A different kind of “done”

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It feels good to check off a task on your list and mark it done. You’d like to be able to do that more often but you only have so much time and energy.

What if instead of waiting until you complete the task you mark it as done when you do ANY work on it?

Does that sound a little nutty? Hold on, Skippy. Let me ‘splain.

Marking a task as done doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to do. It simply means you’re done for now. If there’s more work to do, you can put it back on your list.

Huh? Why would you mark it as done and then put it back on the same list?

Because doing that will help you to get better at planning and actually finishing your work.

You stopped working on the task for a reason. You didn’t allow enough time, you needed more information, or something more important came up. Or maybe you ran out of gas and just didn’t feel like continuing. By understanding why you stopped, the next time you have a task like this you’ll be better prepared.

But that’s next time.

For now, if you’re not ready to continue working on something, check it off and move on to the next task on your list. When you’ve worked your way through everything on your list, look at the task you marked as done and if there’s more work to do, put it back on your list.

You might put it at the bottom of today’s list and do it later today. You might put it on tomorrow’s list. You might postpone it to another day. Or you might decide you don’t want to do it at all and spare yourself a lot of time and effort.

Is your website pulling in enough clients? Here’s what you need to do

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The list’s (still) the thing

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Many moons ago, I told you about the lists I kept for my boyhood coin collection. Yeah, the one I sold buy furniture and pay the first month’s rent on my first law office.

Anyway, I had two lists: one for “want” and one for “have”. I kept these in my wallet so that when I visited the Kennedy Coin Club in suburban Chicago, I would know which coins I needed for my collection and extras I had to trade or sell.

I’ve also written about the value of having lists for running your practice. These can be lists of steps, instructions or checklists, to make sure you don’t forget anything, or to train new employees or temps.

Examples:

  • File opening/closing procedures
  • Investigating/background checks
  • Drafting pleadings/discovery
  • Form letters/email templates
  • Experts/vendors (stenographers, investigators, arbitrators, mediators, interpreters, repairs, etc.)
  • Supplies: quantities, where to order
  • How to use software, apps, online services

How about for marketing:

  • Prospective clients
  • Bloggers/editors in your niche
  • Publications that accept guest posts
  • Organizations/groups where you can speak/network
  • Ideas for blog/social media posts/videos/articles
  • Social media posting schedule/process
  • Lawyers you know and what they do (for referrals)
  • Business owners/professionals who sell to your niche market

And a ho lot more.

We can’t be all work and no play (even if we’re not named Jack) so how about some personal lists:

  • Movies/books that interest you
  • Your bucket list
  • Packing checklist
  • Vacation ideas
  • Writing prompts
  • Health metrics (blood pressure, weight, etc.)
  • Exercise routines, workout schedule
  • Retirement planning
  • Investments
  • Debt reduction schedule/journal
  • Jokes/stories/quotes/
  • Recipes
  • Routines (weekly review, inbox zero, computer updates)

And the list goes on. And on and on.

You can keep lists of just about anything, as reminders, as a way to measure progress, or as a way to memorialize your journey.

You might start with a “list of lists”–ideas for lists that can make you healthier, more productive, or more profitable. Or lists that sound like fun.

(Lawyers are still allowed to have fun, aren’t we? Well, as long as there are no witnesses.)

I keep my lists in Evernote

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My kingdom for a system

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I have a system for doing the dishes.

First, I survey the kitchen to make sure I’ve got everything either in or next to the sink. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’re finished and finding you forgot a glass or two.

Next, I put the silverware in a pile in the sink. I get it out of the way so I can rinse the plates and glasses and load them in the dishwasher, which I do next.

Then, I rinse the silverware and put it in the dishwasher and add soap. Now I have room in the sink to do the big stuff (pots, platters, etc.), which I leave to dry in the washboard or in the sink.

Finally, I clean the countertop and stove.

This may sound obsessive to you but I think it’s logical. It allows me to get everything done as quickly as possible, or at least believe that it does.

Anyway, it works for me.

I have systems for a lot of things. I’m told that productive people do. But I don’t have (or don’t follow) systems for everything.

I check email much more frequently than experts say I should. I don’t always follow the “2-minute rule,” e.g., processing emails that take 2 minutes or less on the spot. Inbox zero: often but not always. Weekly review? Don’t ask.

I’m also inconsistent with writing projects. Sometimes I start with an outline, sometimes I just start. Sometimes I finish quickly, sometimes projects linger for months.

I believe in systems (or “routines” if you prefer). I know they save time, reduce effort, and help you focus on what’s important. And, when I follow a system, I like the hit of dopamine I get each time I (mentally) check off the next box.

So why don’t I have systems for more things? And for the systems I do have, why don’t I follow them consistently?

I don’t know. Because I’m a flawed human being? Or maybe because not everything is as simple as washing dishes.

Here’s my system for getting more referrals

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2 easy-peasy techniques to stop procrastination

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You’ve got something you need to do but you’ve been putting it off. Maybe it’s unpleasant. Maybe you’re not ready. Maybe you’re not sure you can do a good job.

It doesn’t matter why you’re procrastinating. All that matters is that you’re not doing something you know you need to do.

There are many techniques for dealing with procrastination but one is about as simple as it gets. It’s called the ‘5 Second Rule’ and it goes like this:

As soon as you have an urge to do something or the recognition that you need to do it, start doing it within the next 5 seconds.

It’s like pulling off a bandage. Don’t think about it, do it and get it over with.

Since this is a habit you’re trying to develop, you might need a little help. Try a “five-second countdown”. As a kid, when I was tired and didn’t want to get out of a warm bed on a cold morning, I would do a countdown–5, 4, 3, 2, 1-and then spring out of bed.

What can I say, it worked.

Another technique for dealing with procrastination goes by a similar name. It’s the ‘5-minute rule’. Here, you commit to doing the task for just 5 minutes.

You can do just about anything for 5 minutes. Then you can turn your attention to something else. “I’m just going to work on this file for 5 minutes; then I’ll watch that new cat video”.

What frequently happens, of course, is that once you begin (and see that it’s not as bad as you thought and it feels good to make some progress), you’ll want to continue. 5 minutes turns into 15 or 30.

Use the 5-second rule and 5-minute rule together and you might be amazed at what you get done.

How to use your website to make your phone ring

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A simple way to get more done in less time

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You’ve heard that multitasking is less efficient than doing one thing at a time. But do you know why?

The answer is that we’re not really multitasking. That’s a misnomer. The term implies that we’re doing two (or more) tasks at the same time. In truth, our brains won’t allow this. What we’re really doing is “task switching”.

We may switch rapidly from one task to the next but according to research, the simple act of constantly switching tasks can cost us up to 40 percent more time.

Apparently, when we stop one task and start another, in order to help us focus, our brains go through a process of shutting down the rules it is following for the first task and opening up a different set of rules for the task we are about to switch to.

Minimize task switching, and you might be able to get the same amount of work done in five hours that would otherwise take eight.

To minimize task switching, we should do whatever we can to finish one task before starting another. That means giving ourselves a big enough block of time to complete a project, or take it as far as we can, in one sitting.

Researching and writing a brief for a solid two hours is better than doing it 30 minutes at a time.

If you have smaller tasks, do them in batches. For example, do all of your research or make all of your calls during the same block of time.

And, minimize distractions and interruptions. Turn off your phone when you’re working on a writing project. Make sure your staff knows not to disturb you. Because according to other research, every time we get interrupted or distracted, it takes an average of twenty minutes to get back to where we left off.

Step-by-step: How to get more referrals

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Are you a perfectionist?

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I’m told that perfectionists tend to achieve less and have more stress than other folks.

The struggle is real.

In addition, perfectionists are more prone to procrastination. Because they worry about not doing things right, they delay starting or finishing. They often do nothing at all.

If this sounds familiar, take heart. Most (all?) accomplished people like you and me struggle with these issues, at least some of the time.

But there’s hope.

Sometimes, when I find myself procrastinating, I tackle some of the easy parts first. As you check off items on the punch list, you build confidence and momentum. Continuing is easier than a cold start.

I might review my notes, make a list of ideas, or gather up my research. I might draft some language or brainstorm some of my options.

When I don’t feel like going on my walk, putting on my walking shorts takes me a step closer to getting out the door.

Sometimes, I do the hard things first. I eat those frogs. Once I get something difficult or intimidating out of the way, the rest is much easier.

While starting is the hardest part, finishing is the most important.

How do you finish things you’re having trouble finishing? I don’t know, I’m still working on that.

Joking aside, one thing I do is try not to “break the chain”. I have an app for tracking my daily walking. It gives me visible feedback about my progress (and a little fanfare when I hit the daily goal). What can I say, it helps.

Another thing I do to finish is to focus on the process, not the outcome. With writing, for example, I don’t dwell on word count, I just make sure I do the work every day.

I also bribe myself. I promise to reward myself as soon as I finish things. For example, when I finish this, I’m going to play around with a new app I just downloaded.

Okay, as soon as I get back from my walk.

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Getting clarity on a project or goal

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Whenever you have a big project, decision, or goal, and you’re not sure what to do or do next, here’s something that might help. It’s something I did when I was studying for the Bar exam.

I took all of my outlines and reams of notes and reduced them down to a single page. On one page (of paper), I had a summary of the entire subject. Notes, keywords, lists, definitions, examples.

Most of it was greatly abbreviated, of course, but I knew the material well enough that a single keyword was all I needed to remember a concept or case. By putting everything on one page, drawing arrows to indicate relationships or causality, and underscoring and highlighting for emphasis, I had a clear picture of what I needed to know and remember.

The process of distilling everything down to a single page helped me to understand the essence of the subject. I discovered what was most important and how everything related to everything else.

Try this for your next trial or big project. Try it when need to decide what to do next. Gather up all of your notes, ideas, resources, and research. Write down your questions, doubts, obstacles, and opportunities. Put everything in one big pile. Then, work your way through that pile and reduce it down to one page.

If you start with 100 pages, go through those pages and consolidate notes, eliminate marginal ideas, and re-write your words. Sift and sort and distill those 100 pages down to 20 or 30. Go through those pages and reduce it to 10. From 10 pages, you might get it down to three. Then, from three pages to one.

That one page summary of your project or idea may not tell you everything you need to know. But the process of creating it will.

How to get your website to bring you new clients

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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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