How to Handle an Overflowing Inbox or Task List


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.

Lawyers get paid big bucks to not only handle high pressure situations, but multiple high pressure situations.

In a perfect world, lawyers could work on cases in a nice, calm, sequential manner in order to maximize productivity.

Lawyers, however, don’t live in a perfect world. And when it rains, it pours, hails, and the electricity goes out.

Here are some ways to tackle an overwhelming inbox or task list.

Get real and lower your expectations

You will not get everything done this morning/this afternoon/this evening/today. Think about how much time you waste staring at your computer and thinking “how I am going to get through all of this today?” Not only will you waste time thinking about it, you will increase your stress levels. That makes it exponentially harder to get anything done.

I know more than one attorney (especially young attorneys) who freak out at large workloads, then spend the next 2-3 hours complaining about how much they have to do. That is a wonderful way to make things worse, instead of actually attacking the problem.

Here’s a good way to start: acknowledge you will not accomplish everything. This is a huge mental hurdle for lawyers, because most of us are type A. In essence, you are acknowledging that you will fail. On the other hand, by lowering expectations you are creating a task that can be accomplished. For type A people. that’s a big deal.

Quickly triage your tasks and postpone the ones that can be postponed. If you use labels on your e-mail, you can create labels and folders. That way, you can handle the fires that really need to be put out, and leave the slow burning coals until tomorrow.

Start crossing off “easy/quick” tasks

After a client meeting last week, my inbox had eighteen new e-mails. All told, I think it broke down to 7-10 e-mails relating to current clients, 3-4 e-mails from potential clients, and probably 1-3 garbage e-mails. Given that I usually have between 20-30 current clients at any given time, that meant somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of my cases needed immediate attention. That was overwhelming.

When that happens, I just start doing things. I scan the e-mails and start knocking off the things that can be done quickly. Quick update? Done. Mail a copy of an executed document? Done. Opposing counsel wants some rebuttal to a legal argument? Er, that can wait.

In the financial world, this is called the snowball effect. You start small (small snowball) and keep building momentum to tackle the big tasks (big snowball).

One, you will feel a sense of emotional victory. For us type A folks, getting things done feels good. Two, it makes it a bazillion times easier to focus on the remaining tasks.

I can’t think when my mind is stretched between 10 or 20 different things that need to get done. So when I cut that in half, and then cut it in half again, I can focus.

Reward yourself

It’s a lot easier to get things done when your head is on straight and when you are relaxed (or at least not stressed out of your mind).

So when you knock off a bunch of little tasks (or a big one), reward yourself. Not like you just won a jury trial reward, but a small reward.

Get out of your office and walk outside for ten minutes. If you are glued to your desk then dink around on Facebook for ten minutes, or watch ten minutes of your favorite tv show.

Not only are you rewarding yourself, you are forcing yourself to take your mind off the rest of your to-do list. That’s a good thing. The reward will make you want to get another reward and it will also clear your mind, which should make you more productive.



Get Lawyerist in Your Inbox, Daily

Current Articles
Current Lab Discussions
  • Jacob Small

    These are generally good suggestions, but the most important way to keep from being underneath your inbox and task list is to have a comprehensive system in place, like Getting Things Done.