How much time should you put into each project?

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I recently read an article about the best way to pay down your debts. Logic dictates that you should pay more towards the balances with the highest interest rates. According to something called the “Snowball Method,” however, it’s better to first pay off the accounts with the smallest balances.

Paying off small balances tends to have a psychological effect on your sense of progress, providing additional motivation to pay down the rest of your debts.

Years ago, when I had several credit cards with varying balances and interest rates, I intuitively made an effort to do just that. Instead of making a proportionally bigger payment on accounts with bigger balances and higher interest rates, I focused on paying off the $500 department store balance, first.

It simplified bill paying and, more importantly, it felt good to see those accounts zero out. I still had the bigger accounts to contend with but overall, it felt like I was making progress.

Does the “Snowball Method” apply to anything else? I suspect it does. If you have five projects on your plate right now, in determining how much time to give each project, it would be logical to consider the potential payoff of each project. Projects with a bigger payoff should get more of your time, one would think. But that would ignore the psychological impact of completing some of the smaller projects, first.

I know, almost every expert says we should do the most important things first so that we make progress on them, and only then work on the less valuable tasks. (Big rocks first.) Hell, I’ve preached that myself.

But we’re human and sometimes we need to do smaller things so we can cross off them off our list and have a sense of progress.

Building your practice is easier when you know The Formula

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Write it once, use it forever

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I’m sure you have a welcome letter you mail to new clients. You probably also use some kind of “memo” or form to accompany mailed documents, along with check boxes to indicate what the recipient should do (e.g., sign and return, review, etc.)

Form letters save time and reduce the risk of errors or omissions and I encourage you to create them for all aspects of your practice.

Gmail has a feature called “canned responses”. Outlook and other email applications have something similar. They allow you to create email templates or “form letters” you can use instead of composing an original email each time, or copying and pasting paragraphs or whole emails from another document.

Go through your “sent” emails for the last 60 or 90 days and look for “frequently sent emails,” whether originated by you or sent in response to an inquiry. Flag them for creating canned responses.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • I got your email (and will reply soon/this week/after I review your questions)
  • Thank you (for coming in, calling, returning documents, for your help)
  • Here’s what to do/expect (what happens next, watch your mail, please call me, don’t forget to send us)
  • Answers to FAQs (hours, parking, fees, practice areas. Provide answers and/or direct to pages on your website)
  • Marketing inquiries (do you accept advertising, guest posts; I’m available for interviews)
  • Checking in (with clients, former clients, networking contacts)
  • Nice to meet you (after a networking event, introduction, phone conversation)
  • Announcing (new content on your website, firm news, new laws/regs)
  • Promoting (your newsletter, your ebook, your seminar, your podcast or youtube channel)
  • Reminders (next appointment, court dates, due dates)
  • It’s time to review (your lease, trust, corporate docs, agreements, legal status)

In addition to complete emails, you can set up a “library” of frequently used paragraphs, links, and subject lines.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to set up different “email signatures”.

For prospective clients, your signature might promote a free report or free consultation, invite them to connect with you on social, or invite them to review specific pages on your website. For existing clients, your signature might invite them to sign up for your “clients only” email list or cross-promote other services offered by you or your firm.

Using canned responses, form letters, and checklists might save you 30 minutes a day, or more. How much would that be worth to you over the course of a year?

Leverage is the key to earning more and working less. More

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Slow down, you’re moving too fast. . .

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I just read an interesting article positing the benefits of working slowly. Those benefits include feeling less frenzied and less fatigued, creating higher quality work product, and being more productive.

Sounds good to me. But I’ve spent a lifetime doing just the opposite–looking for ways to work faster, finish sooner, and get more done in less time–and old habits are hard to break.

Even though I can see the benefits of slowing down, I’m wondering how I can do it.

Busy busy busy. . . no time to stop and chat, I’m late I’m late I’m late.

How about you?

How about if you and I try an experiment and see what happens.

Pick a task or project, or part thereof, grab your calendar, and schedule time to do it. But instead of blocking out the amount of time you think it might take to do the task, allocate more time.

If you think you can do it in 15 minutes, block out 45 minutes or an hour.

Does the thought of doing that make you nervous? Yeah, me too. And that’s why I think we may be onto something.

Now, when the scheduled time arrives, the important thing is to use all of the scheduled time on the task and nothing else. If you finish early, go through everything again. Check your work, revise and update. See if there’s something you missed or something you can improve. If other ideas come to you about other things you need to do, write them down and put them aside.

Don’t stop working on the scheduled task until the scheduled time is up. Force yourself to work slowly on this and other projects, as a way to train yourself to slow down.

In fact, you might schedule a regular block of time on your calendar for “slow time”. This is time you dedicate to more focused, reflective work. As you race through the rest of your week and find tasks that might benefit from greater focus, i.e., a slower pace, mark them to be done during slow time.

You might eventually block out an hour a day for the same purpose.

I don’t know how well this will work, but I’m going to try it. I’ve got a project on my plate I’d planned to do today and I’m going to spend more time on it than I originally planned. If all goes well, I’ll not only get it done, I’ll get it done right–better than I might have done if I sped through it.

And then I’ll skip down the cobblestones, feeling groovy.

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How to simplify your marketing

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If you have ever assembled a piece of furniture from Ikea, you know that some items are more complicated than others. Even with detailed instructions and proper tools, it’s easy to mess these up, or take much longer than you were led to believe.

The same is true of any task or project. The more complicated it is, the more moving parts or steps, the more likely it is that you’ll get it wrong.

Some tasks and projects are so complicated we put off doing them. Or we make the effort, get flummoxed and frustrated and swear we’ll “never do that again!”

Marketing legal services is like that. Do yourself a favor and make it simpler.

On the macro side of the equation, that means using fewer strategies, and for each strategy, fewer techniques.

Try lots of things, and then settle in with a few things that work best for you. That’s what I do, and that’s what I recommend.

On the micro side, you simplify your marketing by using fewer apps and targeting fewer markets. You use forms, checklists, and “scripts”. You memorialize your process, in writing, to make it easier to train new hires and temps and so that you can continually examine your process and improve it.

When marketing is simpler, it is easier and takes less time. You get better at it and get better results.

It’s the 80/20 principle. Figure out what works best for you and do more of it.

Simplify your marketing by doing more of fewer things.

Referral marketing is one strategy every lawyer should use. Find out how

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Careful, don’t choke on that frog

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Brian Tracy’s best selling book, “Eat That Frog,” champions the well-known productivity principle of doing the most important task of your day first.

Tracy says we should swallow the frog whole. As nasty as that might be, if you do the biggest, most difficult and most important task first, you will make great progress towards your goals, even if the rest of the day you don’t accomplish that much.

So if you’ve got a trial coming up next week, prepare for it this morning. If you’ve got a lot of research to do on a file, do it first thing. This makes sense, of course, because if you wait until later in the day or put it off for a few days, you might not have enough time to do them. You might not start, let along finish, your most important tasks.

But you need to be flexible. At least I do. Apparently, some scientific types agree.

I’ve written about this before. I said that much as I would like to, I’m usually not ready to eat that frog first thing. If something takes a lot of time and energy, I usually need to sneak up on it, especially since I’m not a morning person.

I usually get other things out of the way first.

I sort through my blog reader and save articles to read later. I check email, delete most of them, respond to short messages, and star those that require more time. I write my blog post. And take care of other reasonably short tasks that need to get done.

Then I’ve got the rest of the day to work on my big project.

When I was practicing, if I had court in the morning, that’s what I focused on. When I got back to the office, appointments were next. Once those were taken care of, I dove into the files on my desk. I would usually go through them from top to bottom. Dictate, make notes, review.

In the afternoon, my staff would have letters for me to sign and more documents to review and bless. And then I had more appointments. Somewhere in between all that, I was on the phone.

Most days, I got the most important tasks done, or made progress on them, and I got a lot of other things done, too. My desk was usually clean before I left for the day.

And the only tool or “system” I used was a calendar.

In fact, when I was practicing, I can’t recall ever looking for a better system. I was busy doing work.

Besides, before computers, there weren’t a lot of options for getting organized and being more productive, other than trying out a new calendar or paper planner.

When we started using computers, they helped with a lot of basic functions but didn’t give us the multitude of options (and complexities) we have today.

I’m not pining for simpler days. I love and use technology all day, every day. And it does make me more productive. The point is we all have to find what works best for us.

Some depend on a complex workflow and a panoply of tools. Others use little more than a calendar and eat frogs when they get around to it.

The last time I wrote about this, I said as much. Do what works for you and don’t worry about finding the perfect system. Eat that frog first, or save it for later, maybe with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Other than my calendar, Evernote is still my most valuable productivity tool

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The most important thing you should do this week

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You’re at your desk with another cup of coffee. Your desk is (relatively) clean because you made it so before you left for the long new year’s weekend.

Now what?

What’s first? What documents do you need to draft? Who do you need to call? What files do you need to review?

Good news. You already decided most of that before you closed up shop last week. You planned out your week and you’re ready to hit the ground running.

I’m right, aren’t I? You are looking more organized this week than most weeks? You took the time to plan and you don’t need to do that this morning.

Dig in and get to work and go home at a decent hour.

It’s like this whenever you go on vacation, isn’t it? In the days leading up to leaving, you go into crunch mode, clean up your backlog, review open loops, write lists, and plan what you will do when you return.

Like a boss.

Now, you’re relaxed. Rested. Focused. And feeling pretty good about your week. In fact, you’re so well organized, you can see spaces on your calendar you could fill with marketing activity. You actually have time to write something or call someone and make some of that rain you’ve heard about.

Life is good.

So here’s the thing. If you’re able to do this before you go out of town or shut down for the holidays, why couldn’t you do it every week?

You could. And you should. Because life is supposed to be good every week.

So the most important thing you should do this week is prepare for next week. Before you go home on Friday, your desk should be (relatively) clean, you should be caught up on your backlog, and you should have lists of what you will do next week.

Two hours on Friday should do it. Put this on your calendar. Make it a “recurring appointment” with yourself.

Because life is supposed to be good every week.

Start or re-start your marketing with this

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Getting things done by giving yourself less time to do them

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In an interview, author Jodi Picoult was asked about her approach to writing. She said:

“I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

Yep. That just about sums up my thoughts about writer’s block. It’s also a good metaphor for other things on our plate, especially things we’ve been putting off or have struggled to complete.

What project would you like to do but have told yourself you don’t have the time? The truth is, you might not be doing it because you have too much time.

I’ve found this to be a bigger issue for me since I stopped seeing clients and started working from home. Not having appointments and deadlines and due dates has resulted in my continually “not having enough time” to do things, and the things I have done have taken much longer than they should.

There’s one project I’ve had on the back burner for an eternity. I wasn’t close to starting, let along finishing. But about a week ago, I gave myself a deadline to finish it before the end of the month. With that due date looming, in one day I was able to make enormous progress and I am certain I will finish on time.

Parkinson’s Law says, “Work expands to fill the time allotted for it’s completion,” or something like that. The trick, then, is to allot less time. Perhaps a lot less.

Pretend you’re back in school and everything has a due date and serious consequences for missing it. Choose something on your list that you think might require a week or a month to complete and commit to doing it this weekend.

You might not finish it but you will surely make a lot of progress. You also might surprise yourself and get it done.

Get more things done by getting better at delegating. This will help

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Yes, you’re busy but are you getting things done?

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You keep a list of things you need to do each day, right? If you’re good at this list making thing, you highlight the two or three (or five) most important tasks of the day. Even better, you write your list the night before so you can hit the ground running the next morning.

Good stuff. You’re getting things done. Important, valuable things that create value for you and your clients and advance you towards your most important goals.

Or are you?

Some list-makers aren’t that good at deducing their most important tasks and spend too much time putting out fires and doing whatever else is put in front in front of them. Others are good at making lists of important tasks but not so good at getting them done.

If that describes you, even a little, I have a suggestion. At the end of the day, before you write your list for the morrow, write down what you did that day. A “done” list, that shows you what you actually did.

Actually, if you’re especially clever (and unafraid of the truth), instead of writing down what you did, write down what you accomplished. Because being busy isn’t worth squat.

At the end of the day, ask yourself, “What did I achieve today?” If you like the answer, great. You will be motivated to accomplish more the following day. If you don’t like the answer, if you realize that you’re keeping busy but you’re not accomplishing important things, you’ll either do something about that or you’ll stop writing a list of accomplishments and go back to just being busy.

Because success is a choice.

Building a successful law practice starts with having a plan

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What won’t you do today?

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Just because someone called doesn’t mean you have to call them back. You could have someone call them for you, you could send them a letter or email, or you could ignore them.

The choice is yours.

Just because people want to talk to you, meet with you, or have you look at something doesn’t mean you have to do it. You could say no.

Warren Buffett once said, “the difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say “no” to almost everything.”

What will you say no to today?

What meeting won’t you attend? What tasks won’t you do?

If you say “no” to almost everything, you’ll have more time, won’t you, to do the few things that matter most? You’ll be able to work on projects that advance you towards your most important goals, instead of simply getting things done.

Go through your lists of tasks and projects and ideas and choose a few that allow you to use your skills and create value for your clients. That’s what you should be doing, and that means saying no to just about everything else.

If you’re like most people, saying no to most things might free up several hours a day. What important projects could you complete if you had even an extra hour per day?

To be more productive and more successful you must first know your priorities. If you have 100 things on a list only a few will make the cut. What are those few? What are your top priorities?

Once you know, the next step is to prioritize your priorities. Every day ask yourself, “What are the two or three most important tasks to do today?” Do them, ideally early in the day, before you do anything else.

If you finish early, you can choose another important task and do that, you could do a few less important tasks, or you can go home.

Yes, go home.

If you do your most important tasks today, your day will be successful. Even if you don’t do anything else.

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Playing ‘hot potato’ with your client files

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There’s a productivity maxim that says we should only touch a piece of paper or file one time. If you pick it up, you do something with it. Get it off of your plate and onto someone else’s.

It’s like the kids’ game, ‘hot potato’. You have to hand it off quickly, lest you get stuck with it when the buzzer sounds. (No extra charge, there, for using “lest” in a sentence.)

Fortunately, most of what you have to do on most of your files can be done quickly. Take a look, make a decision, scribble a note, done. Give it to your secretary or assistant to carry out your instructions.

When I was practicing, I would come into the office in the morning to a big pile of files and papers on my desk. My mission was to get through that pile as quickly as possible and put those files on my secretary’s desk.

I’d write a note, review an incoming letter, dictate something, sign a letter, and so on, and in a minute or two, each file was done and off my desk.

It was a game and I played it well. I delegated like a boss, because, well, I was the boss.

Of course there were plenty of files that required more than a few minutes of attention. No problem. As I chopped the wood pile down to size and got rid of the kindling (the easy files), I started a new pile of bigger logs. This didn’t violate the “touch once” rule because I did something with the bigger files–I looked at them, decided they needed more time, and put them in another pile.

An overwhelming pile of twenty-five files would thus (no charge there, either) be reduced to a much more manageable five or six. While my staff was working on the pile I had given them, I would dig into the bigger projects.

Yes it’s all a mental game. But if you’re like me, it’s a game you enjoy playing. You keep your staff busy, you keep your desk clear, and you get more balls into the opposition’s court so they can do what they have to do and get back to you with offers.

That’s how you keep the cash flowing and go home early.

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