What’s Really Important? It’s Not What you Think


Determine What's ImportantI’ll bet that you think this article is for me to tell you that life isn’t about work and money, and that the more important things are friends and family (OK the picture I used might have lead you to think that).  Well it’s not.  

Those things may be true, of course, but today I wanted to write about something that seems to confound a lot of lawyers.  It’s what I like to call “scale importance”.

Take a moment to think about the greatest accomplishments of your last week.  No doubt you will turn your mind to the larger tasks, those which consumed your time, and those which involved the greatest effort on your part?

Unfortunately, you are trapped into the thinking that makes you feel better about what you are doing, without necessarily helping you improve your productivity.

Spending Time on a Task Does Not Make it Important

Important tasks are, well, important.  What we have a knack of doing within our own brains, however, is to create for ourselves a sense of importance by reference to how much time it has taken us to complete them.

Take the preparation of big, firm wide project (the kind I’ve spoken about in this article, with too many resources for too little gain).  The firm and the individuals involved will say “wow we’re part of this great big thing – look at all the time it’s taking up” and use that to define the task as an important one.

That, of course, is incorrect.  However it is something we do all the time.

A Task Being Difficult Does Not Make it Important

In the same vein, a task being complex and difficult does not make it important either.  Most lawyers enjoy complex tasks, of course, but this is just because of the way our brains work – not because it makes the task inherently important.

The difficulty of a task simply affects the nature of the resources that need to be allocated to it.  Just like you cannot write a novel while also driving a car and having a telephone call (not a recommended combination, by the way) you need to ensure with complex tasks that the appropriate resources (mental or human) are allocated to ensure the task gets done.

But First….

But before embarking on a complex task that will take a long time and consume lots of resources, we need to ask this: is it important?

You see, determining the importance of a task should come before even considering the resources it will take.

If our best bet at productivity is to ensure that we are focusing on important tasks rather than unimportant, we cannot fall into a trap of determining in advance that something is important by reference only to its sheer scale.  Doing so means we risk spending our time on the unimportant consistently.

Instead, the importance of a task should be determined by reference to the way in which the task works towards achieving our goals.  That way we can figure out later whether the allocation of resources will either be rational, or irrational.  If an otherwise unimportant task requires the devotion of significant resources – then take it off the list.

I should say this doesn’t always apply just to an entire task, but to components.  Sometimes a large task might be beneficial, but the component pieces are unimportant and time consuming.  One example for me (others might disagree) in legal circles is the preparation of a project timeline chart.  Such things might be needed to build a house or a commercial building, but do we really need a 5 page multi-coloured gant chart for our “prepare a seminar” project?  Of course not – in the time it takes you to do up the chart, I could have completed the entire project.

Of course, sometimes you are simply told to do something and so you need to do it.  But, given a choice, try and ensure that the scale of a task does not skew your brain into thinking it is important when it really isn’t.  Now that you are thinking about this issue, I’ll bet that you see this happening all the time.  I know I did!  Got any examples you can give me in the comments below?

Happy Lawyering!

  • Nice one Chris.

    I suppose the client tells you whether it is important to them.

    It’s how you or the ‘firm’ provide that service that makes all the difference to the client and you.

    Do the ordinary – extra-ordinary.

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