Personal productivity and time management are daily challenges for every busy lawyer. Over many years, we have developed a personal productivity system inspired primarily by Getting Things Done (GTD), Most Important Tasks, and Inbox Zero. It is simple and flexible, and if you feel like you are struggling to manage your days, it will help.

Lawyerist personal productivity graphic displaying goals, projects, and tasks.

Our personal productivity system is built to help you work strategically, always starting with your big-picture goals for your law firm. You’ll learn to take those goals, select projects that move you closer to them, and be more productive every day.

Personal Productivity & Time Management v. Case/Matter/Project Management

Personal productivity is distinct from case or project management. Law practice management software and project management software are great for keeping track of appointments and deadlines, but they aren’t so great for planning out what you should be working on today, or this week, or for setting goals and keeping them in view. What you need is a personal productivity system—just for you—that helps you make decisions about what you should be working on right now and plan out what you should be working on this week, next week, and beyond.

We’ve been frustrated by this disconnect between law firm–level productivity, which is easily managed with law practice management or project management systems, and personal productivity. 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:

Improving your personal productivity is a front-loaded exercise. It takes work to get up and running and build the necessary habits. But once you’ve invested that work in learning the system, it will become second nature to you and pay huge dividends.

Goals: the Reason for Everything You Do

On their own, appointments and deadlines lack meaning. 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 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.

For each of your goals, there will be a next action. In other words, if you want to see $100,000 in firm profit next year, the next thing you probably need to do is figure out what your current profitability is, and among other things how many new clients you will need to make up the gap. Which will need a plan for generating potential client leads and for delivering the legal work they will need.

Or if you want to take your family on a month-long trip to Greece next year, like Sam does, you should probably figure out a budget for the trip and put a date on the calendar. And once you’ve got a date and a budget, you can figure out how much you need to save for the trip. Then you can come up with a plan for saving. And so on. Each next action follows the previous one.

But it goes the other way, too. When you are trying to force yourself to focus on the details of a contract, you can look at your goals to remind yourself why you are doing it. To get to Greece next May. When you’re standing shyly in the corner at a bar event, you can remind yourself that the reason you want to meet three new lawyers is that you need 10 new clients in order to meet your revenue target for the quarter.

Whether you own the firm or just your career path, everything you do should move you closer to your goals.

Basics: Capture and Processing

Before you can figure out what you need to do today, you need to know what you need to do in general. Capturing and processing often seems onerous to people who are getting started because they have a huge backlog of ideas and tasks in their heads. Once you get over that initial hump, though, you’ll just work capturing and processing into your daily and weekly routines.

Capture everything. Ideas and tasks that are stuck in your head are like stress baggage you carry with you everywhere you go. They are also more likely to get lost. So get it out of your head and into a few inboxes you check at least once a week. We like to carry around a notebook, and we also use Evernote to capture ideas and tasks from our smartphones or smartwatches. Some people like to email ideas and tasks to themselves, which works great as long as you process your inbox regularly.

Your goal is just to get everything out of your head and into an inbox where you can find it and process it. Keep your inboxes to a minimum. Everyone has at least one email inbox. We suggest having an inbox for paper, as well, which could be on your desk or it could be a notebook. Most people will also have an extra digital inbox or three, like a folder where you collect scanned documents, your law practice management software, or Evernote.

It may help to keep a checklist with all your inboxes for when you sit down to process them.

Process your inboxes. Processing is a daily or weekly drill where you sort all the stuff you have captured into more appropriate places. Note that we’re processing things, not doing things. We have a tendency to let things sit in our inboxes until we are ready to work on them. Instead, your goal should be to clear out your inboxes regularly by sorting those tasks into your lists where you can better keep track of them.

Set aside time to process your inboxes and do work planning at least once a week. Monday morning or Sunday evening are good times, but pick a day and time that works for you and block it off on your calendar.

When you process your inboxes, for each thing you have captured decide whether to do it, delegate it, or defer it. Do it if it will take two minutes or less. Delegate it if someone else can do it. Defer it if it will take longer than two minutes or if it’s something to be done at a later date.

If you’ve done something and it’s completely done, archive or trash the email or note. Don’t leave things lying around once they are done. For everything else, keep track of it on your lists.

Matter/Project & Task Lists: Keeping Track of Everything

Yes, lists. Your goal should be to keep track of everything you have to do on a set of lists. Here’s how to set them up.

First, 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.

Second, keep a list of all your other 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 for delegated tasks. Or even a lists 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 are up to you, and may change over time.

If you like, 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 an email app like Inbox or Spark that lets him “snooze” emails until they need his attention again.

Work Planning: Figuring Out Your Day-To-Day Schedule

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 calendar, like an assistant or scheduling tool.
  3. Get shit done. You’ve got your plan for the day, so get to work!
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