Productivity made simple

Stephen R. Covey says “Start with the end in mind.” This is sometimes referred to as a “top-down approach.” You start with the long-term, big-picture and work downward (or backward) to the medium-term, followed by the short term, and so on until you get to today.

Let’s say you want to retire in ten years with $4 million in cash and investments. That’s the long-term vision or goal. Working backward, you figure out how much you need to save each year and what you need to do to earn it, followed by what you need to do each month, each week, and today.

It’s like following a map. You need to know your destination before you start the trip or you won’t wind up where you want to go.

The “bottom-up” approach, advocated by David Allen, acknowledges the big-picture and long-term but advocates starting with the short-term. He suggests we first get clarity and control of our current situation, then plan for the future.

Both approaches say it’s not about managing our time it’s about managing our priorities. As Covey puts it, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule but to schedule your priorities.” That’s a simple way of saying that we should be pulled by our vision instead of pushed by our circumstances.

Look at your calendar and task list. Are you prioritizing your schedule or scheduling your priorities? Are you being pulled by your vision or pushed by your circumstances?

Your top marketing priority: referrals

Using your calendar as a todo list

Yesterday, I talked about the difference between legal work, which tends to get done because of deadlines, promises to clients, employees putting the work in front of you, etc., and discretionary work, which is basically everything else.

Marketing, management, CLE (when there is no looming deadline), and a host of other valuable tasks often get delayed or ignored because we run out of day.

I suggested setting a goal to do one discretionary task each day. That’s something everyone can do and it helps you develop the habit of doing more than what’s on your desktop or calendar.

Attorney GF wrote, “Or, you could put them ON the calendar and treat them as non-discretionary. . . Use the calendar as a to-do list.”

My thoughts:

According to David Allen, the calendar should be used only for appointments, meetings, and tasks that have a specific due date. Using it for other tasks can lead to clutter and confusion.

For one thing, how do you know how much time and energy you will have three weeks from today? You don’t, so when the date arrives and you have other priorities or you don’t feel like doing the scheduled tasks, you push those tasks to future dates. When those dates arrive and you again aren’t ready to do them, you push them further still. Before you know it, tasks start piling up, like a chain reaction car accident on a foggy highway.

I know. I’ve tried to make this work. It does not lead to a “mind like water”.

On the other hand, I have been successful using the calendar to create “time blocks” for doing related tasks.

You schedule an hour every morning for email, for example. You block out 30 minutes twice a week for writing. Or you block out 15 minutes each workday for marketing-related activities.

It works and I think David Allen would approve.

One thing I do that he might not approve of is using my calendar as a tickler system. When I have tasks I want to review or do on a future date, I add them to my calendar as “all day” appointments.

Is this different? Maybe not, but it feels different because these are reminders, not appointments or commitments. That, plus I don’t have many of them so I don’t fall behind. If I had more of them, I’d set up a separate calendar exclusively for tickler items.

This is in addition to my other task and project lists.

When I started practicing, I kept a paper diary for tickler items or “come ups” as we then called them. These reminded me to do things and to make sure I regularly reviewed every file to make sure they didn’t fall through the cracks.

I kept a calendar for appointments, court dates, and due dates, and another calendar (diary) for statues of limitations. Do they still make that big red diary?

I kept discretionary tasks on paper notes or I wrote them on the blotter on my desk. But there were so few of them, unlike my work today, that I rarely had to schedule anything.

I kinda miss those days.

Cleaning up your email inbox

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

David Allen on how to handle distractions

I thought you’d enjoy this short video by David Allen, the “Getting Things Done” guy himself.

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