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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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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How to choose the right tasks to do today

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Yesterday, I said that a good way to avoid being overwhelmed by a large to-do list is to make a list of 3-5 tasks you are committed to doing today and putting everything else out of the way (on other lists). I said your “today” list should be comprised of your most urgent and import tasks, but how do you decide what those are?

Urgent is pretty easy. These are tasks you must do today or bad things will happen. One expert says urgent tasks are ones you would be willing to stay late at the office to finish. If it can wait until tomorrow, it’s not urgent.

Works for me. But what about “important” tasks? How do we choose those?

One way to do that is to “start with the end in mind,” as Covey says, and work backward. That means first deciding on the outcomes you want to achieve today, this week, or relatively soon. Once you know the outcomes, brainstorm what you have to do to accomplish them, or take the next step in that direction.

If one of your desired outcomes this week is to file a motion in an important case, you would first write down all of the necessary action steps (e.g., assemble a factual time line, research, write points and authorities, write a declaration, write the first draft, and so on). From that list, you would choose what to do first and put that on your to-do list for today.

If a desired outcome this week is to get at least one referral from your professional contacts, possible actions would include going through your database to identify professionals you want to contact, writing emails, and making phone calls. Put one or more of those tasks on your list for today.

Now, how do you decide on the outcomes you want to achieve? By first looking at your goals. But that’s a subject for another day.

How to use Evernote for getting things done

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Getting things done by re-thinking the definition of a to-do list

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No matter what task management system you use, or even if you don’t use one at all, the odds are you have a seemingly endless list of things to do.

You might keep them in an app. You might keep them on paper. You might keep them in your head. But there’s your list, a mile long and growing every day, overwhelming you to the point where you don’t want to look at it anymore.

Okay, maybe that’s just me.

But I have a new weapon in the battle of wits between my lists and my sanity and you may want to use it.

It starts with thinking about a to-do list as simply a list of things to do TODAY.

Not tomorrow or next week. Today.

It is a list of 3 to 5 tasks you are committed to doing today because they are urgent or important.

Take a deep breath and imagine a list of ONLY 3 to 5 tasks. That’s a list you can and will do.

If you find yourself resisting a task, break it up into 15-minute bites. You’ll be less likely to procrastinate when “it’s only 15 minutes”.

You can also use 15-minute increments for bigger projects. I’m working on something right now that’s tedious and will take many hours to complete. I had put it off for a long time but I’m doing it now because my task list only commits me to 15 minutes. I can do more than 15 minutes if I want to, and I often do, but only if I want to.

Yay me.

Now, what do you do if you have more than 5 important or urgent things to do today? You keep them on a second list.

Your first list (today) has your most important or urgent tasks on it. Your second list is what to do after you’ve taken care of those tasks.

Your second list has no more than 15 or 20 tasks on it. It includes other things you need to do today, and things you need to do in the next week or so. Or things you’d like to consider doing.

When you have completed the tasks on your today list, you look at list number two and choose additional tasks.

Two lists: 3 to 5 most important tasks you are committed to doing today. 15 to 20 back-up or “next” tasks.

Check your today list frequently throughout the day. Check your second list once a day, after you have finished your today list.

Put everything else–all of the someday/maybes, ideas, things you’re not committed to doing–on a third list. Check that list once a week. Skim through it and find things to put on your first two lists and then put your third list away until the following week.

I’ve been doing this for about a week and it’s making a big difference in how I feel about my lists and in my overall productivity. My lists are much more manageable and much less daunting.

And, you can use this with any other task management system because it’s basically a way to combat overwhelm by limiting the number of tasks in front of you and the amount of time you commit to doing them.

One more thing.

While your first two lists are purposefully limited in number, list number three (everything else) will no doubt grow to hundreds of entries, many of which don’t need to be considered each week. To keep list number three from overwhelming you, at some point, you’ll want to segment it so that you don’t have to look at every task or idea on it every week.

You can do that by creating sub-lists or by using software to label or tag items to consider at some point in the future or under certain specified conditions. I have a list of more than 1000 blog post ideas, for example, but I only look at that list occasionally.

How to use Evernote for getting things done

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