A to-do list by any other name

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The other day I watched a video that promised to show me why I should ditch my to-do list. The presenter said that to-do lists don’t work. Hmm. He said that instead of preparing a to-do list, I should prepare an “outcome” list, a list of things I want to accomplish.

Okay, I’ll bite.

He said that once you know the outcome, you should decide the things you need to do to achieve that outcome–and write those down.

Does something smell funny here?

Half the comments were along the lines of,”Awesome,” “I’m going to do this immediately!” and “Brilliant”. The other half said what I was thinking, “WTF, it’s still a to-do list”.

Click bait aside, what is this guy thinking?

I agree that you should create a to-do list based on your desired outcomes. That’s better than just randomly writing down whatever comes to mind. As Stephen Covey said, “Start with the end in mind”.

But wherever you start, it’s still a to-do list.

This morning, I was sent an article along the same lines. The title said something like, “Forget to-do lists, do THIS instead”. The author had interviewed wealthy and successful people who reportedly said they stay productive by time-blocking everything, that is, putting everything on their calendar in 15-minute increments.

“If it’s not on my calendar,” one said, “it doesn’t get done”.

I’m all for setting aside blocks of time dedicated to specific projects or groups of tasks but the idea of blocking out your entire day sounds like hell to me.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious (again), it’s still a to-do list. You’re simply deciding in advance when you will do it and writing that down.

(Hold on. . .)

Okay, I’m back. I only allocated 15 minutes for this post and the time ran out. I had to re-arrange my schedule so I could finish.

Here’s the thing. I don’t see how you can block out your entire day or week with that degree of granularity. Other than appointments, or a list of regular tasks that have be done each week, there are too many variables.

Things come up and need to be handled. Priorities change. Your energy level changes. You have to wait on other people.

You have to be flexible. Well, at least I do. I need my space, Jerry.

But hey, if it works for them, my hat’s off to them. (Hold on. I’m back. I had to look at my schedule to see when I’ll have time to go buy a new hat. . .looks like three weeks from never. . .)

Anyway, the fact is that while not everyone admits it, everyone makes to-do lists. Some write them on paper, some put them on their calendar or in an app, and some keep them in their head. But whatever they call it and wherever they keep it, it’s still a to-do list.

So I’m going to do what works for me and I suggest you do the same.

Okay, I’m off to work on a writing project. Or maybe I’ll work on something else. Hmm, I could get a sandwich first. I don’t know, I’ll see how I feel and then I’ll decide. Because that’s how I roll.

Need more clients? Here you go

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Running out of things to do

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What if you woke up one day, looked at your to-do list and there was nothing on it. No tasks, no projects, nothing to do or update or learn–nothing. Bupkis. A blank slate.

Relax, it’s never going to happen. But imagine for a moment that it did.

It would be weird, wouldn’t it? Since pre-school, we’ve always had things to do. Now, nothing? It would be frightening. And exciting. You can do whatever you want.

If you had to fill your list from scratch, what would you put on it? Tasks and projects, big and small, now or next–what would you put on your list?

When I began my recent “Kanban” task management experiment, that’s what I asked myself. I emptied my head and wrote down everything I could think of. Then I went through my lists in Evernote and added more items.

Well guess what? Between my “deferred” and “backlog” and “ready” lists, I have a grand total of 59 tasks and projects. Comparing this to the many hundreds in Evernote, it’s shocking.

When I look at my new list, I get a little nervous, thinking I must be forgetting things. But I also feel good. Like I’m starting a new adventure.

Starting over is liberating. It gives you a fresh perspective on your priorities. And, like cleaning out closets and paring down to the essentials, it makes room for new and better.

Of course, I’m not done. I haven’t gone through everything. Not even close. My Someday/Maybe list alone has hundreds of additional ideas.

But I’ve got to say, so far, my little experiment is a huge success. I look forward to looking at my options. I enjoy choosing–and doing–the things on my list. And, I’m getting a lot done.

Come on in. The waters fine.

Now, I’m not suggesting you jettison whatever it is you use to collect and manage your tasks and projects unless you want to. I suggest you experiment, like I am, and start some new lists.

If you use a new app or system, do like I did and start adding the most obvious or pressing matters. If you use the same app, move everything to a single (temporary) folder or file and start adding things back.

If your lists have grown too big and unwieldy, if you find yourself ignoring many entries (like the hundreds of Someday/Maybe items in my system), if you find yourself slacking off from a weekly review, this might be just the thing to jump-start the new, better organized and much more relaxed you.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

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What’s in your “done” column?

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You plan your day before it begins. During the day, you “do”. At the end of the day, before planning tomorrow, you review what you did today to see what you did well and how you can improve.

A good way to examine your day is to review the things in your “done” column or list. As you do, ask yourself these four questions (and write down the answers):

  1. What did I do well today?You want to focus on the positive. Train yourself to focus on your strengths and your progress. Reinforce this by giving yourself credit for a job well done.
  2. What can I do better?Be honest with yourself. What would do differently? What would you avoid doing? What could you improve?
  3. What problems did I encounter?Identify stumbling blocks, distractions, or barriers that slowed you down or threw you off track. Note when they occurred and how you can prepare for the next time.
  4. What did I learn?What did you discover about yourself or about your work? Did you get any ideas for future projects or for improving your current systems? Did you find a new method or tool?

Asking and answering these four questions about your day, and periodically reviewing your notes, will help you continually achieve better outcomes. Over time, the effect will compound.

Schedule time each day to plan, do, and review.

Schedule time to get more referrals

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Why use one list when you can use eight?

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I’ve been reading about Kanban boards and experimenting with how I manage my tasks and projects. Kanban boards, whether physical (e.g., a whiteboard or sticky notes) or digital, usually begin with three lists (or columns): To do, Doing, and Done. You can add to these basic lists depending on your workflow.

Right now, I’m using eight lists:

  1. Ready
  2. Today
  3. In progress
  4. Done
  5. Backlog
  6. Deferred
  7. Someday/maybe
  8. Waiting

Here’s what goes on these lists and how I use them:

1. Ready (aka “To do” or “Next” or “Options”)

This is a list of things that I plan to do as soon as I finish what I’m currently working on. It’s a list of options to choose from, depending on how much time I have and my current context and priorities. I limit this list to 20 items and check it daily. As I do the things on this list, I go to my “Backlog” list (below) and add items to the Ready list.

2. Today

First thing in the morning, or the night before, I go to my “Ready” list and choose 3 tasks for the day. When I get these done, I can add more tasks from the Ready list or call it a day.

3. In progress (aka, “Doing”)

When I begin a task, I move it to the “Work in Progress” or “Doing” list. I also limit this list to just 3 tasks (at a time). This list keeps me focused; I work on what I planned to work on and do my best to finish it before moving on to other things.

4. Done

As soon as I complete a task, I move it to this list. I used to delete done tasks; now I collect and review them, at least temporarily, as a way to see my progress and learn when and how I work best. This can also show me when I’m working too much on one project or type of task and not enough on others.

5. Backlog

These are tasks and projects I plan to do but I’m not ready to start and probably won’t be for a week or two. When I am ready, I’ll move tasks from this list to the Ready list. I check this list weekly.

6. Deferred

These are tasks I will probably do but not anytime soon. I check this monthly. When I’m ready, I’ll move these to Backlog or Ready. Otherwise, I may delete them or move them to Someday/Maybe.

7. Someday/maybe

I don’t know if I will do these or not. They are more ideas than anything I’m committed to doing.

8. Waiting

Tasks or projects where I’m waiting on someone to do something or for something to happen before I can start or continue.

These lists give me enough to do at any one time but not more than I can handle, which is key. By limiting my “work in progress,” I can focus on finishing what I’ve started rather than starting something new.

I also use gtd tags such as, “Area of Focus,” “Context,” etc., which allow me to filter the lists, group tasks (e.g., all calls, errands, etc.) or find more tasks to add to my Backlog or Ready lists.

It’s early yet, but I’m liking this. I get my work done and don’t feel overwhelmed.

What do you think? Do you use Kanban or work with multiple lists? Do you limit your work in progress so you can focus on getting things done?

Here’s how I use Evernote to get organized and get things done

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How to get more work done in less time

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I’m on a perpetual quest to work faster. The faster I complete my work, the quicker I accomplish my goals.

Why take eight hours to do your work when you can do it in five?

If you want to get your work done faster, I suggest that you create a list of questions to ask yourself each time you do a new task or project.

Here’s a starter list of questions:

  • Is this task really necessary? Is there another way to accomplish the same thing?
  • Could I delegate some or all of this to someone else?
  • Could I recycle or adapt something I’ve done before?
  • Can I leave out any steps?
  • Can I combine any steps?
  • Would it help to do the steps in a different order?
  • How could I break this up into smaller steps I could do in smaller bites of time?
  • Could I do this faster if I used a different tool?
  • Would it help to assemble all of the resources I need before I begin?
  • What could I do to increase my focus when I do this (e.g., mono-task, listen to music/white noise, work at the library or another quiet place)?
  • Would I do this faster if I promised myself a reward?
  • Would an accountability partner help?
  • Could I do this faster at a different time of day when I have more energy or fewer distractions?
  • Could I do any of this in the car or while exercising (e.g., dictating)?
  • Would it help to plan this out the night before?
  • Could I batch this with other tasks?
  • Would an updated form, checklist, or template help?
  • Would it help to give myself less time to finish (e.g., a shorter deadline)?
  • How could I transition from one step to the next with less delay?
  • Am I willing to give up some quality in return for speed? If so, what could I do to achieve that?
  • Who do I know who does this in their work and would allow me to see how they do it?

Start recording what you do–all of the steps and how long it takes to do them. Before long, you’ll see yourself getting more work done in less time.

Once you’ve mastered the habit of asking, “How can I do this faster?” start a new habit. Ask yourself, “How can I do this better?”

How can I get referrals more quickly? Here’s the answer

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A place for everything and everything in its place

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I just watched a video by a guy who urges viewers to maintain separate apps for tasks, notes, appointments (calendar), and documents. He says it’s important to maintain “hard edges” between our systems because if we don’t, it will lead to confusion.

My opinion? That may be good advice for some people but not for everyone. In fact, some people find that using separate apps is the very thing that causes confusion.

Why force yourself to use separate apps when you don’t need to (or want to)? Why add a layer of complexity to how you manage the information in your life?

I’ve found that the fewer apps I use, the better. Fewer apps mean fewer apps to learn and maintain. It means fewer decisions about what information to put where. It means less time spent finding where I put things.

That’s why I use Evernote for both notes and tasks. I wrote about my system in Evernote for Lawyers.

Over the last few years, as my needs have changed, I’ve experimented with different apps. In particular, I used a separate app for task management and Evernote just for notes. I would link from the task management app to Evernote for details and supporting data.

Two apps instead of one.

All I did was complicate my life and I have come back to using Evernote for everything.

Well, almost everything. I keep a separate calendar for appointments and events. I store documents on my hard drive and in the cloud (Dropbox, Box). But most of the information in my life is managed with Evernote.

I have tinkered with my Evernote setup and work flow, however. I use a different notebook and tagging system today than I did a few years ago. I’ll share my current system with you at some point, but by the time I do that my system may change yet again.

So, how about you?

Do you use an integrated law practice management application to manage client data, calendars, billing, and documents? Do you use separate applications for each function? Do you prefer Onenote to Evernote or use something else? Do you use one app for work and another for personal matters?

Whatever you use, if it’s working for you, don’t change it.

But do experiment. You never know, you might find something that works better.

Evernote for Lawyers

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A simple productivity system that really works

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No matter what productivity system or tools you use, if you’re like most people, you sometimes feel that you’re spending more time planning than doing.

Your write lists and then re-write them. You add tags or labels and ignore them. You move tasks from one folder to another. Your lists keep growing, you’re not getting a lot done, and you’re frustrated.

And the quest to find a better system continues.

I have one for you. It’s simple and you can use it with whatever you’re using now.

But first, I have some good news and some bad news for you. The bad news is that you will never get everything done. The good news is that you don’t have to.

If you continually get the most important things done, you’re golden.

How do you do that? Simple. Throughout your day, stop and ask yourself this question: “What’s the most important thing I could do right now?”

And then do it.

No matter what you have or don’t have on your lists, no matter how you might have prioritized the items on those lists, your subconscious mind knows better.

All you have to do is ask and listen to the answer.

Remember, you are the one who made the lists in the first place. You can override whatever you wrote down any time you choose.

Look at your lists if you want. Or put them away, get quiet, and ask the question. “What’s the most important thing I could do right now?”

You can trust the answer. It will automatically take into account things like due dates, urgency, and goals.

Ask the question and then do the thing. Do this a few times a day and relax. You’re getting the important things done. You don’t need to worry about anything else.

Let me show you how to get more referrals

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A lesson from the clean-cut men in white dress shirts

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When I started practicing, it was well known that IBM had some of the best salesmen in the world. I say salesmen because as far as I know, they were nearly all men. They all wore the IBM uniform–white dress shirt, dark suit and tie, short hair, and neatly polished dress shoes.

You know the look. Yeah, like Mad Men.

They were well-groomed and well-trained and they sold a lot of IBM products. From the moment that salesman walked in my door and began his presentation, there was no doubt that he was going to walk out with an order.

For many decades, IBM sales people continually outsold their competition. Records were set and records were broken, helping make the company one of the top brands in the world.

But it wasn’t just good products, easy financing, and great training that did it. I just learned a surprising reason why IBM salesmen sold so much more than anyone else. It was because they had low quotas.

You would think it would be just the opposite: best products and training, highest quotas, right? If you are the best or aspire to be the best, why wouldn’t you set the bar high?

But IBM didn’t do that. They set the bar low and allowed their sales people to flourish organically, without feeling intimidated or pressured to meet a goal that seemed out of reach.

Tim Ferris echoed the value of setting smaller goals when he was asked about his daily writing goal. “Two crappy pages a day,” he said, when clearly he wrote far more.

Most people set short term goals that are too big. Smaller goals make it easier to succeed. Anyone can write two “crappy” pages. When you do, you feel good about hitting your goal so you keep going and write more.

No pressure. You do it because you want to. And once you start, it’s easy to continue.

Whether writing or selling typewriters or marketing legal services, the daily discipline of “two crappy pages” or “15 minutes” gets you started, and starting is the hardest part. If the goal was too big, you might not start at all.

Set smaller goals and hit them. No white shirt required.

To create a short and simple marketing plan, get this

 

 

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This may help you find more time for marketing (or anything else)

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Many consumer advocates recommend setting up different savings accounts for different purposes. One for an emergency fund, one for travel, one for retirement, one for investment, that sort of thing.

The idea is that separate accounts will keep you from spending too much on one thing to the detriment of others. It’s a variation on the separate “envelope budget” idea where people cash their paycheck and put the cash in different envelopes, to make sure they had enough for rent, groceries, and so on

Anyway, it’s not a bad idea, especially for those on a tight budget.

Well, guess what? We’re all on a tight budget when it comes to time. There are only so many hours in a week and if we “spend” too much time on some things, we might not have enough for others.

Therefore, if you ever say you don’t have time for something you know you should be doing, (like marketing), you might want to set up a “time budget”.

Some experts call it “time blocking”. Basically, you decide in advance how much time you’re going to spend on certain activities and you schedule that time on your calendar.

I’ve been advocating this for years. At the beginning of the month (or week), you block out 15 minutes each weekday at 3 PM (or whatever) for marketing. You then keep that “appointment” with yourself.

But hold on. If you find yourself looking at your calendar and seeing you have scheduled 15 minutes for marketing and you don’t know what to do with that time, you might not do anything. Soon, you start canceling those appointments.

You might want to modify your schedule using the household budget analogy and decide in advance what you will do during your appointments.

On Mondays, you might schedule 15 minutes for writing an email newsletter. Tuesdays might be for making phone calls to introduce yourself to other professionals in your niche. Wednesdays might be dedicated to working on your next report, book, or presentation.

You get the idea.

By setting up your “time budget” in advance–what you will do and when–you won’t have to think about what to do at the appointed time, you’ll just do it.

Especially recommended for those who say they don’t have time for marketing.

Leverage is the key to earning more and working less

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Quit asking “How long will it take?” and ask, “How far can I go?”

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I don’t know about you but I’m not that good with deadlines. If they are imposed on me by an outside force–a court, a client, the IRS, my wife–I usually make them. When it’s self-imposed, not so much.

It seems that most of what I do takes longer than I originally thought or planned for. Maybe I’m just bad at estimating what it takes to do things, especially when those things are open-ended and creative, which is most of what I do these days.

Douglas Adams, author of “The Salmon of Doubt,” seems to be a kindred spirit. He said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

So I set very few deadlines these days. Target dates, maybe. But no lines in the sand.

If you ask me, “When will it be done?” I’d probably say, “I don’t know.” If you ask, “How will you know when it’s done,” I’d tell you, “I’ll just know.”

Because it’s intuitive. Right brained, not left.

And yet I get stuff done. Sometimes, after lengthy delays and detours into other projects. But so what?

Done happens.

I’ve learned to relax about “when” and focus on “what” and “why”. What do I want to do and why is it important to me? How far can I go instead of how long will it take?

Taking the pressure off helps me to be more creative and productive. I do bigger things and better things because I enjoy the doing and trust that the results will come.

I just can’t tell you when.

Referrals. You love ’em, we got ’em

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