Take a break and read this

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When you’re trying to work, getting distracted by a phone call, an alert, or your own thoughts about doing something else, can ruin your momentum. It can take many minutes to get back to where you were before that distraction, and let’s face it, too often you never do.

That’s why God created the phrase, “I’ll finish it tomorrow”.

And so, legions of productivity writers and speakers preach the value of eliminating distractions in your work day. Turn off your phone, close the other tabs on your browser, put on headphones and listen to white noise, they say, so you can focus and get your work done.

By and large, they’re right. I do some of these things myself.

But distractions aren’t entirely bad.

We watch sports or videos or play games or read fiction, in part, to distract ourselves from our problems, the news, and our own negative thoughts that sometimes plague us.

And that’s a good thing.

So, a few thoughts about the subject.

First, don’t feel guilty about taking breaks from your work or other responsibilities, to play a game or watch a video or three. If you enjoy doing it, do it. It’s good for your mental well-being.

Second, watch the time. Don’t play all day when there is work to be done. Yeah, that’s obvious, but we’ve all been guilty of telling ourselves, “one more video” or “one more game” and before we know it, it’s dinner time and we didn’t get much done.

Especially when working from home.

The solution is simple. When you take a break, set a timer and when the time is up, go back to breaking bricks.

Third, schedule regular breaks on your calendar. Time to play or goof off or close your eyes and do nothing. When we take scheduled breaks, we don’t feel guilty about playing for 20 minutes in the middle of the day.

When we don’t schedule breaks, however, when we allow distractions to just happen, that’s when we can get into trouble.

We want to do deep work but find ourselves in deep doo doo.

So, there you go. Break time is over. Thank you for spending it with me.

What’s next? You get back to work and I go watch a video. Or three.

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The reasonable man standard, tagging edition

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You and I have things to keep track of: information, ideas, tasks, projects, reference material, and more. No matter where we keep this information, we need a system that allows us to find it when we need it.

We might use tags, notebooks, folders or labels. We might keep paper lists or use apps and rely on search. No matter what system we use, it’s a good idea to periodically review and update that system.

And that’s what this reasonable man is doing.

If you’d like to join me for a little spring cleaning of your tags, here are some thoughts that might help.

First, tagging isn’t something we can set and forget. It will always be a work in progress. Right now, you may have too many tags (folders, notebooks, etc.) and need to cut them down to size. Too many tags and things get messy and hard to use. You’re not sure if you found what you want because you’re not sure you clicked or searched the right tag(s).

But there’s also the danger of under-tagging. This can keep you from finding things in a reasonable amount of time.

We’re looking for balance. Not too hot, not too cold.

Start by making a list of tags you want to continue using, or start using, in the following categories:

  • Class (task, project, reference, archival)
  • Context (people, places, tools, time, conditions–calls, emails, agendas, waiting for)
  • Dates (start, review, due)
  • Status (investigation, open, filed, settled, closed, active, in progress)
  • Actions (to do, to read, to write, to decide, to review, to buy, to contact)

You could have more categories. Or fewer. But this list should get you started.

Set up some “rules” for yourself, that keep you from over- or under-tagging, and to make your tags more useful.

I don’t tag every name, for example, just the people I know personally and am likely to connect with again.

Decide what your tags will look like. Will you use small letters or upper-and-lower? One word, hyphens or underscores, or spaces? Once you choose, be consistent.

Eliminate duplicates, consolidate plurals and variants (spelling, aliases). Write a style sheet and keep it handy.

Experiment. Try different words, different ways. Look at what other people do for ideas. Keep track of your changes so you can easily change back if you want to.

Finally, prune your garden often. Doing it every few months instead of every few years will be easier and keep your system running smoothly.

Evernote for Lawyers ebook

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How to defeat ‘Productivity Shame’

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‘Productivity Shame’ is the feeling that you haven’t done enough.

You haven’t accomplished enough, you didn’t work hard enough, you’re not good enough.

In part, it’s caused by believing you “should” accomplish at a certain level or pace. You should work as hard as others do and accomplish as much as they do, and if you don’t, you’re weak and ineffectual.

So, we push ourselves to do more than we’re able to do and set ourselves up to fail.

We do that by setting unrealistic goals or schedules for ourselves, because humans tend to underestimate the amount of time needed to complete a task, and/or overestimate our ability to complete a task in that amount of time.

How can we change this?

First, stop comparing yourself to others.

We all have different goals, responsibilities, and energy. What someone else does (or says they do) may inspire you to attempt to do more but if that doesn’t work for you, stop it and allow yourself to do what you can do.

Because you can only do what you can do.

Your body needs time to rest and recharge and time to do other things. You have to stop beating yourself up because you can’t (or don’t want to) live up to someone else’s standard.

Pushing ourselves when we’re exhausted leads to bad decisions and bad outcomes. Things take longer to do because we’re tired, make mistakes and need time to fix them.

If we keep pushing, it can lead to burnout.

On the other hand, when you work at a pace that’s suited to you, you get more done in less time and you get better results.

Second, focus on what’s important and let go of everything else.

There is never enough time to do everything. Determine your priorities and get them done.

When you do that, when you get your most important tasks done each day, the things you didn’t do don’t matter.

Look at your list of tasks and choose the most important one. Ask yourself, “If I could only get one thing done today, what would it be?”

This doesn’t mean you can’t do more. It means that if get your most important task done, your day has been productive and you have nothing to be ashamed of.

Finally, celebrate your accomplishments.

When you have a good day, meaning you accomplished one or more important tasks, pat yourself on the back, forget about everything else, and don’t look back.

Think about what you did, not what you didn’t do.

Feel good about yourself and reward yourself for having a productive day.

Whatever you do, stop caring about what other’s think. What they think is none of your business.

The Quantum Leap Marketing System for Attorneys

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Daily notes: a journal by a different name

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I’ve tried keeping a journal and find it useful (and fun) to record my thoughts but the habit hasn’t stuck.

I’d like to try again and may have found a way to do that.

There’s a new breed of note taking apps (Roam, Obsidian, and others) and I’m trying out one of them.

One feature is a “daily notes” page that automatically appears (unless you turn off that feature), with the date and plenty of room to write. You can also set up templates to prompt you to record whatever is important to you.

Yes, it’s really a journal with a different name. But it might work because the daily notes feature is built into the app. I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to go write in my journal, I can simply add some thoughts or notes on my daily notes page when they occur to me throughout the day.

In that sense, the daily notes page work like an inbox—a place to deposit ideas and notes to be sorted, filed and worked on later.

A daily notes page also works like an “outbox”.

At the end of the day, you can record notes on what you did, what you thought, and what you plan to do later. Because it’s built into the app, it’s easy to drag or copy/paste notes written elsewhere onto the page.

What can you record in your daily notes? Anything you want:

  • What you did today, what you learned today, what you want to remember
  • Goals, plans, ideas
  • Quotes from books you read, a list of books you want to read
  • Websites and apps you want to check out
  • Questions you have about something you’re working on
  • Habits you want to track
  • New clients, new prospects, new marketing campaigns
  • Earnings, expenses, debts you need to pay, money you need to collect
  • Ideas for new projects, notes about improving your workflow, your attitude, your skills, or your well-being

Anything you did or want to do, anything you want to remember, in as little or as much detail as you want.

Some days, you’ll write hundred of words. Other days, you might write a single sentence, or nothing at all.

This morning, I wrote a few questions about the notes app I’m trying, and a few thoughts about the concept of daily notes.

At the end of the day, you can add comments and additional thoughts, and tags or labels or links to related notes. You will no doubt want to move some of those notes to other folders or pages or other apps.

Daily notes allow you to memorialize your journey and build a repository of information you can go back to help you manage your work or personal life.

Daily notes also help you hold yourself accountable to doing what you said you would do, and what you need to do to achieve your goals.

When I look at what I did and didn’t do last week, I see what I’m doing right and what I need to improve.

Yeah, I’m not sure I like that part.

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3 rules for better note taking

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In school, taking good notes improved our understanding and retention of the material, leading to better papers and test scores.

In a law practice, good notes can help us win cases by helping us see aspects of the case we might otherwise miss.

Good notes also help us create better articles, presentations, and books.

Learning and using what you learn starts with good note taking. Here are 3 rules to help you do that:

(1) Record the source.

Attribution of authoritative sources lends authority to what you write or say about a subject. Recording the source will also allow you to go back to the original material if you want to take another look, or find other material by the same author.

(2) Don’t just write what someone said. Write what you think about what they said.

One of the best ways to get more out of your notes is to record your thoughts and ideas about the points you read or hear immediately after you hear them. Write down why they are important, other ideas and questions they make you think of, examples from other books you’ve read and from your own experience, and notes about what to do with this information.

In law school, after I wrote a note, I often wrote my opinion—what I thought about the point made by the court, the professor, or fellow student. I also noted related cases or ideas, and questions I wanted to explore further. This helped me study more effectively, recall the material during exams, and write more persuasively.

I did the same thing in my practice. I recorded what a witness said, for example, and then added my thoughts and questions about what they said, and how I might use it, in the left margin of the page.

The Cornell Note Taking Method advocates this. They also suggest that when the lecture, interview, or chapter is done, you immediately add a summary at the bottom of the page.

(3) Reread and review your notes after you write them. Preferably more than once.

Add additional thoughts. Add links to other notes you have on the subject. Then, re-read and reflect on your notes again, to re-enforce what you’ve learned, and explore additional ideas you can use.

Taking better notes takes practice. I know that after I hear a presentation or read an article, I’m usually in a hurry to move on to the next video or article. I have to remind myself to record my thoughts about the subject and how I could use my notes.

When I take time to do this, I almost always find my notes are more useful to me. Try it and I think you’ll find the same thing.

Evernote for Lawyers ebook

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How to make an effective ‘today’ list

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Last week we talked about the value of making a list of tasks for today (or tomorrow). Here are some tips for doing that.

  • Give yourself a few more minutes than you think you need to prepare your list. 15 minutes planning might save you an hour of doing.
  • Your list should include important tasks, eg, goal-related, and less important but necessary tasks like errands and admin.
  • Consider your day. What’s on your calendar? Will you need travel or prep time? Have you overbooked? Is it mentally or physically demanding work, or does the day look relatively light?
  • Look at your projects and goals lists before you plan the day. What do you need to work on to advance your projects? What’s coming up soon that might need some attention now?
  • Don’t overwhelm yourself. We’re often too optimistic about what we can do in a day. 5-10 tasks is a good number for most people. If you finish early, you can always find more to do, or call it a day.
  • Consider how you feel. If you’re sick or dragging, schedule a lighter day. Also consider how you feel about the tasks you’re planning to do. If you don’t like something (and can’t delegate it), consider moving it to another day, or schedule it first to get it over with.
  • If you find yourself consistently unable to finish the tasks on your list, break them up into smaller, easy-to-do steps, and/or reduce the number of projects you’re currently working on.
  • Prioritize. Do your most important tasks first. Put them on the top of your list, when you have the most energy; errands can wait.
  • Allocate more time than you think you’ll need. I schedule one hour to do my blog, even though I usually get it done in less than 30 minutes.
  • Allow buffer time between tasks or appointments, in case you need more time than you thought, or you need a break.

In sum, an effective ‘today’ list is not too hot and not too cold. It’s a list you feel drawn to start, and drawn to complete, and when you’ve completed it, you know you’ve had a good day.

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Will you be ready for year-end?

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I was scrolling through my backlog of unread articles when I found this Year-end Law Practice Checklist It has some good advice about things to do or review at the end of the year that might be easy to forget, like archiving closed files, tax prep, CLE, and updating your processes (client intake, billing, etc.)

I’m sure you use checklists in your work, as do I; I want to encourage you to use more.

My goal is to use a checklist for almost everything, especially for recurring tasks.

I recently revised my daily schedule checklist and set up a new checklist for a certain project I frequently do. I also revised my weekly review checklist.

These checklists help me get the job done more quickly, avoid errors or omissions, and provide peace of mind that once I’m done, I can put the task or project out of mind until the next time I do it.

Checklists can be useful for

  • Your morning routine (so you get everything done before your workday begins)
  • End of day shut down process (so you remember to plan tomorrow before tomorrow begins)
  • Travel packing (. . .that time I went to a convention and forgot to pack neckties. . .)
  • Blog/newsletter (Where to find ideas, what to include, where to share it)
  • New client intake (What to ask, what to tell them, what to give or send, when to follow up)
  • File closing process
  • Preparing for arbitration, negotiation, or settlement conference
  • Preparing the client for deposition, etc.
  • Demand package checklist
  • Scheduling and conducting a Zoom conference (don’t forget to wear pants)

Start by brainstorming a list of checklists that might prove helpful and schedule time to flesh out a new one, or revise an existing one.

I often edit my checklists on the go, adding additional steps, removing steps I don’t use, and re-arranging the order to streamline the process.

What checklists do you use? Which new ones are you going to work on?

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A daily habit that massively increased my productivity

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Right now, you’re reading these words. What will you do after that?

I know what I will do. I decided that last night and wrote it in my plan for today.

The habit of planning my day before it begins, in the morning (good) or the night before (better), has made me much more productive. I know what I will do first each day, and what I will get done before the day ends.

The habit of planning my day not only helps me to have a full day, it helps me get my most important tasks done.

When we don’t plan our day, we tend to fill it randomly. Sometimes, we get important tasks done, often we waste time with unproductive activities. Or we spend a good portion of our day “reacting” to whatever is in front of us—calls and emails and requests for our time and attention. Our most important tasks get pushed to the end of the day, when we may be too tired to do them, or pushed off to another day when we repeat the cycle.

I know. That’s what I did before I started planning my day.

Long-term planning has value. So does planning your week. But I’ve found that nothing is more important than planning my day because that’s when the “doing” takes place.

When I’ve checked off the last item for the day, I feel a sense of accomplishment and look forward to planning tomorrow.

If you’re not doing this consistently, give a try. Take 10 minutes at the end of the day to plan your tomorrow. Do this every day for a week and you’ll never look back.

Do you have a plan to get more referrals?

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Two clarifying questions from David Allen

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I spoke to a lawyer yesterday who told me he wants to continue building his practice (which is doing well) and find something he can do on the side that might one day lead to bigger and better things.

He has an itch and wanted me to help him scratch it.

Most of our time was spent talking about ways to find ideas. For now, that’s what he’s going to focus on.

At some point, after he does a lot of exploring and researching and thinking, if and when he finds an idea he wants to pursue, he’ll need to decide what to do about it.

When that time comes, I’d tell him to do what David Allen suggests in Getting Things Done:

“Ask yourself two questions: What’s the successful outcome? And, What’s the next action (logical next step) to make it happen?” Allen says, “These provide fundamental clarity for Getting Things Done, and they lie at the core of most everything I teach.”

These questions are equally valuable for parsing a task or project list as they are for choosing your future.

Whether you’re starting a new chapter in your legal career, a new work project, or a new business, ask yourself what “done” looks like for you.

As Stephen Covey said, “start with the end in mind”.

In my work, especially when I’m struggling to start a project, or complete it, asking myself, “What’s the next action?” has been a game changer.

I ask that question and it helps me figure out the best (or easiest) place to start. I come back and ask that question again and again, and it helps me figure out what to do “next”.

Go ahead, think about something you need to do that you’ve been avoiding. Look at the list of all of the tasks you need to do and ask yourself, “What’s the next action?”

Start there.

How I use GTD in Evernote

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You can read this anywhere: a few thoughts about GTD contexts

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Getting Things Done (GTD) teaches us to identify our tasks by context—location, people, tools, and so on—so we can do things when and where we’re best equipped to do them. 

I stopped using most contexts a long time ago, since I can do just about anything from just about anywhere.

Calls, emails, reading, writing—I can do all of these from the office in my pocket. 

I still use the @waiting context, but not much else. 

I’m going to take another look at my use of contexts, however, based on a short video I saw last night, which makes the case for contexts based on “time plus energy”.

GTD has long recommended contexts for time and contexts for energy, but I like the way the presenter combines them:

  • Short Dashes: Tasks that can be done in more than 2 minutes and less than 15 minutes. Most calls and emails fit here, don’t they? 
  • Full Focus: Tasks requiring maximum energy, no distractions, and longer periods of time; deep work.
  • Brain Dead: When you can’t do anything that requires a lot of thought.
  • Routines: Your weekly review, exercise, writing a blog post. 
  • Hanging Around: Tasks that don’t require a lot of time or energy and don’t have a deadline, e.g., Light research, organizing notes, buying something online.

What do you think? Do any of these appeal to you? Do you already use something similar?

I like “Brain Dead” or “Hanging Around,” especially for things I can do after I’ve shut down work for the night. I’ll give this some thought later today. 

But first, I have some “Short Dashes” to take care of. 

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