What to do when you don’t know what to do

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You’ve got a situation. A problem, something you need or want and you can’t figure out how to get it. You’re confused and frustrated and don’t know what to do.

We have a situation like this in our family right now. A close relative is ill and we’re trying to sort out the medical, legal, and financial options. It’s all been a bit overwhelming.

When you have a problem and you don’t know what to do, your feelings aren’t going to help you, you have to focus on action.

Here’s how:

1) State the goal

Where do you want this to end up? What would be a good outcome? How would you define success?

You need to know the destination before you you know what to do to reach it.

2) Write down the facts

What do you know about the current situation, and what do you need to find out?

What are the options? What can you do? What are the problems, issues, and obstacles stopping you from reaching the goal?

3) Choose the “next action”

Once you know the facts, it’s time to take action. Not just any action, however, the logical “next action,” in Getting Things Done terms, meaning something you can do to move the situation forward.

If you’re having trouble getting started, choose something small and easy to do:

Write down a list of questions. Make a call. Do some research.

Once you’ve done that, ask again: “What’d the next action?”

And do that.

If the next action is too big, break it down into smaller steps and find one you can do.

If you have several next action candidates and don’t know which one to choose, your next action might be to talk to someone or to weigh the pros and cons of each option so you can decide which one to choose.

We did this with our family situation and while it’s been a bumpy ride, we’ve moved forward from a place of not knowing what to do to knowing what to do (next).

And we know that if we continue asking, “What’s the next action?” and doing it, we’ll get through this difficult situation and eventually reach our goal.

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Two clarifying questions from David Allen

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I spoke to a lawyer yesterday who told me he wants to continue building his practice (which is doing well) and find something he can do on the side that might one day lead to bigger and better things.

He has an itch and wanted me to help him scratch it.

Most of our time was spent talking about ways to find ideas. For now, that’s what he’s going to focus on.

At some point, after he does a lot of exploring and researching and thinking, if and when he finds an idea he wants to pursue, he’ll need to decide what to do about it.

When that time comes, I’d tell him to do what David Allen suggests in Getting Things Done:

“Ask yourself two questions: What’s the successful outcome? And, What’s the next action (logical next step) to make it happen?” Allen says, “These provide fundamental clarity for Getting Things Done, and they lie at the core of most everything I teach.”

These questions are equally valuable for parsing a task or project list as they are for choosing your future.

Whether you’re starting a new chapter in your legal career, a new work project, or a new business, ask yourself what “done” looks like for you.

As Stephen Covey said, “start with the end in mind”.

In my work, especially when I’m struggling to start a project, or complete it, asking myself, “What’s the next action?” has been a game changer.

I ask that question and it helps me figure out the best (or easiest) place to start. I come back and ask that question again and again, and it helps me figure out what to do “next”.

Go ahead, think about something you need to do that you’ve been avoiding. Look at the list of all of the tasks you need to do and ask yourself, “What’s the next action?”

Start there.

How I use GTD in Evernote

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You can read this anywhere: a few thoughts about GTD contexts

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Getting Things Done (GTD) teaches us to identify our tasks by context—location, people, tools, and so on—so we can do things when and where we’re best equipped to do them. 

I stopped using most contexts a long time ago, since I can do just about anything from just about anywhere.

Calls, emails, reading, writing—I can do all of these from the office in my pocket. 

I still use the @waiting context, but not much else. 

I’m going to take another look at my use of contexts, however, based on a short video I saw last night, which makes the case for contexts based on “time plus energy”.

GTD has long recommended contexts for time and contexts for energy, but I like the way the presenter combines them:

  • Short Dashes: Tasks that can be done in more than 2 minutes and less than 15 minutes. Most calls and emails fit here, don’t they? 
  • Full Focus: Tasks requiring maximum energy, no distractions, and longer periods of time; deep work.
  • Brain Dead: When you can’t do anything that requires a lot of thought.
  • Routines: Your weekly review, exercise, writing a blog post. 
  • Hanging Around: Tasks that don’t require a lot of time or energy and don’t have a deadline, e.g., Light research, organizing notes, buying something online.

What do you think? Do any of these appeal to you? Do you already use something similar?

I like “Brain Dead” or “Hanging Around,” especially for things I can do after I’ve shut down work for the night. I’ll give this some thought later today. 

But first, I have some “Short Dashes” to take care of. 

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How’s that ‘weekly review’ thing going?

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No matter what kind of productivity system we use, we can all agree that some kind of weekly review is a good idea.

Examining what we’ve done recently and planning out what to do next just makes sense. A well-planned life is a well-lived life, or something like that.

But. . . it’s so easy to fall off the wagon. (Ask me how I know.)

If you’re thinking about re-starting your weekly review, or cleaning up a list that has become unwieldy, I have a few ideas that might help.

  • If it’s been awhile since you did a weekly review, if you routinely ignore the appointment in your calendar, scheduling a different day and time for your review might help you jump start a new habit.
  • If this is your first day back, don’t try to do everything at once. Limit yourself to reviewing a segment of your list, e.g., current projects, “this week” or “this month,” or limit yourself to a 10-minute perusal to get your feet wet. Easy to start, easy to continue.
  • Consider setting up two new tags or labels: “Defer to do” and “Defer to review”. This will allow you to move tasks and ideas out of sight (for now), giving you more visual space and mental clarity to deal with more important or immediate tasks.
  • If your someday/maybe list is massive, give yourself permission to aggressively delete items. If that makes you nervous, move them to a “probably never” list, and tell yourself you will “probably never” look at that list.
  • If things are totally out of control and you dread getting started, consider the nuclear option: set up a new inbox, move your entire list into it, and start from scratch.
  • Another idea: choose a new app or system and re-enter everything manually. It makes you re-consider what’s important and helps you create a more manageable list.
  • Once you’re back on the wagon and your lists are in decent shape, consider adding a brief “daily review” to your schedule. A few minutes at the end of the day can help you keep your lists tidy and reduce the amount of time needed for your weekly review.

If you use Evernote for your lists, my book can help you get organized

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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.

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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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I don’t know, stop asking me

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I’m playing around with a “time management” app I used many years ago. It was updated recently and so far I like what I see.

This, after many years of trying more apps than I can count and always coming back to Evernote.

Who knows, I may finally make a “permanent” switch.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about something I’ve been thinking as I transfer tasks from Evernote to the other app.

As I re-create the projects and underlying tasks in the old/new app, I have to make decisions about them.

Lots of decisions–about which projects should be front and center, which tasks should be “next actions,” which tasks should get a due date and what that date should be.

You have to decide what you want to accomplish.
You have to decide what to do next.
You have to decide when you will do it.

You know the routine.

Because you do, you know how easy it is to get overwhelmed with all those decisions.

It’s why we tend to drift away from what we’re doing and look for a better system.

Indecision causes stress and drains energy. In GTD parlance, unmade decisions (or rashly made ones, I suppose), are called “open loops”.

Open loops nag you and call you names. So you keep giving them attention when you should be doing other things.

If this sounds painfully familiar, I have a suggestion: Decide not to decide.

Decide that you don’t have to make a decision right now and schedule a future “review” date, where you will review the task or project and decide what to do about it.

Until then, you won’t think about it.

Assign a “start date” instead of a “due date”. When the start date arrives, do your review.

When you decide not to make a decision you are actually making a decision. When you become comfortable postponing decisions, you close open loops, gain clarity, and reduce your stress level.

Don’t let your tasks push you around. Tell them to go away–for now.

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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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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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