How to choose the right tasks to do today

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

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

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

How to create a task you’ll actually do

If you find yourself procrastinating about certain tasks on your list, one reason might be the task description itself. If it’s unclear what you’re supposed to do, if the task looks daunting or overly time consuming, it’s easy to see why you might put it off until later or skip it completely.

You can avoid this by writing better descriptions. Here are three ways to do that:

1) Make sure the task is something you can DO.

A task should be something simple, meaning something you can actually do.

You can’t “buy a car,” for example. There are too many things you need to do first: research makes and models, read reviews, consider extras and add-ons, choose a color, compare prices, take a test drive, inquire about financing, and so on.

Buying a car is a “project” not a task. Break up your projects into the component tasks and record those on your list.

2) Use ACTION VERBS to describe your tasks

Describe each task clearly and concisely. Start the description with an action verb: write, call, review, outline, research, send, etc.

If your task is to compare prices on your new car, for example, you might write, “Call five dealers for written quotes”.

Specific, clear, concise, and doable.

3) Make it EASIER to do

The easier (and quicker) it is to do a task, the more likely it is that you’ll do it. When writing the task description, include additional information and resources you’ll need so you don’t have to go looking for them when it’s time to do the task.

If the task is to call someone, put the phone number in the task description. Add notes you might need to reference during the call.

If the task is to review a document, embed the document or a link thereto in the task description. If you need to fill out a monthly report, include the template or the previous month’s report to refer to and/or modify for this month’s report.

Make your tasks something you can do, make the description action-oriented so you’ll know exactly what to do, and make the task easier to do by adding additional information and resources.

“Get more referrals” is a project, not a task. Here’s everything you need to do

Can you really earn more by working less?

We’ve all been taught that more is better so how is it that some people earn more and achieve more by working less?

They do it by choosing the right things to do.

The most successful among us focus on doing things that allow them to take giant leaps instead of incremental steps. The kinds of things that let them leverage their resources and get “eighty percent results with twenty percent effort”.

It’s not that they ignore the little things. It’s that at any given moment, they’re able to zero in on the one thing they can do that will give them the most bang for their buck.

Real estate entrepreneur, Gary Keller, made this the theme of his bestselling book, The ONE Thing. He says that we can become much more successful by finding and doing the one thing (activity, task, decision, etc.) that can allow us to achieve extraordinary results.

Keller suggests that we look at our goals and for each one, ask, “What’s the ‘ONE Thing’ [I] can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

If your goal is to bring in ten new clients per month within 90 days, for example, out of all the things you MIGHT do, you should find and do the one thing that is likely to make it most likely that you will achieve that goal.

Start by brainstorming possibilities. You’ll probably think of hundreds of ideas, and if you don’t, read through my blog and courses. Put your list aside for a few days, come back to it and look for your ‘one thing’.

You may reason your way to a decision, but it is just as likely that your “gut” will tell you. If you’re not sure, go through your list slowly, think about each idea and see how you feel about it. If it feels good to think about it, if you find yourself getting excited about it, the odds are that’s what you should choose.

Your ‘one thing’ will likely be different than any other lawyer’s. You might decide that your one thing is to hire someone to create a new website for you. Another lawyer might decide that his or her one thing is to meet prospective new referral sources. Someone else may decide that advertising is the right thing for them.

All of these things, and others, might help you reach your goal, but you should consider them later. Right now,  you should find your one thing and do it.

Your website can bring you a lot of new clients

Why being a bit neurotic might be a good thing

If you’re like me, you are constantly fiddling. No matter how well things are going, we’re never completely satisfied and we’re constantly looking for something better.

We may be running a tight ship at work but good isn’t good enough. We’re “getting things done” but we can’t help but think there are ways to get more things done, or get them done faster.

I’ve used Evernote as my primary productivity application for several years but I am continually trying new apps. I’m also trying new methods–new tagging schemes, new ways of organizing tasks and projects, new ways of approaching how I work.

I used to think my mercurial ways were a sign of weakness. It turns out they might actually be a strength.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, the most productive people frequently try new systems. “I found that the people who are most productive decided to think about it deliberately,” he says. “Habits are useful tools, but they can hinder as well as help,” he adds. “Constantly cycling through systems forces you to think about your own productivity.”

Each time we try a new app, a new system, or a new process, we critically examine what we have been habitually doing. Things may be good but they can always be better and by continually trying new ideas, we continually find ways to improve.

So the next time you’re feeling guilty about changing your methodology or replacing your favorite app with another, give yourself a pat on the back.

And if you’re not a jumpy monkey like some of us, if you’re satisfied with the way everything is working and have no interest in re-examining what you do, you might want to smoke some of what we’re smoking and join us on the cutting edge.

Evernote for Lawyers

Too much on your plate? Get a smaller plate

Nirvana. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why I was attracted to an app by that name several years ago when it was in beta.

Nirvana is built for GTD, with Next Actions, Waiting, Someday, and other “Getting Things Done” features. I liked it, but the developer was taking too long to get it out of beta and I eventually moved onto to other things.

The other day I heard that Nirvana had been updated and I decided to take another look. I played around with it, entering tasks and projects, adding tags, and taking the app for a test drive.

I’m using the free Basic version which limits you to 3 “Areas of Focus” (e.g., Work, Personal, etc.) and 5 Projects. I have more than one business, however, and could use more than 3 Areas of Focus. I also have many projects, both active and inactive, and could use a lot more than 5.

But here’s the thing.

As I struggled to shoehorn my busy life into the Basic version, I realized that while I may have 50 projects I could be working on, I can only work on a one or two at a time. I found myself thinking about what was important to me right now, and used these for my 5 projects. Any other projects (or standalone tasks) I can tag “Someday,” or schedule for a future date, which is what I did with a project I’m planning to work on next month.

If I had the unlimited Pro account, ( per year) and put every project on the project list, both active and inactive, I can see how things might get out of hand. Using the Basic version of Nirvana, or any app that limits you to a handful of “front and center” options, forces you to prioritize.

I can’t have too much on my plate because my “plate” only holds so much.

Of course an artificial limit of 5 projects is just that–artificial. I can still put “everything” in this or other apps and find them when I want to re-fill my list of 5.

I think I’ll play around with the limited version of Nirvana a bit longer. There’s something liberating about looking at a spartan interface with just a few things in front of me, seeing how close I am to being “Done”.

Check out Nirvana and see what you think

I’m afraid you won’t like what I’m about to say

Like anyone who puts his or her work out for the world to see, I have doubts about what people will think about it. I have fears that nobody will like it or that I will receive harsh criticism.

I have other fears, too, just like everyone does.

Most of these fears are fleeting. They don’t last long and they aren’t debilitating. Some are pretty silly when I think about them in the light of day. (Not so silly when they come in a dream, however.)

How do I manage fear?

What I don’t do is follow the advice that says, “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway,” detailed in a book by that name. Don’t get me wrong, I do it anyway, usually, I just don’t feel the fear.

Why feel the fear and infuse it with energy? Why give it more weight than it probably deserves?

So no, I don’t feel the fear. I look at it rationally and ask myself if there is anything I can learn from it or anything I must do about it. Usually, the answer is no.

I acknowledge the fear, and then I change the subject.

I think about something else that feels better when I think it. I think about a positive aspect of the subject at hand or I think about something completely unrelated.

Yes, you can distract yourself from negative thoughts and fears. That’s why God invented sports and movies, isn’t it?

So yeah, once I know that my fear doesn’t offer me anything I need, it’s not protecting me from harm,  I change the subject.

Usually that’s all I need to do. Sometimes, the fear is stubborn and I need to do more. If I’ve already decided to move forward, I put that fear in a mental lock box.

Actually, instead of a box, sometimes I put the fear in a mental balloon filled with helium and let the balloon float away. Images are powerful and I’ve found that when something is really bothering me, strong imagery helps me to regain control.

Sometimes fears return. I’ll do a quick double check, to see if they have anything worthwhile to tell me, and if not, back in the box or balloon they go.

I guess what I’m saying is that you have to get good at compartmentalizing things. If you’ve done your homework and you’re committed to doing something, put on blinders and do it. Don’t let your doubts or fears stop you.

Every so often, it’s good to take a look around you, just to make sure. But whatever you do. . . don’t open that box.

Afraid you won’t get more clients? Here’s the solution

Getting things done by giving yourself less time to do them

In an interview, author Jodi Picoult was asked about her approach to writing. She said:

“I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

Yep. That just about sums up my thoughts about writer’s block. It’s also a good metaphor for other things on our plate, especially things we’ve been putting off or have struggled to complete.

What project would you like to do but have told yourself you don’t have the time? The truth is, you might not be doing it because you have too much time.

I’ve found this to be a bigger issue for me since I stopped seeing clients and started working from home. Not having appointments and deadlines and due dates has resulted in my continually “not having enough time” to do things, and the things I have done have taken much longer than they should.

There’s one project I’ve had on the back burner for an eternity. I wasn’t close to starting, let along finishing. But about a week ago, I gave myself a deadline to finish it before the end of the month. With that due date looming, in one day I was able to make enormous progress and I am certain I will finish on time.

Parkinson’s Law says, “Work expands to fill the time allotted for it’s completion,” or something like that. The trick, then, is to allot less time. Perhaps a lot less.

Pretend you’re back in school and everything has a due date and serious consequences for missing it. Choose something on your list that you think might require a week or a month to complete and commit to doing it this weekend.

You might not finish it but you will surely make a lot of progress. You also might surprise yourself and get it done.

Get more things done by getting better at delegating. This will help

Yes, you’re busy but are you getting things done?

You keep a list of things you need to do each day, right? If you’re good at this list making thing, you highlight the two or three (or five) most important tasks of the day. Even better, you write your list the night before so you can hit the ground running the next morning.

Good stuff. You’re getting things done. Important, valuable things that create value for you and your clients and advance you towards your most important goals.

Or are you?

Some list-makers aren’t that good at deducing their most important tasks and spend too much time putting out fires and doing whatever else is put in front in front of them. Others are good at making lists of important tasks but not so good at getting them done.

If that describes you, even a little, I have a suggestion. At the end of the day, before you write your list for the morrow, write down what you did that day. A “done” list, that shows you what you actually did.

Actually, if you’re especially clever (and unafraid of the truth), instead of writing down what you did, write down what you accomplished. Because being busy isn’t worth squat.

At the end of the day, ask yourself, “What did I achieve today?” If you like the answer, great. You will be motivated to accomplish more the following day. If you don’t like the answer, if you realize that you’re keeping busy but you’re not accomplishing important things, you’ll either do something about that or you’ll stop writing a list of accomplishments and go back to just being busy.

Because success is a choice.

Building a successful law practice starts with having a plan

How to get rid of digital clutter

Are you a hoarder? I don’t mean clothes and newspapers and other stuff you’ve got piled up to the ceiling, I mean the digital clutter on your hard drive, especially your endless list of tasks and projects you plan to do “next” or “someday”.

To be sure, there are good ideas on those lists. But as a whole, there are too many options; collectively, they hinder your productivity. When you have too many ideas, you get to the point where you can’t decide what to do. You may even stop looking.

The solution? Grab a machete and get cutting.

But hold on. I know it’s difficult to get rid of things you might want to do someday. You worked hard to make and keep those lists. There may be a million dollar idea on one of your lists and you don’t want to let it go.

You might want to do what a mother did when she was trying to get her kids to get rid of their old toys.

“When I’d say, “What do you want to get rid of?” my kids would usually have a really hard time choosing anything to part with. . . . They wanted to keep everything. . . When I changed my words to, “What would you like to keep? What are your most favorite things?” my kids were suddenly able to get rid of a lot of stuff!”

Instead of agonizing over each item on your list, trying to decide which tasks and projects you would like to get rid of, start over and make a new list. Add only those things you want to keep, only those things you are most likely to do.

But unlike that mother’s kids, you don’t have to throw away any of your old toys. You can store your original list out of sight somewhere on your hard drive.

Your new list will help you get important things done, but you’ll know that your old lists still exist, in case you ever want to play with your old toys.

Get your marketing organized