Procrastinating? What you don’t know can hurt your productivity.

In the fall of 2013, I offered a webinar titled Conquer Procrastination! How to Manage Your Time to Build a Profitable Practice and a Rich Personal Life. It turned out to be one of my most popular offerings yet. I walked through the five root causes of procrastination and what you can do to counteract each of those causes. After all, no matter how good a solution may be, if it isn’t a solution for the problem you’re experiencing, it won’t help.

How comfortable are you with the business of practicing law? Law is a profession that must operate as a business, and failing to act accordingly will eventually sink a practice, whether solo or a large firm. Lawyers often come to me because they realize they don’t know how to market their services so that the right potential clients can find them. Small firm lawyers also struggle with how to charge clients (especially with today’s emphasis on alternative fees) and other back end business. These lawyers often acknowledge that they’ve known they needed to take on business development activity, for example, but that they’ve put it off until they have no choice.

Not surprising. When you don’t know how to start on a task, or when you don’t have any idea how to do the task, it’s easy to procrastinate.

When you procrastinate on figuring out how to do the task, white lies abound. Promises about starting are made and then broken. You guarantee that we’ll figure it out as soon as you finish this project, or the next, or the next. And the dreaded task gets put off while you check email, organize files, clean the office, and do other unnecessary prep work that substitutes for the real work.

Sometimes you’ll even start searching for information about what you don’t know, but the research becomes its own distraction: instead of seeking enough information to start and then learning as you do the work, you research it so thoroughly that you could write a manual. You become the conceptual expert, but because you’re just reading, not doing, you still don’t really know what to do.

And sometimes a task becomes overwhelming because you can’t see a finish line, and so it’s daunting even to start. If you can’t determine what will mark the end of the task or the project as a whole, it may seem to be too big and too overwhelming to begin. A few clients have come to me with great ideas for a book or a client training program, but without breaking down the implementation into small steps, they remain undone.

Lack of clarity about the finish line often comes into play when you confuse tasks, meaning discrete to-do activities, with projects, which are larger activities composed of multiple tasks. Writing an article that addresses an issue relevant to your practice area is a project; tasks include conceiving the idea, offering it to a journal or newsletter, outlining the substance of the article, doing any necessary research, actually writing the article, editing then, and so on. (This same confusion also explains why you may feel that you never make progress on your to-do list. If your list includes projects that will take more than a few hours, you will likely find that the project will linger for a few days before it’s completed, just because it takes that long to put in enough hours to hit completion.)

When you realize that you’re procrastinating because you don’t know how to start or you can’t predict when you’ll finish, here’s how to stop procrastinating and start moving:

  1. Determine specifically what you need to know to get started. Sometimes knowing the first step is enough to get into action; other times you’ll need to have a better understanding of the project as a whole before you can be comfortable beginning. Either way, knowing a specific first step is critical.
  2. Define the actionable steps. If you can’t see a finish line, you probably need to break a project into tasks. (For more on this, read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done as soon as you can.)
  3. Decide on the help you need. Lawyers are especially susceptible to “lone ranger syndrome,” but sometimes deciding to go it alone is a massive mistake. Yes, you’re smart enough to figure out whatever you need to figure out, but the cost in time, energy, and missed opportunities is often too high.

If you’re procrastinating due to a lack of knowledge about how to start a project or when it will end, identify what you need to know to get back into action. The sooner you admit that you don’t know something, the sooner you can solve the problem and get moving again.

Don’t Underplay Yourself

When a law firm hires me to work with a junior associate, very often one part of the engagement centers on the associate’s leadership presence and self-confidence – how he or she presents to others.  (Of course, that focus is not by any means unique to junior associates.)

Although reviewers may use a variety of words such as proactive, poised, assertive, or self-assured, they’re usually looking to see to what extent the lawyer is able to present as a leader, as someone who is sufficiently self-confident to inspire others’ confidence.  Such a person typically contributes to conversations, asks insightful questions, and is willing to express an opinion or espouse a position. 

Interactions with someone who lacks this level of confidence tends to leave others (supervising lawyers and client alike) uncertain of the message being conveyed.  Does a lack of contribution indicate lack of comprehension?  Boredom?  Something else entirely?  It may be difficult to interpret what what’s happening, but the result is a lack of clarity and an unwillingness to rely on the lawyer whose self-presentation is found to be lacking.  The consequences can be significant, including unduly slow career progression (or even being fired) and difficulty in building client relationships. 

For instance, I was working with one client (let’s call him Tom) who was hoping to make partner and entered coaching to strengthen his performance so he’ll be a strong candidate.  He’d picked up on some comments that made him question whether he was viewed as partner material.  I found Tom to be intelligent, personable, and funny.  I also noticed that when I’d ask him a question about his work, he downplayed the role he’d played.

It puzzled me, because I could tell from the kind of work he was describing that he was a heavy lifter on the cases, but to hear him talk he was simply supporting work done by others.  One day, Tom said that a particular concern he held about making partner was that it didn’t seem like anyone regarded his work as being important or notable.  He explained the evidence for his feeling, and then I asked his permission to share an observation.

I told him that when he described his own work, he minimized and understated his contribution.  To hear him tell the story, he contributed little more than hours – and certainly nothing critical in terms of strategy or deep analysis.  But when I asked specifically and pressed, he’d tell me about tasks he’d done and decisions he’d made that were quite high-level.  My assessment was that because he was so careful not to overstate his contribution – and perhaps so uncomfortable being in the spotlight – he didn’t give a fair opportunity for someone to understand the kind and level of work that he was doing. 

We devised a plan for Tom to share more about his work, and he discovered that when he changed his communication style and became more open about what he was doing, people began to appreciate the scope of his work and to understand what he was capable of doing.  He got more and better work, and he felt that others’ perception of him was more accurate. 

Michelle, another client, was upset to receive a review that indicated that some clients didn’t want to talk with her because they felt that she didn’t have a sufficient grasp of the right legal strategy to accomplish their aims.  When pressed for details, a reluctant partner admitted that although he knew Michelle understood exactly what was at stake and how to advance the clients’ interests, her comments were so often peppered with words like maybe and possibly and her inflection was so often questioning that she just didn’t seem to be sure of what she was saying.

The result was that her communications undermined his confidence in her even though he knew she was almost invariably right about what she was saying.  After making a concerted effort to notice the habits that the partner identified, Michelle started speaking with more authority and more clarity, which over time (and along with other changes that Michelle implemented) increased the confidence that others put in what Michelle said. 

How do you know if your presence isn’t as strong as it should be?  Here are three common signs: 

  1. You create “wiggle room” with your word choice or with your vocal inflection.
  1. You feel the urge to speak up or to ask a question but you stop short – and then someone says what you’ve been thinking, and you feel frustrated. (Or you do speak up but your comments aren’t much noted, and then someone says effectively the same thing and gets more attention.)
  2. You find that you generally speak much less often than others in a meeting. (But this can be a sign of strong presence if, when you speak, others give significant weight to your comments.)

If you recognize yourself in these signs or if you’ve received feedback that you need to be more proactive, perhaps we should talk. While learning to project more confidence and a stronger leadership presence requires stepping outside a comfort zone, the impact can be dramatic. Your job and your client relationships may depend on your ability to inspire confidence. Ready to take the first steps?  Click this link to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Top 10 Tips to Overcome Overwhelm

Overwhelm can tank a day faster than just about anything else.  When you have more email than you can handle, an out-of-control task list, and phone calls that just won’t stop, it’s almost impossible to operate effectively.  Even if you manage to limp along, you may find that you’re distracted and that things are falling through the cracks.  Over the years, I’ve honed in on a variety of methods to beat overwhelm, and these are the top 10, based on my own experience and client feedback:

  1. Move.  Overwhelm tends to cause paralysis, and the fastest fix is a quick burst of activity.  Walk around the block or your office floor, dance for 30 seconds (close the door!), or do 10 jumping jacks.  Get your blood pumping.
  2. Lift your mood.  Overwhelm brings a heavy energy.  Use music, fresh flowers, aromas, or whatever works for you to get a lift.  I keep a bottle of orange essential oil at my desk because I find that a drop of two perks me up almost instantly.
  3. Focus intently for a short time.  After my computer a telephone, my most-used piece of office equipment is a digital timer.  When I feel stuck, I’ll set the timer for 45 minutes and power through that time, knowing that I can take a break as soon as the timer beeps.  I also compete against myself using the timer to see how quickly I can sort through papers or complete other dreaded tasks.  The timer gets me going, and I usually keep going (thanks to momentum) after it sounds.
  4. Clean it up.  Clutter reduces productivity and creates overwhelm.  If your desk is messy, set aside 15 minutes to clear it off, even if that means stacking papers and moving them to the floor.  If your email in-box is so full that you feel anxious when you open it, set aside an hour to tame it.  (Don’t know how to accomplish that in an hour?  Help is coming soon.)
  5. Call in the reinforcements.  Find the right help for the source of your overwhelm.  Perhaps your assistant can help your clear your desk, or a colleague may be able to give you feedback to help cut through mental clutter.  When you feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to see outside the bubble of stress.  Get some help.
  6. Dump it.  One common source of overwhelm is the mental task list.  When you’re juggling “must do” items in your head, fighting to remember all of them, you’re pulling energy away from productive activity to simple memory maintenance.  Do a brain dump and get the tasks on paper and free up your mind for more useful work.
  7. Get out of the office and do something else.  Admittedly, you can’t always implement this tip, but it can be very effective.  Have you ever noticed how often brilliant ideas strike while you’re in the shower, running, walking the dog, or doing other activities unrelated to work?  When the body is working and the mind is free to wander, creativity flourishes.
  8. Access a different part of your brain.  One litigator I know uses art to focus himself before trial.  Art allows him to pull back from the logical, analytical side of his brain and bring forward the emotional and creative parts.  What can you do to bring balance?
  9. Mind map.  If you’re searching for an elusive link between facts or trying to form a creative argument, try using a mind map.  Get a clean piece of paper, draw a circle in the middle of the page and label it with the problem or circumstance you’re contemplating.  Think about related subjects, actions you could take, and people who might be helpful in addressing the issue, and draw lines and branches to represent the ideas that come up.  If you’re really stuck, you may find a mind map more useful than an ordinary list.  Click here for a video on this technique.
  10. If you’ve tried several of these approaches unsuccessfully, you may be exhausted.  Think of your energy as a pitcher of water.  If you pour and pour and pour without replenishment, the pitcher will empty and nothing you try (except adding more water) will allow it to pour more.  If a quick break or quick spurt of energy doesn’t refresh you, your pitcher may be dangerously close to empty.  Identifying that spot and taking action is a critical professional competency.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed in your practice and uncertain about how to turn things around, perhaps we should talk.  Whether you’re trapped in the day-to-day minutiae of a subprime practice management approach or looking to improve your practice as a whole, click here to schedule a 30 minute consultation.

Tips to Simplify Legal Newsletters

Newsletters offer a way to stay in contact with a large number of contacts easily, consistently, and productively.   Newsletters focus on substantive information, and assuming you’ve defined your areas of practice carefully enough, your content will be valuable to recipients and therefore welcome.  Better yet, if your topics are timely and if you include an appropriate call to action, you may even receive requests for assistance on matters related to your writing.

Most firms have multiple newsletters tailored to their various areas of practice, often with multiple contributors.  Whether you’re responsible for coordinating the content for your firm’s (or team’s) newsletter or you’re a sole practitioner with soup-to-nuts responsibility for the newsletter, you’ve probably had more than a few hair-raising moments wondering how you can possibly get it all done.  (And if your firm doesn’t have a newsletter, I can virtually guarantee that fear is the top reason why not.)

So, let’s make newsletters simple.  These five tips and resources will reduce the time and angst required to produce a newsletter that delivers results.

  1. Repurpose presentations and articles you have written for publication elsewhere into newsletter content.   Shorter articles tend to be more useful, especially in electronic newsletters, so you can often get several issues of content from a single article.
  2. Keep a list of generic questions your clients ask and turn the responses into newsletter articles.  You must make certain that no one interprets your article as legal advice for them (check your local ethics rules to be sure you’re in compliance) but with appropriate language, you can easily create useful information based on frequently asked questions.
  3. Use social media to “listen” for topics you should cover.  You may find news or op-ed pieces you’d like to address, and by catching hot topics, you’re increasing the chance that your readers will be interested.
  4. Include the “so what” for news.  It’s hard to offer unique breaking news that isn’t being covered by journalists, bloggers, and other newsletters, but you can one-up many of other reporters by including some analysis and commentary of the news.  In other words, let others handle the details of who, what, when, where, and how.  You focus on the why and so what.
  5. Source your content from a good outside vendor.  In the past, I would not have recommended using pre-written articles because they’re generally easy to identify a mile away.  Generic and often not written for the audience to whom they’re sent, bad pre-written articles that are simply dropped into a template will not help your marketing efforts and may indeed inflict terminal damage.But I recently learned about a content provider that offers well-written articles that can (and really should) be edited so that they offer good information with your unique voice and perspective.

Insight in Motion offers articles written by lawyers on topics currently including estate planning, family law, bankruptcy, immigration, and personal injury.  (I’ve urged them to include intellectual property soon – we’ll see!)  I’ve reviewed the articles and I’m impressed with the information presented and the way the content is presented.

Offering two levels of subscriptions based on the number of legal articles you need each month and number of practice areas, Insight in Motion provides a “keep it simple” approach at a reasonable price.  Even better, the company will create a customized newsletter template and send your newsletters if you’d like.  The content can even be published on your firm’s website or blog if you’d like.

I took a thorough tour of the system and asked the same questions you likely would, and I’m impressed.  If your practice falls within the areas that Insight in Motion covers and you’ve been holding off on creating a newsletter, this may be your golden opportunity.  

And in case you’re wondering: no, I will not receive any affiliate fees or other incentives if you enroll in Insight in Motion.

Which of these tips can you use to make your newsletter strategy simpler?