It’s called ‘maybe’ for a reason

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I love hearing how other people structure and use their lists. When I find an idea I like, I try it and see if it works for me. Sometimes, they are a keeper. Sometimes, they don’t work for me and out they go.

And then there are ideas that are DOA.

I read one of these this morning. The author of the article said that he takes the tasks on his ‘someday/maybe’ list and either puts them on his calendar or deletes them.

He says this eliminates a lengthy weekly review of all of the tasks on that list.

I have three issues with this:

Issue no. one: Tasks on my someday/maybe list are merely ideas. I have zero commitment to them. I may do them, someday, but the odds are that I won’t. Why should I schedule anything I probably won’t do?

Issue no. two: When the scheduled date for the task arrives, if the author can’t or doesn’t want to do it, he re-schedules it (or deletes it). Since I don’t see the value in scheduling someday/maybe tasks to begin with, the idea of continually re-scheduling them seems like a poor use of my time.

Don’t they just clog up your calendar or tickler list?

Which leads me to

Issue no. three: Scheduling tasks doesn’t work for me, period.

I know many people do this successfully but unless a task has a due date or I have to get started on it so I can meet a future due date, I don’t schedule it.

Instead, I keep my lists of active tasks nearby and, once a day (usually), decide which of those tasks I’m going to do that day or that week.

I spend no time trying to figure out the priority of tasks I may not get to for weeks or months, and no time scheduling them.

A someday/maybe list does tend to get big and unwieldy, however, and I admit I don’t go through mine every week. I go through it periodically and purge ideas that no longer appeal to me, and move the ones that do to another list.

To save time, sometimes I go through my someday/maybe list and only look at items that have a certain tag or that were added to the list over a year ago.

Of course, the biggest time-saver is not adding ideas (like this one) to the list in the first place.

Ready to take a quantum leap in your practice? Here’s what you need

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Let’s play tag

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I add tags to all my notes and tasks and projects. They help me identify things and find things and organize everything into a workable system.

I have action-related tags, contextual tags (for people and places, etc.), tags for each Area of Focus, e.g., Work, Personal, and reference tags. Each project has it’s own tag.

I use @ and # and other symbols or numbers to group tags together, allowing me to nest tags under top-level categories (in Evernote).

I often experiment with different tags, to see which ones I like best, which ones I use most, and which ones fall into the “it sounded good at the time” category.

Sometimes, and by sometimes I mean all the time, I find myself having too many tags. I create a new tag for something only to discover that I already had it, or something very similar. For this reason, I periodically go on a “tag cleanse” to tidy things up.

Anyway, if you’re into tags like I am, or if you do something similar with labels or notebooks or folders, I thought I’d share a few of the tags I use, or have used, because you might find something you like.

For the sake of simplicity, I won’t include reference tags and I’ll use only #hashtag symbol:

  • #incubate (something to think about and come back to)
  • #decide (similar to #incubate)
  • #checklist (#weekly-review, for example)
  • #daily, #weekly, #monthly, #yearly, and #recurring 
  • #emergency (if I get locked out of the car, I can quickly find the number for road service)
  • #needs-reply
  • #remember (things I want to remember–quotes, mantras, habits)
  • #r/r (read/review)
  • #defer-to-do (something I plan to do later and don’t want to look at until then) 
  • #defer-to-review (something I don’t want to consider until later)
  • #wip (work in progress, so I can find things I haven’t finished)
  • #bm (bookmark; external or internal, ie., within the app.–links, sites, phone numbers, etc.)
  • #due, #pay, #buy, #amazon
  • #mit (most important task)
  • #on-hold, #pending, #planned (for projects)

I also use (or have used) some of the usual gtd-type tags:

  • #today or #t 
  • #next or #n
  • #soon
  • #later
  • #now
  • #waiting
  • #s/m (someday/maybe)
  • #errand
  • #call
  • #name (people I know or work with)
  • #computer, #home
  • #tickler and #calendar 
  • #do
  • #doing
  • #done
  • #mon, #tues, #wed, etc. 
  • #jan, #feb, #mar, etc. 
  • #5-min, #15-min, etc.
  • #high, #medium, #low (energy level needed for the task)
  • #1, #2, #3, #A, #B, #C (priority)

So, there you go. I’ve shown you mine, how about showing me yours? Because you can never have too many tags. 

My Evernote for Lawyers ebook

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Greased lightning

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I woke up with the words “low friction” in my head. To me, this means reducing complexities and removing bottlenecks in what I do, so I can get things done more quickly and with less effort.

I guess I’m thinking about this because I’m on (another) simplification binge.

I look at what I’m doing and ask, “How can I make this (app, process, tool) simpler or work better?”

Sometimes, the answer is to use one app to do a job instead of two. The second app might be better at what it does, but I have to weigh that against what I gain by not having to learn it, update it, and use it.

Sometimes, it means getting back to basics.

As you may know, I use a version of Getting Things Done to manage my tasks and projects. I’ve gotten sloppy about a few things, leading to a mind like mud rather than a mind like water.

Instead of doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, I fell into shortcutting the process and wound up complicating my life.

To fix things, I’ve gotten back to writing “next actions” the way they’re supposed to be–the single next action I can do to achieve the desired result or advance the project.

It only takes a few seconds to write down the task in “verb plus noun” format, and this really helps. Before, when I scanned my “Next Actions” list, I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Frankly, I didn’t want to look at my list at all.

When I look at my list now, instead of feeling resistance and confusion, I feel drawn to do things.

I’m also taking a little more time to flesh out projects by asking, “What’s the desired outcome?” and “What’s the next step?”

Doing this has helped me realize that some of the projects on my list shouldn’t be there. By moving them to the someday/maybe list, I have less stress (friction) and more time to focus on a shorter list of things I’m committed to doing.

Finally, I’m getting back to doing a weekly review. Now that I’m more intentional about next actions and projects, the weekly review is no longer the big mess it had become. It’s actually enjoyable.

No matter what apps or systems you use, if you find yourself lacking clarity, feeling resistance, or failing to get things done, I encourage you to simplify what you’re doing and how you do it.

Slow down (and assess what you’re doing) so you can speed up.

And if you don’t know what to do, go back to the basics.

The fundamentals of effective attorney marketing

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How to finish what you start

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Yesterday, I said that when I flesh out a new project I usually leave the due date line blank. That’s because most of my work these days doesn’t have any deadlines.

When you have clients waiting on you, statutes of limitations and court rules to abide, deadlines are a fact of life. I’ve tried making up due dates. Usually, they don’t work. As Douglas Adams said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Without a due date or penalty for not finishing projects, you may ask how I’m able to get things done.

The first thing I do is to always have several projects going at once. That way, when I’m bored with one or stuck on something, I switch to another. When I come back to the first project, things have usually sorted themselves out. If not, I’ve got others to choose from.

The second thing I do is break up my projects into small parts or next actions. This keeps me from getting overwhelmed by the immensity of what I’ve set out to do. I look at the next step or, at most, the next two or three, and get to work.

It feels good ticking off the boxes as I complete those tasks, which inspires me to carry on and do more.

I also tend to make the initial steps easy ones, to help me get started.

The third thing I do is to keep the big picture in mind. I think about the goal–what I’m seeking to accomplish and how exciting or gratifying it will be when I do it. When I find myself second-guessing myself or getting frustrated by a problem, remembering “why” helps me get back on track.

In sum, I think big but act small. Thinking big supplies the motivation. Acting small allows me to make progress.

Okay, one more. And this might actually be the most important.

I also give myself permission to give up.

I don’t feel guilty about not finishing everything I start or starting everything I’ve planned.

One of the perks of not having a client waiting on me.

How to get other lawyers to send you referrals

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Using your calendar as a todo list

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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.

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Getting things done when you don’t have to do them

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I’ve talked about this recently. You’ve got your day planned out. Appointments, documents to prepare and review, people to call, emails to send. You don’t have to think about what to do–it’s on your desktop, on your calendar, or in your email.

Most of it gets done because you have to do them. There are deadlines, due dates, and penalties for not doing so. You have people reminding you to do them and causing problems if you don’t.

Actually, it’s a pretty good system.

But what about discretionary tasks.? Things you should do or want to do that aren’t on your calendar or sitting neatly on your desk waiting for you. Things nobody will remind you to do it or ask you why you haven’t done them.

Many of these tasks are important. They will help you achieve your goals. But they reside on a long list. Overwhelmingly long. Which is why most of these tasks aren’t getting done.

The day ends, you’re tired, and you think, “I’ll start tomorrow.” But tomorrow the story is pretty much the same.

So, here’s what I suggest. Every day, choose one task on your “discretionary” list and do it before the day ends.

Just one.

It can be small. One phone call, jotting down a few notes for a writing project, reading an article. It doesn’t matter. Get it done, cross it off your list.

One discretionary task a day and you’re done.

By setting your goal low, almost ridiculously so, you will get that task done. Every day, you’ll make progress on something important.

And you’ll feel good about that. You’ll have a little dopamine party in your head and go home with a healthy high.

Who knows, you might wind up getting addicted to that feeling and do a second task.

How to get referrals from other professionals

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Weekly review ‘trigger list’

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During your weekly review, you follow a checklist of tasks, things like:

– process/empty inboxes
– review/update calendar
– check off/remove done items
– process tasks
– follow-up on ‘waiting’ tasks
– review project list
– review someday/maybe
– review goals
– and so on.

These are specific actions you do to review the previous week and plan for the following one.

After you’ve worked your way through your checklist, you might want to also review another list, a ‘trigger list’ of keywords that can jog your memory about things you might need to do that aren’t on any of your lists.

You could have a trigger list for work, with trigger words like these:

– projects started, not completed
– projects that need to be started
– clients to call/email
– former clients to email
– referral sources to contact
– research-legal
– research-management issues
– employees (by name)
– CLE
– thank-you notes
– bank/financial
– articles/blog posts
– etc.

A personal trigger list might include items such as:

– vacation
– hobbies
– birthdays
– graduations/weddings
– birthdays/anniversaries
– gifts to buy
– restaurants to check out
– amazon purchases/shopping cart
– car maintenance
– study/homework
– etc.

A quick perusal of your trigger lists might stimulate you to recall overlooked tasks to add to your inbox.

Merlin Mann posted a comprehensive trigger list some time ago. It might help you create yours.

Where do you store your checklists? Evernote is a good choice

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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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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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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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