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If only I was a Time Lord

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You’ve got a bunch of letters or documents to write. Two hours later, when you should have been long done, you’re still writing. Or re-writing. Before you know it, your day is half gone and you’re behind schedule.

Sound familiar?

The problem is explained by “Parkinson’s Law,” which says that “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

Give yourself an hour to catch up on correspondence and you’ll use that hour. Even though you could have finished in 30 minutes.

And therein lies the answer to getting more done in less time. Get in the habit of giving yourself less time than you think you’ll need.

Allocate 30 minutes for dictation instead of an hour. Give yourself one day to finish a brief that’s due in two weeks.

The more time you allocate to a task or project, the more complex it tends to become. When you have less time, you are forced to keep things as simple as possible.

When it comes to managing time, one of my weak spots has always been research. I often go down a lot of rabbit holes, spending hours and sometimes entire days trying to find what I need. The problem is I don’t always know what I need or I’m not always sure when I’ve found it.

That’s no way to run a business.

So now, I give myself a fixed amount of time. One hour of research, for example, because I can do a lot in one hour and if that’s all I have, that’s all I usually need.

If you want to start a blog or newsletter but are concerned it will take too much time from your other work, give yourself the amount of time you think you can allocate, and no more. The odds are that’s all the time you’ll need.

Yes, you do have time to get more referrals

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I don’t know, let me check my list

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I’ve started using a daily checklist. It’s a list of things I need to do as soon as I sit down at my computer and throughout the day. Most of the items on the list are things I’m already doing, without prompting from a list, but I like seeing them in front of me. I know I won’t forget anything and I can get things done and out of the way.

I have three categories: @admin, @personal, and @work.

On the @admin list are things like checking the calendar, email, and a @tickler list (upcoming date-oriented tasks to review or start), followed by checking my other lists to see what’s on tap for the day and for the week.

@personal includes my daily walk, reading, and writing in my journal.

@work includes some of my routine activities like writing a daily email/blog post and working on my current book project.

I’m just rolling this out so I know it’s going to change. I’m already thinking I could combine the three lists into one since I work from home and don’t ordinarily differentiate between work and personal, and because admin is intertwined with my work.

But, we’ll see.

If it’s not obvious, I like lists. I guess I’m a linear thinker, although there are times when I like to use a mind map to brainstorm and flesh out ideas. For the record, once I’ve done that, I convert them to a linear outline or list prior to “doing”.

I’ve also got a checklist for my weekly review. This has always been a work in progress.

Next up? Maybe an evening “shutdown” list. Hmm, I wonder if I need to write down “Netflix and chill”.

Evernote for Lawyers. Click here

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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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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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