Should Lawyers Use Getting Things Done (GTD)?

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Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

Guest post by Lior Levin.

There are very few professions better suited for using the Getting Things Done (GTD) system than the legal one. A project-driven field with hard deadlines and dire consequences for missing them, using GTD can be a sensible approach for staying on top of what is happening, what needs to be done and making sure no deadlines are missed.

Implementing GTD might be a solid move, especially for lawyers and law firms that are finding they have issues staying on top of everything.

A quick look at what GTD is and what it does explains why.

What is Getting Things Done (GTD)?

Originally created by author and consultant David Allen, GTD is a task and time management system that is designed to reduce stress and help ensure that you’re focused on your most important and most urgent tasks.

GTD involves a five-step process including:

  1. Collecting: All of the things you are remembering to do or keeping reminders in various places (email inbox, calendar, notebook,  etc.)  is collected into one master list.
  2. Processing: That list is then processed and any items that don’t need action immediately are put on hold. Those that do are either acted on immediately if one is able to quickly or filed away to be done later.
  3. Organization: Tasks that are not acted on immediately are then organized into lists, with the most urgent tasks, placed on a list that gets the most attention.
  4. Review: Lists must be reviewed regularly, weekly is ideal, to ensure that the most important tasks are at the top.
  5. Execute: Finally, now that all of your important work is at the top of your list and both your inbox and calendar are empty of unneeded things, all that remains is to do the tasks at hand.

All in all, GTD is primarily just common sense task management but this is an area where many lawyers and law firms fall flat. Cluttering up inboxes and calendars with reminders and “to-dos” rather than using them for their intended purposes. GTD has the effect of combining all task management into one place, rather than spreading it out across multiple lists.

This can, in turn, increase task focus, reduce stress and help eliminate forgotten or missed tasks, making the office much more productive.

Should Lawyers Use Getting Things Done?

The choice of whether or not to implement GTD is largely a personal one. Many do well with the system and find that it reduces stress and makes them much more productive. Others, however, struggle to maintain their lists and find that the system can actually backfire if their list is incomplete.

That being said, the legal profession is still a very good candidate for the GTD system. The structure of projects, the rigid deadlines and back and forth with clients creates an environment where there are a lot of tasks to be done, but not all are urgent or even able to be tackled. GTD is designed to help organize tasks in exactly this manner.

GTD is also completely “platform agnostic” meaning that it can run on any computer or no computer at all. Though you can use a high-tech solution such as Producteev or Rocket Matter you can also do it with your existing notebook or even by using index cards.

Since there’s no technology commitment, there’s very little to lose, especially if you are already struggling to stay on top of things.

Considering how simple the principles are to follow and how much stress and headache it can save, GTD is, for most lawyers, a very natural choice.

Lior Levin is a marketing consultant who works for an E2 visa lawyer from New York.

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  • Notice none of these things actually tells you how to get things done, just how to rearrange the things you need to do.

    Here’s a tip for actually becoming more productive at what you’re doing: on larger projects, periodically stop and ask yourself “what is the client’s objective?” It can be easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole of research and lose sight of what the client actually wants. That nuanced argument you’re working on might sway a 3 judge appellate panel and be ripe for publication in a law journal, but if you client is hoping for a speedy settlement, you’re on the wrong track. Make a note of it in case you do go to trial, but don’t dwell on it now.

  • Working for clients and running a law firm necessitates organization and efficiency. Although attorneys can learn some valuable things from the ideas above, I’d have to agree that this book touting “stress-free productivity” might not be best applied to the legal field.

  • Judging from the condition of many lawyers’ offices and the hoops support staff have to jump through to keep deadlines from being missed due to attorney procrastination and disorganization, a little GTD might actually do *some* folks’ practices a world of good.

  • For those who consistently apply the methods of GTD, the new found sense of control is amazing. Most of us have a high tolerance for stress but the magic of GTD is the ability to fully engage on the task at hand because you are at peace with the things you are not doing. A cursory review of the material is not enough to gain a meaningful appreciation for the process. You must engage it and own it. Then you will realize the beauty of the system.

  • I went solo a year ago and my largest weakness was my organizational skills. After reading this post, I bought Getting Things Done, read it, and tried my best to implement the system. While I believed in the system it lays out, I just couldn’t get it to work. I was trying to use Word for my lists and it simply failed. Then a friend told me about vitalist.com. I highly recommend looking into if you use GTD now or interested in trying it. It provides the technological platform I needed to make it work for me. vitalist.com is free to start, but it limits the amount of contexts, projects, etc. you can use so in order for it work you have to upgrade ($5 or $10/month).

    I’d be interested to hear if any others have tried vitalist.com and their thoughts on the platform.

    • I haven’t used Vitalist. Remember the Milk is my favorite way to keep lists, or else pen and paper. You’ve got to find a way to keep lists that you can keep with you at all times. Word seems like it would make that extremely difficult to do. There’s a long list of GTD-inspired task managers. Rocket Matter even uses a GTD-based approach to practice management.

      Just experiment until you find something you like that works for you.