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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How to take the pain out of your weekly review

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A weekly review is an important part of any productivity system. Without regularly reviewing your plans and progress it’s easy to get off track.

But it’s a pain in the behind.

Going through all of our tasks and projects, current and proposed, takes a long time and makes us continually re-visit decisions we thought we had already made.

Too often, we put off our review and before long, we’re lost in the weeds.

Here are a few ideas you can use to avoid this:

  • Do SOME of the weekly review tasks daily instead of weekly. It will be quicker to empty your inboxes during your weekly review, for example, if you’ve developed the habit of doing this (or most of it) every day.
  • Schedule the time in advance. I do my weekly review on Sunday mornings at 10 am. It’s on the calendar and has become a habit. I don’t have to think about it, I just do it.
  • Use a checklist. Prepare a list of #weeklyreview tasks so that you can dive right in and git ‘er done.
  • Reward yourself. When the review is done, do something fun to reinforce the habit.

One more and it’s a biggie: Use a time limit.

I now limit my weekly review to just ten minutes. Easy peasy. I can do that standing on my head.

A ten-minute limit means I can’t go through my #someday/maybe and #idea lists each week. I do that once a month, or periodically (when I’m in the mood).

A ten-minute limit also requires me to keep on top of my lists throughout the week, which I do. My lists are always just one click away so I can look at them frequently during the day.

“What if you’re not done in ten minutes?” you ask. “Aren’t you taking the risk that you’ll miss something important?”

I’ve come to trust that if something is important, it’s already got my attention.

Try a ten-minute review and see how it works for you. Before you do that, however, do one last major review to clean up your lists. Or, do what I do periodically: hide everything (in another folder, another app) and start fresh with a clean slate.

New lists, new you.

Evernote for Lawyers

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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 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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