A penny for your thoughts

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Lawyers are paid to think. We solve problems, come up with ideas, figure out strategies, and put these to use for our clients and for ourselves.

We often get some of our best ideas while we’re doing other things. When we’re working on another case, driving, playing a game, listening to a (boring) lecture, or mindlessly washing dishes, our minds are busy working on other things.

But we don’t have to wait for serendipity to solve problems and generate ideas. We can make it a habit to schedule thinking time each day. I do that every day and think you should, too.

Once a day, for 5 minutes or 15 minutes, sit quietly, close your eyes, do some breathing exercises if you want to, relax and think.

Think about your life, your work, your family, your problems, your dreams.

I do this in the morning, first thing. Before coffee, when my mind isn’t terribly engaged, I sit in my comfy chair, listen to meditation music, and let my mind wander.

My thinking time helps me discover new ideas, find solutions, clarify my thoughts, remember things I need to do or fix, and when I’m done, I feel calm and centered and ready for the day.

Sometimes, I start out thinking about a specific situation. A problem I’d like to solve or avoid, a goal I’m working towards, or things I’m planning to do that day. Other times, I just sit quietly and let my mind take me where it wants me to go.

I keep paper and my phone nearby and record my thoughts and ideas. Sometimes, those ideas feel so “right,“ I stop thinking and start working on them. These often turn out to be some of my best ideas.

I’ve also found that by having regular thinking time, I’ve conditioned my mind to bring me more ideas and solutions throughout the day, while I’m doing other things.

I got the idea for this post when I was making coffee.

You’re a professional thinker. Schedule thinking time each day. Try it for a week, see what happens, and what you think about that.

I think. . . you’ll be glad you did.

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PARA 2.0: How I organize my notes and documents (for now)

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I’ve been using the PARA method to organize my notes and documents since I first heard about it a couple of years ago. It’s simple and works well for me but a couple of weeks ago I made a small change and while it’s too early to tell, I think it might turn out to work even better.

PARA was conceived by Tiago Forte and was featured in his course, “Building a Second Brain,” which was recently released as a book.

PARA, is an acronym for 4 top-level categories or folders in a filing system, with folders for (P) Projects, (A) Areas, (R) Resources, and (A) Archives.

Projects are groups of activities you’re working on with a specific goal and deadline. Getting this year’s tax returns ready for filing, buying a new home, hiring a new clerk, for example.

Areas are distinct ongoing segments of your life, such as your practice, finances and investments, family, and health.

Resources are subjects that interest you but may not be immediately useful for one of your projects or areas. This might include general information on marketing or writing, templates and forms, or ideas for your blog or newsletter.

Archives is a catch all folder for storing completed projects or anything else that doesn’t fit into one of the other categories.

Like many people, I added two additional folders to my setup: an Inbox and a Journal (for daily notes and ideas).

So, what did I change? And why?

Instead of using PARA as my top level folders, I now use folders for each Area of my life: Personal, my business, and two additional businesses; I kept the Inbox, Archives, and Journal folders.

Each Area has 3 sub-folders: FILES, PROJECTS, and RESOURCES.

FILES are letters, receipts, contracts, pdfs, notes, and other documents related to that Area.

PROJECTS and RESOURCES for each area are the same as before, but specific to each Area.

Before, all projects were in a Projects folder. Now, each Area has its own Projects folder, as well as Files and Resources folders.

A small change, but I did it for a good reason (for me). When I’m working on a business project or digging through resources I might use for one of my businesses or in my personal life, I only want to look at Projects or Resources specific to that Area.

Separating things this way helps me focus and makes it easier to find things. I might spend most of the day in one Area and not look at any of the others. I might work on personal matters on Saturday and not look at work until the Monday.

I like this new way of organizing, but I also liked the “regular PARA setup. I don’t know which way I’ll finally settle on, or if I might find something I like even better.

Do you use PARA? Have you changed anything? What do you think about my modification?

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A better way to prioritize your day

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If you’re like most people, you plan your day by first looking at your calendar. You note upcoming meetings, appearances, and appointments and see how much time you have between these to do everything else.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The problems is, when you prioritize your time this way, you might not have enough time or energy to do other things you need to do.

I’m talking about highly leveraged tasks and projects that help you achieve your most important goals. The kinds of things that often require your complete focus but don’t get it because you’re too busy in meetings and taking care of what the day puts in front of you, and too tired afterwards.

So I want to suggest a slight change regarding how you prioritize your time. As you make your schedule, schedule your most valuable tasks first.

This is the philosophy behind “time blocking”. Scheduling blocks of time on your calendar for your most important tasks, to make sure you don’t use that time for anything else.

It’s a philosophy that says, “I’m going to schedule (and do) my most valuable tasks first, and if I have time left, I’ll schedule appointments and meetings.“

But you don’t have to time-block or work off a strict schedule to do this. You can accomplish the same thing by working from a list with your most important tasks at the top or flagged or tagged to show their priority.

Wouldn’t it be nice to show up at meetings knowing you’ve already completed your top priorities for the day?

The first step is to decide what is most important to you. What you want to be, do, or have.

The second step is to figure out what you need to do to be, do, or have that and put that on your calendar or list.

If your top priority is to bring in more clients and more income, work on that first. This will help.

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When you want to do it but don’t want to do it

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Have you ever had a project you want to do but you can’t seem to get started because it’s “nice to have” but not that important?

All the time?!

Yeah, me too.

I’ve been meaning to clean up my office for a long time but haven’t started for no better reason than it will take me a lot of time and I’m not sure it’s worth it.

I have a lot of papers and files left over from my pre-digital days. I’ll probably never use most of it, but I can’t be sure unless I go through everything.

Nice to have, but not that important.

I saw a video that suggested a good way to get started. The presenter suggested we take everything out of its “regular home” (cabinets, drawers, etc.) and move it temporally to some other place. Pile it up in a corner of the room, for example.

Things look different when they’re not in their usual home. And there’s something about seeing empty drawers and shelves that makes it easier to decide what you want to keep.

I like it, but it would take hours of tedious sorting and I can think of other things I’d rather do.

So I procrastinated. For months. And would probably still be procrastinating if I hadn’t found another solution.

I scheduled a 15-minute recurring task for every Saturday, dedicated to cleaning one drawer or shelf.

It’s only 15 minutes. It’s only one drawer. I can do this.

And I’ve been doing this for several Saturdays and made a lot of progress. Enjoying it, actually.

If you want to do something but resist starting, figure out a way to make the project easier. . . and it will be easier to start.

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The end is nigh

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Relax, I’m talking about the end of the day, not the end of the world. (That’s for another post.)

Here are a few thoughts about what to do to close out your day to make the following day, and the days after that, as productive as possible.

C’mon, you can’t just close the laptop and call it a day. Well, you can, but your brain will nag you about unfinished business rather than allowing you to have a relaxing evening.

Besides, I recommend reviewing “tomorrow” the night before, rather than the day of, so you don’t have to figure it out in the morning and can get to work.

My “closing down” routine is a lot simpler today than earlier in my life because my life is much simpler.

Yay me.

Okay, here is my evening shut down routine.

The first thing I do before hanging up my stirrups is to wrap up any unfinished business, or at least outline and make notes about what else I need to do.

Next, I review my upcoming schedule and task lists, and update tomorrow’s list and my list for the upcoming week.

Here is the actual “closing down” list I work from at the end of each day:

  1. Choose a topic for tomorrow’s blog
  2. Check my calendar re upcoming appointments, commitments
  3. Review tomorrow’s task list
  4. Review tasks for the following week
  5. Inbox zero (email, voicemail, and notes)
  6. Clean up (File documents, close browser tabs, put away tools, toss the trash)

I do a fair amount of pushing tasks to other days, to make my schedule more inviting and manageable.

And that’s about it.

Your list will depend, of course, on the type of work you do, whether you work from an office, have employees or a team, or have hearings or meetings to prepare for.

Do you have a shutting down routine? If you do, what’s on your list?

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What’s not on your list?

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I do a pretty good job of writing down things I need to or want to do. I’m sure you do, too. But there are always things that don’t make it onto our list.

Things we didn’t think of when planned our week, chores we’ve been putting off and are piling up, things we know we should do but haven’t scheduled like contacting old clients or old friends.

Author Fumio Sasaki in his book Goodbye Things calls this your “silent to-do list”.

The problem is, if you add everything to your list, your list can become overwhelming.

Your days are booked “8-to-faint” cranking out billable work, keeping up with admin, and stoking the marketing fires to make sure everything continues. Which means you don’t have time or energy for other things like bigger projects that can advance your career, learning, or something none of us do enough of—resting.

There’s only one solution. Cut your lists down to the essentials to make room.

When you can see daylight on your calendar, when your lists aren’t crushing you with urgent deadlines, when you look at what’s planned for the day and feel good about getting it all done, you are running your life instead of your schedule running you.

Nice.

For a change, you’re not constantly exhausted and stretched to the limit. You’re getting your priorities done and have time left to do other things.

What other things?

You can do other work if you feel like it, call old friends, or go for a walk. You can sit in the park with a novel you’ve been dying to read, or take a nap.

You’ll have the bandwidth to do things that are important but aren’t on a list. And they might be some of the most important things you do all day.

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Are you working too much, or too little?

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No, it’s not just about how much time you put in, it’s about the results you get and how happy you are about them

You may be killing it with a four-day (or four-hour) work-week. Or you may be working like a dog and barely keeping up with inflation.

It’s not just about the amount of time you spend doing what you do. But clearly, time is a factor.

Which is why I suggest you track how you spend it. Not just your work-day or billable hours. All of your time.

For one week, write down everything you do and for how long you do it. How you spend your 24.

You might learn some very useful (and surprising) things about yourself, some of which could be invaluable.

You might learn that you spend a lot of time doing things that contribute little (or nothing) to your income and/or well-being.

I don’t goof off that much, you say? Yeah, that’s what I said.

You might find you spend 90 minutes to do something that shouldn’t take more than an hour. I did that, too.

Tracking your time will help you prioritize that time and focus on what’s important and aligned with your goals.

You might see how much time you spend looking over the shoulders of your employees or outside vendors, time you could use doing other things. Or you might see how much time you spend doing things yourself that could be delegated to someone else.

Track your time for a week. You might not like what you find, or believe some of it. But the numbers don’t lie.

And admitting the truth is the first step towards change.

Even if this exercise allows you to “only” reclaim ten minutes a day, that’s an extra hour per week you can spend as you see fit.

Which is why you should consider doing this exercise regularly, perhaps once or twice a year.

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Prioritizing your task list

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You have a list. On that list are things you must do, things you should do, and things you want to do.

You want to do your most important tasks—the ones that put food on the table and help you achieve your personal and professional goals. And you want to have some time to do the things you enjoy. Because all work and no play isn’t good for your health.

How do you choose? How do you prioritize your list?

Start by dividing the list into three parts:

  1. Things that provide you with the most value. The “20% activities that produce 80% of your results”. Activities that have the largest impact on your goals and overall happiness. Your “most important tasks (MITs).”
  2. Tasks you just need to get done. They might not contribute much to the mix, but they keep the wheels greased and the machine running. These are your routines and recurring tasks; the boring stuff.
  3. Everything else.

You want to spend more time on the first list and less time on the other two.

If you can, do the tasks on the first list before you do the others. Do them early in the day, when you have the most energy.

To give you even more time and energy to do them, cut down on the tasks on the second and third lists.

Delegate, automate, eliminate, or postpone.

Because your most important tasks are more important.

On my list, each workday I usually have 1 to 3 MITs. These are my top priority for the day and I almost always get them done.

I have 3-5 other tasks I want to do today but it’s okay if I do them tomorrow or later this week or next.

And I have 5 or 6 routine tasks, usually small and easy to do, and I usually do all of them.

If I get everything done early enough, I look at my list for tomorrow or later in the week and pick something else to do.

But only if I want to.

But I rarely want to because all work and no play isn’t good for my health.

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Time blocking for thee and me

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I’ve struggled with time blocking, aka time boxing or calendar blocking, at least the way I’ve seen others do it. I don’t want to schedule my entire day down to the minute, as some studs do, but even when I mentally block out time for writing or other projects, I still resist putting this on my calendar.

I informally dedicate my mornings (after doing email, some admin stuff and waking up my brain) to “deep work” — writing and other things that require focus and concentration. But I don’t schedule it.

When I’m ready, I go to work. When I’m not, I don’t.

This works for me, but there’s something appealing about the idea of looking at the calendar and seeing my day organized and tidy.

So I will try again.

In my quest to learn how others do it, I’ve watched some videos and picked up some suggestions. I thought I’d pass along a few of the best.

  • Time block email and admin so you can stay on top of it, and not be distracted when you’re doing other things and remember you forgot to reply to your email.
  • For “deep work”—anything that requires concentration—be specific about what you will work on (the case, file, project), and for how long, so you know exactly what to do during your time block. Specifics create clarity, clarity creates focus, and focus is how you get things done.
  • If you’re trying to block your entire day, for each block, (a) give yourself enough time to do the work; (most of us grossly underestimate how long things will take), and, (b) build in buffer time between blocks for breaks, travel, interruptions, and things that need more time than you have allowed.

If you have other suggestions, or would like to share how time blocking works for you, please let me know.

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When your task management system isn’t working for you

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It’s not the app, it’s the system. If you have the right system, you can make it work in just about any app.

Or so we’re told.

I don’t think that’s literally true but there’s enough to it that if your system isn’t working, changing apps, as I did recently, might be the solution. At the very least, it gives you a chance to re-examine your system.

A few thoughts about apps and systems.

First, your system (and app) should serve you and make your life easier. It shouldn’t make you do a dance to keep up with it. It should sit by your side and tell you what to do next (because you decided that earlier) and give you the satisfaction of checking things off as you do them.

If it doesn’t, before you switch apps or radically change your system, consider looking for ways to simplify that system.

If possible, see if you can consolidate all of your task management functions into one tool.

You can have multiple lists or tags or labels but put all your work and personal stuff in one app.

In keeping with that, you should have one inbox. One place for all of your incoming tasks and ideas.

Because it’s simpler.

If one app/one inbox isn’t possible, because of partners or staff or whatever reasons, consider using two iterations of the same app, one for you and one for the team.
Less to learn and update.

Be realistic about the number of tasks and projects you can do each day, or at one time. Most of us take on too much, which leads to overwhelm and falling behind.

Keyword: a few at a time.

Then, make sure every task has a next action and a date when you’re going to do it, review it, or start it. Add a due date if there is one, but having a start date allows you to forget about the task until the start date, which allows you to give your full attention to what’s important today.

Then, update your lists “in the moment” rather than once a week or on some other schedule. When you complete something, tick it off. When you think of something, add it in. You can also do a weekly review, but that will be a lot easier to do if you’ve kept up with your lists in real time. 

Finally, if you switch to another app, don’t get bogged down learning and using a bunch of new features. Instead, consider turning off or not using most of the functions initially, and start with just an inbox and a place for today’s tasks.

This gives you time to think about what you’re doing and if there’s something you should change.

As you get more comfortable with the app and your new system, add back some of the other functions and see how it feels. If those work, you can add more.

That’s my take, and I’m sticking to it. Time to tick this off my list and see what’s next.

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