Lawyers often view completing timesheets as a necessary evil. But it turns out that our timesheets may provide us with a roadmap to being happier lawyers. Timesheets are even similar to exercises that psychologists and other experts use to increase happiness.
Why Timekeeping Makes Us Miserable
Timesheets highlight the divide between us and our clients: what’s good for our business is not always good for our clients. It forces us to think about extrinsic motivators — like money and praise — instead of the quality of our work. And, let’s face it, writing down everything we have done in six minute increments is boring and tedious.
Billing can be particularly painful if you are doing work you do not enjoy. Recording your time forces you to reflect on how long you spent doing something you would rather avoid, perhaps causing you to re-live the unpleasant experience.
How Timekeeping Can Bring You Joy
The science of happiness suggests that timekeeping does not have to be so dreadful. Under the right circumstances, it can even make us happier. Research shows that people who write down three things that made them happy each day experience a lasting bump in happiness. In one study of almost 500 people, psychologists designed five different happiness exercises to find out which, if any, resulted in greater happiness. The researchers followed up one week, three months, and six months after the exercises to find out if any of the interventions produced lasting increases in happiness. Only two of the practices seemed to help people feel happier after six months. One was to use a signature strength in a new way. The other was to write down three things that made people happy each day, an exercise I’ll call the “Three Happy Things Practice.”
Changing your mindset can transform doing timesheets into the Three Happy Things practice — as long as you enjoy your work. Like the Three Happy Things exercise, timekeeping forces you to think about how you are spending our time. You consciously write down in painstaking detail everything you did on a given day. If you are doing work you love, completing a timesheet is practically the same as the Three Happy Things exercise. You describe exactly what you did, dwell on how much fun it was, how you served a client, and exercised your strengths.
Be Patient for the Rewards
If you are not one of the lucky lawyers billing for work you love, timekeeping still may bring you more happiness over the long haul. Even if the timesheet you are working on today is frustrating, maybe it can give you insight into what kind of work would be a better fit.
That’s because timekeeping is a lot like another tool that experts use to help people find happiness at work. Barrett Avigdor, a lawyer and author of What Happy Working Mothers Know, is an expert on helping people be happy in their careers. Drawing on the work of Marcus Buckingham, a management expert and leading authority on guiding people toward their niches, she suggests recording in real-time your reactions to the tasks you do.
As you work, note whether a task makes you want to tear your hair out, whether it makes you smile, or whether it leaves you feeling neutral. This is helpful because we tend to forget how we feel about our tasks, and writing down our contemporaneous reactions makes us pay attention to what is working for us and what is not.
Next time you do your time, pay attention to how you feel. Does it matter which kind of work you’re billing for? Perhaps you’ll notice you don’t mind billing for certain kinds of work, but you dread billing for other kinds of work. Timekeeping might provide a clue or two about your ideal practice area.
When you are ranting about your timesheets, consider whether you can use your bills to make yourself happier. Let yourself relish the time entries for the work you love, and notice which kind of work is making you frown. Perhaps timekeeping really can bring your more happiness.