How do you handle this calendar issue?

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An executive secretary to the CEO of a fortune 50 company handles his calendar. When he has something due, a paper or a project, she enters the due date on his calendar. Then, she asks the executive how much time he needs to complete the project once he begins. If he says, “two weeks,” she records a date on his calendar two weeks before the due date, reminding him to begin the project.

Okay, due dates and start dates. Nothing new here.

She takes it a step further. She asks her boss how much prep time he estimates he will need before he begins the project—to do research, talk to people, gather his notes, and so on. If he says he needs a week to do that, she calendars a date one week before the start date, reminding him to do the prep.

One project, three dates in his calendar.

I like this. It allows the executive to do other work without having to think about the project until his calendar tells him to. In the past, I’ve calendared start dates and due dates but never a “prep” date.

Maybe I should try this?

Then I remembered that I’m not very good at estimating how long many projects will take. I also remembered what has happened to me in the past when I’ve scheduled start dates and due dates. Too often, they don’t stick and I wind up moving the dates, sometimes repeatedly, and my calendar becomes a mess of unfinished (and unstarted) projects. It makes me feel out of control, which is the opposite of what was intended.

No bueno.

I use a more fluid system now. Unless there is a fixed due date for a project, I start when I’m ready to start and finish when I’m done. I think a little more structure might benefit me, however, but I’m not sure what to do.

Should I calendar prep, start, and due dates for projects that are amenable to this but eschew it for others? Should I try to force myself to get better at estimating how much time I will need, and better at sticking to those estimates?

How about you? What do you do about calendaring projects that don’t have a due date assigned by the court or someone else? What do you about estimating how long a project will take? Do you use a different system?

I welcome your thoughts.

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Cleaning up your email inbox

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How much of your day is spent writing and responding to email?

Yeah, a lot.

When you don’t get through it, not only can bad things happen (mistakes, missed opportunities, unresolved problems, broken promises, etc.), these “open loops” weigh on your subconscious mind and bedevil you. (The Zeigarnik effect is the psychological tendency to remember uncompleted tasks.)

So, if you don’t have your email inbox under control, here’s a reminder to make it so and a checklist of what to do, courtesy of David Allen (Getting Things Done):

  1. Take out the trash. Go through the inbox and delete everything you don’t need or want. Just do it, already. (Or, archive them if you’re not sure.)
  2. Use the “two-minute rule”. Any actionable emails that you can read and reply to (or complete the required action) in two minutes or less, do it.
  3. Tag/file/label “waiting for” items. If you ordered something and you’re waiting for it arrive, if you tasked someone to do something and you’re waiting for them to complete it, move the corresponding emails to a folder or label them accordingly. (I forward them to Evernote.) Tip: when you confirm by email that someone will do something, cc or bcc yourself and label that email “waiting”.
  4. File/tag “action” items. Anything you need to do that will take longer than two minutes should be filed in an “action” folder or tagged or labeled accordingly. (If forward these to Evernote, too).
  5. File reference material. For emails that don’t require action but you want to keep, move them to their own folder or tag or label them. (Once again, I forward these to Evernote.)

When you’re done, your inbox should be empty. I did this several years ago, over a period of several days, and it felt great to get it done. Everything was out of sight and in the place it needed to be and I knew where to find it. Nothing screaming at me for attention. No open loops.

Try it and let me know what you think. (I already know what I’ll do with your email.)

Evernote for Lawyers

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The objective of every productivity system or methodology

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If you’re like me, you read a lot of article and books, watch a lot of videos, and try out a lot of apps, looking for the Holy Grail of productivity.

Even when things are working smoothly, you continue looking for ways to improve.

I think that’s fine. Wherever you are in life, you always want to do better. As long as you don’t spend more time searching and tinkering with your system than using it and getting things done, continually seeking improvement is a good thing.

But have you ever asked yourself how you can tell when you’ve found the right tool or method?

As I see it, there are two ways to tell.

The first way is quantitative. You track your results and establish a baseline. Then, you change something and compare those results. Are you getting more done with the second method? Is the other tool helping you to accomplish more important goals? Are you able save time or money or energy using one method versus the other?

Unfortunately, these questions are often difficult to answer.

You may not be able to measure accurately. Outside factors or timing may affect results. The new system may help you in some areas but hurt performance in others.

Like relationships, it’s complicated. Which leads to the other way to know you’ve found the right method.

You’re probably thinking I’m going to say something like “trust your gut” and you’re right. But I won’t leave you hanging. I’ll offer you some words of guidance I heard David Allen use to describe the objective of every productivity system or method.

He said that no matter what you use, the objective is to help you feel “relaxed, focused, and in control”. So ask yourself if your current method or system does that.

If it does, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Keep doing what you’re doing but be open to incremental improvements.

If your current method doesn’t help you to consistently feel “relaxed, focused, and in control,” however, your next project should probably be to find something that does.

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Barf happens

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The cat threw up last night. At 3 am. By the time I fell back to sleep it was an hour later and I got up late.

I started writing (my first time block) about an hour later than scheduled. I just got back from my walk. I’ll get this post done and out to you, so that’s good, but I am behind schedule. I can absorb this into my admittedly not very busy day but if this happened to you, would you be able to do the same?

There will always be interruptions, delays, emergencies, illnesses and other things that throw you off schedule. The question is, what to do about it?

A few thoughts.

First, you have to understand that this is a normal part of life and you have to be okay with that. Don’t panic. Roll with the punches and carry on.

If you miss doing something completely, do it later in the day, double up tomorrow, or stay late and get it done. The occasional weekend make-up session is okay, too. If none of this is possible, don’t fret about it. And don’t get rid of the cat.

Second, build dams between your blocks. Don’t schedule blocks of time immediately following other blocks (or other appointments), give yourself a buffer. Ten or fifteen minutes between appointments or scheduled tasks should be enough to cover you most of the time.

Third, do what you can to minimize or eliminate interruptions, distractions, and delays, before they occur. Tell your staff when you won’t be available and not to interrupt you. Turn off your phone. Close unnecessary tabs on your browser. And keep track of the interruptions and delays that do occur and make notes about how to handle those situations when they happen again.

Because all you can do is all you can do. And because barf happens.

When was the last time you conducted a referral blitz?

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Taking a look at ‘time blocking’

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Not long ago, I mentioned my horror at the idea of using your calendar to schedule your entire day (in 15-minute increments). Apparently, some folks do that. More power to them. It’s not for me.

On the other hand (when you’re a lawyer, it’s good to have more than one hand), I’ve recently been reading about how some people use their calendar to manage their day and what they do makes sense to me. Instead of breaking up the day into bite-sized segments of time, they schedule blocks of time that are dedicated to important projects or groups of tasks. Because it’s on their calendar, an appointment with themselves, they do them.

When I first heard about this, I balked because, being invested in GTD, I see the calendar as a place to record appointments and other must-do time-oriented tasks.

Once I saw how other people use time blocking, however, I realized that it’s not inconsistent with GTD, as long as you are committed to keeping those appointments with yourself.

Anyway, here’s what I’m doing right now.

I scheduled a one-hour block for writing. I do that first thing.

I scheduled a second block for my walk. I was already walking every day so this was just a matter of putting it on the calendar.

And I scheduled a third block for writing my blog post/email and doing other tasks associated with the business such as answering email.

By 11 am, I’m accomplished my MIT’s (Most Important Tasks) for the day. I’ve got the rest of the day to do other tasks, do more writing, read, work on small projects, take a nap, run errands, or whatever.

So far, so good. I like getting my MIT’s done early. If that’s all I do on a given day, it’s a good day.

Do you use time blocking? GTD? How do you use your calendar to manage your day?

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Go plagiarize yourself

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I have another project for you for the new year. In a nutshell, you’re going to inventory everything you’ve written or recorded in the past so you can use it again.

It’s about leverage. Getting more value out of your previous work, and saving a bunch of time and effort in the process.

First, gather up the following and put them into digital files:

  • Forms, documents, and other work product.
  • Frequently used emails and letters.
  • Content: articles, blog posts, newsletters, podcast, video, and interview transcripts, presentations, reports, ebooks, etc.

You might break up work product by practice area, type of matter, type of client, or stage of the proceeding. Instead of files, you can use tags or labels.

Calendar some time in the coming weeks to go through your files, and then:

  • Update forms and documents. Create an index of these documents, with searchable tags.
  • Convert emails and letters into boilerplate: transmittal, demands, notices, client updates, marketing, newsletters, etc.

Re-use, update, or re-purpose other content:

  • Re-publish blog posts, newsletters, and articles. Or combine parts of several posts to create new ones.
  • Convert blog posts, articles, podcasts, and interviews into ebooks, reports, presentations, social media posts, lead magnets (giveaways), and bonuses. Convert presentations, ebooks, reports, etc., into blog posts.
  • Update older posts, etc., with new information, new results, different opinions, predictions, etc. Consolidate several posts into round-up posts. Break up longer posts into shorter ones.
  • Modify marketing documents for use with different types of readers or markets

Do a little bit each week and you should soon find yourself saving time and getting better results.

You should also set up files to save copies of “incoming” content from other lawyers–documents, emails they sent you, (subscribe to their newsletters), forms they use (when you sub-in on a file), and so on. No, don’t plagiarize their stuff, use it for ideas for updating yours.

C’mon, you know they’re doing that with your stuff, don’t you?

Evernote for Lawyers

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The list’s the thing

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We like lists, don’t we? They help us remember what to do, when, and in what order. They help us do our work, buy our groceries, and remember who was naughty and who was nice.

As you sit down to plan the upcoming year, you might want to add a few more lists to your collection. Here are some examples, along with what you might include on each list:

  1. Daily: Outgoing phone calls, exercise, vitamins, writing in your journal, 15 minutes for marketing, personal development, reading, tidy up desktop
  2. Weekly: Weekly review, staff meeting, writing your newsletter, paying bills
  3. Monthly: Planning, review accounting ledgers, review goals, meetings, review advertising
  4. Quarterly: Board meeting(s), pay estimated taxes, update software, remind clients to conduct board meeting
  5. Yearly: Year-end review, goal setting, planning, sending docs to CPA, physical checkup, Christmas cards, remind clients to review leases

You’ll want to have sub-lists for many of these. For example, a checklist for your weekly review.

If you’re really into lists, you might also consider a list for every morning, every evening, every weekday, or every Saturday.

Put the date and time of the activities on your lists on your calendar. I suggest you maintain the actual lists elsewhere, however, to make it easier to review and update them.

I also suggest you create a “list of lists”. If you keep your lists in Evernote, for example, create a “Table of Contents” note with links to each of your lists. Drag that master list to your “favorites” in the left sidebar for quick access.

Evernote for Lawyers

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Asking questions

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You’re good at asking questions. You do it for a living. Questions help you discover the truth, open and close doors and get a grasp on where to go next with a case or a line of questioning.

Asking questions can also help you clarify your goals and what you’re doing to achieve them.

Look at your calendar and your task list. All of the projects you’re working on, upcoming appointments, meetings, calls, emails, things you have to research, documents you need to prepare. Your day is filled with work and you’re getting most of it done.

Things are good.

You’re bringing in clients, making money, building a future. Don’t stop there. Don’t settle for the status quo. You can always do better.

Make it a habit to ask yourself questions about what you’re doing. Start with the big picture:

How can I earn what I’m earning and work fewer hours?

How can I increase my income without doing more work?

How can I bring in more clients at less expense?

How can I bring in bigger cases or better clients?

Not, “Can I?” but “How can I?” Assume you can.

Cogitate on questions like these. There are answers. You will find them. But only if you ask.

More.

Before you start a new task, ask yourself, Why am I doing this right now? Maybe it can be done later. Maybe someone else can do it. Maybe it doesn’t need to be done at all.

Asking why helps you to prioritize.

That’s “how” and “why”. You should also ask yourself “when” and “what”.

What should I do differently? When would be the best time? What should I add or remove?

Don’t forget “who”. Who should I talk to? Who could help me with this? Who do I know? Who do I want to know?

Ask questions about everything. Perhaps you are in the habit of scheduling new client appointments at a time that’s convenient to the client. Is this the best policy?

I don’t know. Ask more questions. Does accommodating the new client interfere with something else you should be doing? Does it impair your ability to finish things you’ve promised to other clients? Does it send a subliminal message that you’re hungry for business?

Interrogate yourself about who, what, when why, and how. Use your skills to spot the issues. State the arguments, for and against. Yes, I know, you could argue either side and all sides, all day long. You’re good at that, too. But don’t get caught up in that. Make a decision. Take action. See what happens.

Then you can ask more questions.

More questions to help you decide

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Immediately, if not sooner

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In high school, there were lots of girls I wanted to ask out but never did. I was nervous and afraid they would turn me down and although I fully intended to ask them out “someday,” that day usually never came.

Apparently, there’s a scientific explanation. According to research, “The longer you hesitate to do something, the less likely you are to do it.”

And that makes sense. Your fear builds, you convince yourself that you can’t do it, you tell yourself that you’ll do it someday, and then you get distracted by other things (or other girls) and it’s easier to not do something than do it.

If you want to get a particular thing done, do it immediately.

If you can’t do it immediately, if you need to do research, for example, start that research immediately.

Find something you can do related to the project–planning, making notes, talking to someone–and do it. Immediately. If not sooner.

My grandfather used to say that. “Do it immediately, if not sooner,” he would say, trying to be funny. But there’s actually a way you can do things sooner than immediately.

You do that by deciding to do it prior to actually doing it.

You can decide today that from now on, you’re going to work out every day. You can decide right now that you’re going to invest 15 minutes a day in marketing (and put that on your calendar). You can decide tonight you’re going to ask that girl out tomorrow.

When tomorrow comes, you don’t have to think about it, you just do it. Because you already decided you would.

Decide now that you’re going to get more referrals

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Why a boring day is probably a productive day

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Routines help eliminate needless decision-making. You do something a certain way because you’ve already worked out that it’s the best way to do it. You don’t have to think, you just do.

Routines are boring, and that’s the point. They help you get more done in less time and with fewer mistakes.

A routine is a mental checklist, although you might want to actually write it down until, well, it becomes routine. Checklists make sure you don’t forget anything and that you do things in the right order.

So you have a routine for getting your day started and a routine for starting work. You have a routine for writing a blog post or article, a routine for signing up new clients, and a routine for closing a file when the case is done. You have routines in the kitchen, routines for running errands, and routines in the bedroom, although that’s one area where you should probably go off script.

Think about how you can create more checklists and routines in your life.

Now, just because you have a routine doesn’t mean you never think about what you’re doing. Periodically, you should step back and examine your routines and look for ways to improve them. Ask yourself, What can I do better or faster? Which steps can I eliminate? Where might I add more steps to improve the overall process?

As you create new routines and improve existing ones, you’ll find yourself getting more done in less time and with less mental energy. You can use that time and energy to work on new ideas and creative projects.

Have a boring day.

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