. This is a key step, because it might not even be the first thing in your mind.


Ask yourself, “What specific action could I take today that would most benefit me or my client[s]?” This is what Stephen Covey calls Q2 (“quadrant two”) thinking in his seminal book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This instructive and practical book counsels us to be creators rather than reactors in how we work and live.


Q2 tasks are those items which are highly important but not urgent. The daily temptation is to focus on Q1 tasks (“quadrant one”) which are highly important and urgent. These are tasks such as filing deadlines, going to court, and returning telephone calls in a timely way. But it’s also important to periodically call clients who haven’t called you, or to call the large local business owner you just met at a Chamber of Commerce event who said he wanted to talk sometime. It’s also important to sit and ponder the direction of your work/practice. For example, what is the ratio of the clients that you enjoy working with and who bring the highest yield compared to the ones that drag their feet in paying you on time or are consistently difficult to deal with? How can you be most effective in advancing your agency’s agenda?


These Q2 tasks are qualitatively different than Q1 tasks because they involve being proactive rather than reacting to the stream of information, requests, demands and paper that may swarm upon you daily.


Now, leave two spots on your list that are blank. This is the “white space” section of your planning. White space acts as a placeholder for the unanticipated. Thus, in this way, you can plan for the unanticipated. You may laugh and say “two spots aren’t enough, my whole day is like that.” I challenge you to try it.


Here’s what your list might look like:

1.                   Call Charlie (very important client you haven’t seen in awhile), to set up a golf date within the next two weeks.

2.                   White space ________________

3.                   White space ________________

4.                   File motion.

5.                   Return most time-sensitive telephone calls to clients 1, 2, 3.

6.                   Return telephone call to “high-touch” client who has court date in two months.

7.                   Set aside half-day away from the office to plan on a larger scale.

8.                   Go to the gym at lunch.


Confession: I couldn’t resist sneaking in a second Q2 task for #8, and adding a personal addendum for #9, another Q2 task.


We are all different. Let me repeat: We are all different. For this reason, I don’t have a prescription for time management that will suit you perfectly. Because we are all different, people are often resistant to receiving general advice, and rightfully so. Our brains, our histories, our beliefs, and our ways of operating are different.


Therefore, the next challenge I will posit is for you to experiment. At the end of the day, look at the list you made a moment ago and note how you did. Tomorrow, before answering a phone call or checking your e-mail, make a list again. At the end of a week, evaluate how the process worked for you, and make changes to the process so it supports you in being successful. If you have lots of unanticipated work every day, you might have one or two planned tasks and six or seven lines of white space waiting to be filled.


Make how you work be a work in progress; you’re worth the investment.


A former attorney, Betsy Black is an executive and life coach. She writes articles regularly for the NH Bar News and welcomes your comments. Contact her at or 603-228-6195.


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