‘It will be better when….’

How many times have you told yourself that it will be better next term, or when this case is over, or when you become a silk?

And yet somehow things stay the same. Work expands to fill every working hour and your resolve to play tennis twice a week becomes a distant memory.

So, how can the return from your summer break be different this time?

How can you work smarter? More efficiently? And get close to the longed-for balance?

A controversial start: increase your productivity

I am not doubting you are busy. It is hard to spend any time at all with a barrister without them telling you that they are busy.

You may even think it isn’t possible to work any harder.

But I do wonder if you could work smarter to free up some more time.

Some of the following tips may be in your toolkit already but see if there are any you could usefully adopt:

  1. Take breaks. You will not be productive if you’re exhausted. Set a timer (See tip 2) and, when the timer goes off, get up and move around.
  2. Work in focused blocks. The Pomodoro technique, for example, would suggest that you set a timer and work for a 25 minute block, then have a 5 minute break. After every 4 x 25 minute blocks, you should have a longer break. Find the timings that work for you.
  3. Have a system for emails – almost any system is better than none. If you mindlessly check emails at whatever frequency you like then you will be radically reducing the time you spend on focused, productive work. Perhaps set a specific time when you check emails or make better use of automatic replies to buy yourself some time.
  4. Eat the frog (from the book by Brian Tracy) – do your worst task of the day first so it doesn’t hang over you all day. This should fill you with a sense of achievement that will carry you through the rest of the more pleasant tasks you have to tackle.
  5. Or, the flip side to eating the frog: design your day so that you can reverse Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that a task will expand to fill the time available. So if you give the task less time, my theory is that you can get it done more quickly. Set yourself a deadline, or leave only say two hours before you need to go out and you will complete the task efficiently.
  6. Work out what your own particular foible is and then take targeted action against it. Do you scroll around from Twitter to WhatsApp to your favourite news site? Or constantly check your phone? Tune into your self-awareness and then take action to minimise distraction. A great starting point is to put your phone onto airplane mode. Or leave it in a different room.
  7. Think about the environment you are in, and how you can make it work better for you. I know people who swear by their standing desk, or their ear defenders, the power of plants, or daylight or alpha waves. Think back to a time and place when you have worked really well and then do what you can to re-create it.
  8. Pick one or two of these techniques and make a small start on becoming more focused. Don’t put it off until you can achieve perfection. Start now.

You’ve saved time: what next?

Your next challenge for this new term fresh-start is to ensure that any increase in productivity leads to the freed up time being beneficial which, for most of my coaching clients, means ensuring a greater balance or blend between the time and energy spent on the professional and personal aspects of their lives.

Here, the main strategy which works for me and for my clients is: Saying ‘no’ more.

You can say ‘no’ in your professional life

Speaking as a former barrister, I know how hard it can be to say ‘no’. The self-employment aspect feeds a myth that saying no somehow means we will never work again.

But – pay attention – this is important: That simply isn’t true.

I sent a ‘no’ to a company I do some associate work for recently, after some soul-searching and hand-wringing and imagining of bankruptcy.

They replied quickly to thank me for letting them now and they sent another offer of work within a matter of days.

Or, at least, stop saying ‘yes’

Some of us are programmed to say ‘yes’ by default. It can be a hard habit to break.

Therefore, it might be that saying ‘no’ is too big a shift in your behaviour, too much of a leap to achieve in one go. The easy first step is simply pausing before your default ‘yes’.

Pause, take a breath and, preferably, say you’ll come back to them with your answer by a given point. Depending on the question, you might also want to ask for further information (why do they need it in 24 hours, for example).

Gradually, this will become your natural response instead of a ‘yes’ that you immediately regret.

It will change your life and people will still instruct you. I promise.

Balancing your commitments

Once you have mastered this in your professional life, apply the same principle to your private life – do you have commitments that come from obligation or a knee-jerk ‘yes’, rather than coming from a genuine wish to be involved?

Can you eliminate those? Or at least make sure that you do not add any more of those drains on your time?

Using saved time wisely

When you have succeeded in freeing up some time for yourself, the key then is to protect that time to pursue the activities that really light you up.

The hard-working, over-achieving psyche runs deep. The gravitational pull of work is strong. You need to resist allowing all the liberated time to fill up with work and you need to do so consciously. Do not leave it to chance.

I actively carve out time in that diary for social commitments and, very importantly, I also carve out time for myself without having a specific social or family commitment.

Indeed, I have frequent diary entries which say ‘Safeguard for Self’.

Of course, sometimes I have to change those personal commitments, just as I sometimes have to change professional commitments. Any system I deploy to help me out has to be flexible to be workable.

The key is to have rules around flexibility and my rule is that I have to change non-work diary entries I replace them on a different time or date in the near future. They are not lost, merely postponed.

A process not a switch

Unfortunately, none of these strategies promise a quick, easy fix. There isn’t a switch you can flick to ensure that your productivity and your work-life balance remain perfect forever. Or, if there is, I have not found it.

This is an ongoing process, which requires effort, awareness and, possibly, some external accountability.

All I can promise is that the effort is worth it, and the results can be life changing.