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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Stop writing a “to do” list and write this instead

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We have lists. Lots and lots of lists. Things we need to do, things we want to do, things we’re not sure about but may do someday. How are we supposed to prioritize anything and decide what to do today?

I have a suggestion. Take your “to do” list, the one you wrote for today or this week, and change the name to a “to finish” list.

A to do list isn’t really a list of things we intend to accomplish, is it? It’s a list of things we plan to start. But creating value in our lives isn’t about what we start it’s about what we finish.

Changing the name to a “to finish” list forces you to write a better list. Instead of writing things you should do and hope you can finish, you make a list of things you know you have the skills, resources, and time to finish that day.

If you are planning to start a new project but realize you don’t have time to finish it today, you are forced to break up that project into smaller chunks you can get done today.

A “to finish” list forces you to think about what’s important. It makes you examine the many options available and organically prioritize your list. You not only get more done, you get the most important things done.

Shifting your focus from a long list of things you need to do to a short list of things you are committed to doing gives you clarity and peace of mind. As you finish the items on your list, you feel good, giving you the energy and desire to do more.

Starting is the hardest part of doing anything. But finishing is the most important. If you want to be, do, and have more in your life, stop starting so many things and start finishing what really matters.

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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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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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How much time should you put into each project?

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I recently read an article about the best way to pay down your debts. Logic dictates that you should pay more towards the balances with the highest interest rates. According to something called the “Snowball Method,” however, it’s better to first pay off the accounts with the smallest balances.

Paying off small balances tends to have a psychological effect on your sense of progress, providing additional motivation to pay down the rest of your debts.

Years ago, when I had several credit cards with varying balances and interest rates, I intuitively made an effort to do just that. Instead of making a proportionally bigger payment on accounts with bigger balances and higher interest rates, I focused on paying off the $500 department store balance, first.

It simplified bill paying and, more importantly, it felt good to see those accounts zero out. I still had the bigger accounts to contend with but overall, it felt like I was making progress.

Does the “Snowball Method” apply to anything else? I suspect it does. If you have five projects on your plate right now, in determining how much time to give each project, it would be logical to consider the potential payoff of each project. Projects with a bigger payoff should get more of your time, one would think. But that would ignore the psychological impact of completing some of the smaller projects, first.

I know, almost every expert says we should do the most important things first so that we make progress on them, and only then work on the less valuable tasks. (Big rocks first.) Hell, I’ve preached that myself.

But we’re human and sometimes we need to do smaller things so we can cross off them off our list and have a sense of progress.

Building your practice is easier when you know The Formula

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Write it once, use it forever

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I’m sure you have a welcome letter you mail to new clients. You probably also use some kind of “memo” or form to accompany mailed documents, along with check boxes to indicate what the recipient should do (e.g., sign and return, review, etc.)

Form letters save time and reduce the risk of errors or omissions and I encourage you to create them for all aspects of your practice.

Gmail has a feature called “canned responses”. Outlook and other email applications have something similar. They allow you to create email templates or “form letters” you can use instead of composing an original email each time, or copying and pasting paragraphs or whole emails from another document.

Go through your “sent” emails for the last 60 or 90 days and look for “frequently sent emails,” whether originated by you or sent in response to an inquiry. Flag them for creating canned responses.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • I got your email (and will reply soon/this week/after I review your questions)
  • Thank you (for coming in, calling, returning documents, for your help)
  • Here’s what to do/expect (what happens next, watch your mail, please call me, don’t forget to send us)
  • Answers to FAQs (hours, parking, fees, practice areas. Provide answers and/or direct to pages on your website)
  • Marketing inquiries (do you accept advertising, guest posts; I’m available for interviews)
  • Checking in (with clients, former clients, networking contacts)
  • Nice to meet you (after a networking event, introduction, phone conversation)
  • Announcing (new content on your website, firm news, new laws/regs)
  • Promoting (your newsletter, your ebook, your seminar, your podcast or youtube channel)
  • Reminders (next appointment, court dates, due dates)
  • It’s time to review (your lease, trust, corporate docs, agreements, legal status)

In addition to complete emails, you can set up a “library” of frequently used paragraphs, links, and subject lines.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to set up different “email signatures”.

For prospective clients, your signature might promote a free report or free consultation, invite them to connect with you on social, or invite them to review specific pages on your website. For existing clients, your signature might invite them to sign up for your “clients only” email list or cross-promote other services offered by you or your firm.

Using canned responses, form letters, and checklists might save you 30 minutes a day, or more. How much would that be worth to you over the course of a year?

Leverage is the key to earning more and working less. More

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Slow down, you’re moving too fast. . .

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I just read an interesting article positing the benefits of working slowly. Those benefits include feeling less frenzied and less fatigued, creating higher quality work product, and being more productive.

Sounds good to me. But I’ve spent a lifetime doing just the opposite–looking for ways to work faster, finish sooner, and get more done in less time–and old habits are hard to break.

Even though I can see the benefits of slowing down, I’m wondering how I can do it.

Busy busy busy. . . no time to stop and chat, I’m late I’m late I’m late.

How about you?

How about if you and I try an experiment and see what happens.

Pick a task or project, or part thereof, grab your calendar, and schedule time to do it. But instead of blocking out the amount of time you think it might take to do the task, allocate more time.

If you think you can do it in 15 minutes, block out 45 minutes or an hour.

Does the thought of doing that make you nervous? Yeah, me too. And that’s why I think we may be onto something.

Now, when the scheduled time arrives, the important thing is to use all of the scheduled time on the task and nothing else. If you finish early, go through everything again. Check your work, revise and update. See if there’s something you missed or something you can improve. If other ideas come to you about other things you need to do, write them down and put them aside.

Don’t stop working on the scheduled task until the scheduled time is up. Force yourself to work slowly on this and other projects, as a way to train yourself to slow down.

In fact, you might schedule a regular block of time on your calendar for “slow time”. This is time you dedicate to more focused, reflective work. As you race through the rest of your week and find tasks that might benefit from greater focus, i.e., a slower pace, mark them to be done during slow time.

You might eventually block out an hour a day for the same purpose.

I don’t know how well this will work, but I’m going to try it. I’ve got a project on my plate I’d planned to do today and I’m going to spend more time on it than I originally planned. If all goes well, I’ll not only get it done, I’ll get it done right–better than I might have done if I sped through it.

And then I’ll skip down the cobblestones, feeling groovy.

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How to simplify your marketing

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If you have ever assembled a piece of furniture from Ikea, you know that some items are more complicated than others. Even with detailed instructions and proper tools, it’s easy to mess these up, or take much longer than you were led to believe.

The same is true of any task or project. The more complicated it is, the more moving parts or steps, the more likely it is that you’ll get it wrong.

Some tasks and projects are so complicated we put off doing them. Or we make the effort, get flummoxed and frustrated and swear we’ll “never do that again!”

Marketing legal services is like that. Do yourself a favor and make it simpler.

On the macro side of the equation, that means using fewer strategies, and for each strategy, fewer techniques.

Try lots of things, and then settle in with a few things that work best for you. That’s what I do, and that’s what I recommend.

On the micro side, you simplify your marketing by using fewer apps and targeting fewer markets. You use forms, checklists, and “scripts”. You memorialize your process, in writing, to make it easier to train new hires and temps and so that you can continually examine your process and improve it.

When marketing is simpler, it is easier and takes less time. You get better at it and get better results.

It’s the 80/20 principle. Figure out what works best for you and do more of it.

Simplify your marketing by doing more of fewer things.

Referral marketing is one strategy every lawyer should use. Find out how

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Careful, don’t choke on that frog

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Brian Tracy’s best selling book, “Eat That Frog,” champions the well-known productivity principle of doing the most important task of your day first.

Tracy says we should swallow the frog whole. As nasty as that might be, if you do the biggest, most difficult and most important task first, you will make great progress towards your goals, even if the rest of the day you don’t accomplish that much.

So if you’ve got a trial coming up next week, prepare for it this morning. If you’ve got a lot of research to do on a file, do it first thing. This makes sense, of course, because if you wait until later in the day or put it off for a few days, you might not have enough time to do them. You might not start, let along finish, your most important tasks.

But you need to be flexible. At least I do. Apparently, some scientific types agree.

I’ve written about this before. I said that much as I would like to, I’m usually not ready to eat that frog first thing. If something takes a lot of time and energy, I usually need to sneak up on it, especially since I’m not a morning person.

I usually get other things out of the way first.

I sort through my blog reader and save articles to read later. I check email, delete most of them, respond to short messages, and star those that require more time. I write my blog post. And take care of other reasonably short tasks that need to get done.

Then I’ve got the rest of the day to work on my big project.

When I was practicing, if I had court in the morning, that’s what I focused on. When I got back to the office, appointments were next. Once those were taken care of, I dove into the files on my desk. I would usually go through them from top to bottom. Dictate, make notes, review.

In the afternoon, my staff would have letters for me to sign and more documents to review and bless. And then I had more appointments. Somewhere in between all that, I was on the phone.

Most days, I got the most important tasks done, or made progress on them, and I got a lot of other things done, too. My desk was usually clean before I left for the day.

And the only tool or “system” I used was a calendar.

In fact, when I was practicing, I can’t recall ever looking for a better system. I was busy doing work.

Besides, before computers, there weren’t a lot of options for getting organized and being more productive, other than trying out a new calendar or paper planner.

When we started using computers, they helped with a lot of basic functions but didn’t give us the multitude of options (and complexities) we have today.

I’m not pining for simpler days. I love and use technology all day, every day. And it does make me more productive. The point is we all have to find what works best for us.

Some depend on a complex workflow and a panoply of tools. Others use little more than a calendar and eat frogs when they get around to it.

The last time I wrote about this, I said as much. Do what works for you and don’t worry about finding the perfect system. Eat that frog first, or save it for later, maybe with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Other than my calendar, Evernote is still my most valuable productivity tool

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