You have thirty different cases on your plate plus running the day-to-day of your firm. We’re gonna guess you feel stressed out, overwhelmed, and like details are slipping. There’s a lot to manage and a lot of pressure.
To stay on top, you need what we call a personal productivity system, inspired primarily by Getting Things Done (GTD), Most Important Tasks, and Inbox Zero. In non-jargon-speak, this means a structured method of lists and schedules that helps you get shit done.
A caveat: There’s no one system that works best. What works for your partner might not work for you. But we’ll try to lay out a foundation you can work from and tweak as you learn more about what works for you.
Let’s dig into what a personal productivity system could look like for you.
So, What’s Personal Productivity, Anyway?
We can tell you what it isn’t: Personal productivity is not case management. Law practice management software and project management software are great for keeping track of appointments and deadlines, but not so great for figuring out what you need to do right now.
What you need is a personal productivity system—just for you—that helps you make decisions about what you should be working on, in small bites.
Before we start, you might have preconceived notions about what it will take to get organized, or you might have scanned this page and gotten intimidated by all the stuff we think you need to know about. So first, some reassurance:
You have to think about your stuff more than you realize but not as much as you’re afraid you might.
—David Allen in Getting Things Done
In other words: Improving your personal productivity is a front-loaded exercise. Yeah, it takes some sweat to get up and running. But once you’ve invested that work in learning the system, it’ll become second nature and you’ll wonder how you got anything done without it.
Lists, Lists, Lists
We know a business owner who had 430,000 emails in her email inbox. Her inbox was her list. This is where she kept her ideas, projects, meeting invites, and tasks. She would swear she knew exactly where everything was and that she never dropped an email — but she often missed meetings, project deadlines, and more. She was frustrated and her team was frustrated.
This might sound familiar to you! And it might feel overwhelming to switch gears to a more organized system. But you can do it.
First: lists. Your goal should be to keep track of everything you have to do on a set of lists. Two lists you might need:
Keep a list of all your matters and other projects. For each matter or project, keep track of upcoming dates, tasks you need to do now, and tasks to do later or that you’re waiting on someone else to do.
Set up a list in a way that makes sense to you — and ensures success. Some people use to-do apps they can quickly check on their phone. Some Bullet Journal. Know yourself – use the system that will set you up for the most success. You might need to experiment a little to figure this out. Don’t be afraid to dump a system that just isn’t working for you.
Tip: Sit down with your calendar right now. Block at least an hour each week for the next month called List Organization. Spend this time getting all of your matters and projects into a list.
Have a list of all tasks that aren’t associated with a project. If you don’t have a lot of tasks, you might just have one list, but your lists will be more useful if you sort them by context.
For example, you probably have a lot of phone calls to make. So, you might want to keep a Phone Calls list that you can pull up when you are ready to make calls. Or you might have tasks you can only do when you are in your office, which suggests an Office list. You might want to have a separate Follow-Ups or Waiting-On list. Or even a list named for a month and year for tasks you can defer until then. And so on.
The point is your lists will be more useful if they group similar tasks. The actual list context you use is up to you and may change over time.
Tip: You can keep email separate since email is a built-in context. Sam likes to flag or star emails that represent ongoing tasks, or that he has delegated or deferred. He reviews his list of flagged emails weekly as part of his work planning and pulls tasks onto his scheduler when appropriate. Aaron prefers to use email app tools (like the Gmail app) that let him “snooze” emails until they need his attention again.
Get Those Ideas Out of Your Head
Once you’ve cleared out that inbox and gotten your immediate tasks into a list, you might wonder what you’re missing. We’ll tell you: All those ideas and nebulous tasks floating around in your head.
Ideas and tasks that are stuck in your head are like stress baggage you carry with you everywhere you go. They’re more likely to get lost or keep you up at night. So, get everything out of your night sweats and in writing somewhere.
At Lawyerist, some of us scribble in a paper notebook or in a note on our computer. We also use automated programs like Evernote. Some people like to email ideas and tasks to themselves, which works great as long as you process your inbox regularly. (Don’t be the business owner with 430,000 emails.)
The moment you have an idea, get it down fast. (Just make sure you have a system for filing the idea later.)
The act of getting thoughts out of your head and into writing lets your brain know it doesn’t need to keep thinking about that idea in a loop. You’re telling your brain, “We got this. No need to work on it right now.”
Make sure your chosen system can be accessed anywhere. You never know when an idea is going to strike.
Tip: Keep your note-taking places to a minimum. Either one digital place, or a paper notebook and a digital app.
Put a recurring weekly time on your calendar where you sit down and sort these ideas into your personal productivity system. Sunday evenings or Monday mornings are great times to start the week on a confident foot, but pick a time that works best for you. Ideas shouldn’t linger in the just-idea stage for too long.
When it’s time to process, you can follow these steps for each idea:
- Do it. If the task will take less than 2 minutes, just do it right now.
- Defer it. If it’ll take longer than 2 minutes or something to be done later in the calendar, put a deadline on it.
- Delegate it. If someone else needs to do the task or you need help, send the email or make a note to get what you need.
Then, when your week starts, review your defer and delegate list each day to make sure it’s up-to-date.
Speaking of that delegate step: Cassie is a Labster who was struggling to stay on top of everything and feeling overwhelmed. The biggest shift she made was determining the highest and best use of her own time. Instead of trying to get more done, she focused on those things that only she should be doing. As a result, the “no first draft rule” was born. She made sure that her associate, paralegal, or assistant created first drafts for her review.
Tip: If there’s a task where the first step can be delegated to another member of your team, have that team member create the first draft every time.
Goals: The Reason for Everything You Do
Last, the big picture.
Appointments and deadlines mean nothing without context. Your client meeting on Tuesday has an obvious connection to your client’s goals, but does it connect to your own goals for your firm, your career, or your life?
Whatever your goals are, write them down. We think it makes sense to think in terms of what you want to accomplish this month, quarter, next quarter, this year, next year, and over the long term—about 10 years out. Your goals should be ambitious, but realistically achievable over that time frame.
Let’s start with one example topic – client intake.
- Break your goals into small bites.
- A monthly goal could be: Create a new client intake form.
- A quarterly goal might be: Have 50 new clients fill out the new intake form.
- A yearly goal might be: Convert 50% of all clients that fill out the intake form.
- And a long-term goal might be: Create and manage a 1) documented client intake process 2) with each discrete task being managed by the appropriate team members, 3) that is reviewed quarterly and improved to ensure that the system 4) educates and converts at least 70% of potential clients into engaged clients who understand both the legal process and best practices for working with our team.
By making these goals specific and measurable, you’re giving yourself a better chance to reach them.
Then, for each goal, there’s the next action. For example, if you’re creating that new client intake form, your next action might be to research what other companies are doing with their intake forms.
If you feel stuck on a particular goal, break it down into an even smaller goal. Break the goals down until your next step won’t break you into a sweat.
For example, if “Create a new client intake form” makes you want to leave your desk for the day, break it into:
- Google “sample client intake forms” and read results
If that feels too nebulous, break it down again.
- Google “sample client intake form.” Read the first result.
You might feel silly at first breaking tasks into gimme-bites like this, but you’ll also be able to cross tasks off your list at a higher rate. And you’ll be progressing towards your goal.
Don’t forget to attach your personal goals, too, to each task you create here. Remind yourself why you’re doing this in the first place.
For example, you might be focusing on automating your client intake process – and, in turn, your client conversion rate – so you can spend less time in the nitty-gritty of every day. By spending less time in the day-to-day tasks, you open up more free time to travel or get home in time for dinner with your family.
Whenever you feel frustrated or like you’re dragging your feet on a task, remind yourself of the bigger picture. Whether you own the firm or just your career path, everything you do should move you closer to your goals.
Setting the Day-to-Day
You’ll note that we haven’t actually gotten anything done yet. That’s a common complaint about productivity systems like GTD—they seem to focus more on organizing lists of tasks than actually completing tasks. It’s not an entirely fair complaint, but it’s good to remember that your productivity system isn’t any good if you spend all your time maintaining it and no time actually getting things done.
Once you work the above into your schedule, though, maintaining your lists should become nearly second nature to you. Then, once a day, take 10–20 minutes with your lists and your calendar and figure out the following:
- Most important tasks. What are the 3–5 tasks that, if you get them done today, you will be able to call it a productive day and move you closer to your goals? Write them down.
- Schedule. In between the appointments already on your calendar, block off time to get your most important tasks done. Plan breaks, too. Make sure they are marked busy so you appear unavailable to anyone who has access to your calendars, like an assistant or scheduling tool.
- Get shit done. You’ve got your plan for the day, so get to work.
OK, we’ll add on more thing. That third step? Get shit done? We know it isn’t that easy. One of our team members at Lawyerist has struggled with a life-long procrastinating issue. She’s dragged her feet on everything from her dissertation to tasks she knows would take 30 seconds or less. It’s not that she doesn’t know how to do it. It’s not that she doesn’t want to do it. She just can’t seem to make herself do it.
When you’re dreading your next step and the smallest task on your list makes you feel like hell – you need a backup plan.
Tip: Avoid distractions as much as possible, including phone calls. In fact, we recommend not taking any unscheduled calls so you can get heads-down work time.
Here’s what we suggest:
- Get an accountability partner. Ask a friend, colleague, or relative to check in with you throughout each week. You’ll tell each other your weekly goals and drill sergeant each other. There’s something about being in the same boat that motivates.
- Join a coaching program. There’s a reason people go to fitness trainers when they can’t drag themselves to the gym. In the same vein, business coaches exist. They’ll give you a structured plan, accountability milestones, and check-ins to make sure you’re on track.
- Go bird by bird. Author Anne Lamott tells a story about her younger brother who had a school project to memorize 100 birds. He was crying. He didn’t want to do it. And their dad told him, “Just go bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird.” One minute at a time. Bird by bird.
- Block your time. One of our Labsters, David, saw a huge increase in productivity when he chose 3 things each day he needed to focus on – and put a specific time on the calendar to work on those items. Don’t just use your calendar for meetings. Schedule your work time!
- Remember it’s OK to be uncomfortable. Seems obvious, right? We’re attorneys. We know what it’s like to be in intense situations. But there’s another kind of discomfort we avoid – the feeling of having to do something we know is good for us but might be tedious or hard. So we do anything to not feel that dread. Remind yourself: The dread is part of it. You won’t avoid it. But you can still work while you feel it.
You’re Not Alone
This is a lot to take in – and we’ve all been there. Get some extra help. We go over this – and more – in our law firm survival guide, The Small Firm Roadmap. Click here to join Insider and download the first chapter.
Originally published in 2019. Updated 2020-01-20.