How can you work smarter?

“You’re working too hard.  Why don’t you look for ways to work smarter?”  That was a key element of the feedback I received during this quarter’s mastermind meeting.  After hearing my colleagues’ suggestions, I put some new practices in place to help me work smarter, and I do believe I can already see a difference.

And you’ve no doubt heard this distinction before.  All sorts of management experts talk about how to work more efficiently, more effectively, maximizing the results of time.  Some of them even have good ideas.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to say that practicing law is hard work.  I don’t have any question that it is challenging and demanding, for reasons that I’ve mentioned numerous times.  When clients question whether it’s possible to “work smart” in practice, my answer is a resounding yes.

Working smart means managing your physical environment.  If you take the time to keep your desk clear, so it’s always easy to locate the files and the resources you need.  Nothing wastes time like clutter.  The simple act of taking an extra 5-10 minutes to clear and tidy your work area at the end of the day can yield significant time savings.  I had to learn this the hard way, but having learned it, it’s become a standard for myself in the office.

Working smart means managing energy.  If I’m exhausted and I try to power through rather than resting, chances are good that it’ll take me more time than usual to accomplish anything.  I’ll make more mistakes, and I won’t be as creative as I might otherwise be.  I’ve put structures in place to take advantage of my energy rhythms (you’ll often find me at my desk working at 6 AM, but only rarely after 6 PM) and I’ve been working to enhance my energy with enough rest, enough exercise, good hydration and nutrition, and fun.

Working smart means managing commitments.  It’s easy to say yes to every demand, but it just isn’t smart.  Making intentional and purposeful decisions about which commitments to accept and which to decline allows me to avoid the frazzled, frantic pace that undermines good work.  By the same token, I aim to prioritize my work so that I accomplish what’s most important first.

Working smart means managing people.  Good delegation enhances effective work.  Whether it’s requesting research or asking an assistant to draft routine communications for my review and editing, delegation frees my time so I can concentrate on doing the things that others can’t do.  (Thanks to our global marketplace, getting help is easier and less expensive than ever before.  I’m hiring.  Should you?) 

It’s important to note that what’s smarter for one person will be useless for another.  You must identify what makes sense for your practice, your preferences, and your clients.

Does any of this mean that it’s possible to take shortcuts and reap the rewards of practice without putting in plenty of time and effort?  Absolutely not.  But attention to smart management will make the time and effort you put into your practice pay maximum rewards.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!

All in Good Time

One of the top concerns for most lawyers is time management.  We all have so much to accomplish in so little time, and it often seems that we’re always trying to cram more activities (whether professional or personal) into the non-negotiable 168 hours we have each week.  Most of my coaching clients bring time management issues to the table at some point, and time pressures are largely responsible for the high levels of stress that many lawyers face.

One distinction, “urgent” versus “important,” can form the basis for effective time management.  Urgent vs. important is a simple distinction that applies equally to the substance of a lawyer’s work as well as to practice or career management.  Stephen Covey has written about time use and devised a four-quadrant chart to help us judge where we spend most of our time:

Urgent and Important
:  Crises, problems, deadline-driven projects.  Preparing for a client meeting that will occur in a few hours is a Quadrant I activity.  Hallmarks of Quadrant I activity include intense focus, high stress, and limited opportunity for review and reflection.

Not Urgent, but Important
:  Preparation, problem prevention, planning, relationship building, values clarification, true recreation (”re-creation”).  Preparing for a client meeting that will occur in several days is a Quadrant II activity.  When you’re operating in Quadrant II, you’ll likely be focused (because your task is important) but you’ll feel less pressure and you’ll have more opportunity to consider all aspects of what you’re doing simply because you’re not staring down the barrel of a deadline.

Urgent, but Not Important:
Interruptions, some phone calls, some meetings, some email.   When you’re forced to deal with something that’s not especially important at a certain time, you’re in Quadrant III.

Not Urgent, Not Important:
Junk mail, spam, busywork, trivia, “escape” activities, mindless web surfing, etc.  We all spend time in Quadrant IV, but spending time on those activities produces little or no meaningful results because the activities by definition are not meaningful.

Where do you spend most of your time?  While it’s undeniable that Quadrant I requires attention and Quadrant III calls for attention (though the call may be illusory), Quadrant II is the critical zone.  That’s where the real work occurs that truly moves us forward.

Clients appreciate lawyers who work in Quadrant II.  All too often, lawyers send important documents to their clients and request a fast response.  That’s disrespectful of the client’s time.  It creates the impression that the lawyer simply couldn’t get his or her act together in time to plan in advance and complete the work early enough to allow the client time for meaningful review.  Clients appreciate lawyers who handle matters during an emergency, but they tend to resent those who act as if every event is an emergency.  Living in Quadrant II will increase the quality of your client service.

I worked with a client I’ll call Sheri, who was having a great deal of trouble getting everything done that she needed to in the office.  She found herself staying at the office later and later, then going in earlier and earlier, and before long she was exhausted and angry that her personal life had disappeared.  We started with the urgent/important distinction and looked at the kinds of tasks on her “to do” list through that lens.

After our first conversation, Sheri cut Quadrant IV activities completely and worked to get better at identifying Quadrant III activities so she could eliminate as many of those as possible.  And then she looked at the Quadrant I tasks she’d listed to see whether any could be delegated or otherwise handled.  And then our focus shifted to Quadrant II.

Sheri developed a schedule that guaranteed her planning and strategizing time (pure Quadrant II activities) and found that by spending time on those tasks, she was able to prevent problems and facilitate the orderly accomplishment of important aims.  Her stress level decreased, as did the number of hours she had to spend putting out fires.  Most importantly, when she did have to put out a fire, it was a real emergency, not a self-created one.

Your assignment for the week: look at how you spend your time.  Review this week’s task list and mark every item according to its quadrant.  If they’re all Quadrant I, you have plenty of room for improvement.  And then, take a moment at the end of each day to look back at how you actually spent the day.  Did you spent 30 minutes looking for a file or other document?  Did you spend so much time sending “one quick email” that you didn’t even get to your top five tasks for the day?

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate!

Task Management – simplified!

Have you ever had this experience?  You’re lying in bed, just about to go to sleep, drifting off even, until it hits you.  That thing that you meant to do today?  You forgot.  Suddenly, your brain is on full alert, and you’re promising yourself that you’ll remember to do it tomorrow.  Just like you promised last night.  You lock the task in your memory and then lie there, unable to relax, just hoping that you don’t forget it again tomorrow..

We all face challenges, and managing time and tasks is probably one of the most universal.  When you’re juggling work to be completed for clients, business development activities, administrative work, professional development and training, plus personal tasks, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially if you don’t keep a running, written “to do” list.

Chances are, you’re a bright person with a good memory.  You may even rely on your memory more than you really should.  If you’re keeping a running list of things you need to accomplish in your head, not on paper, you’re committing a foundational mistake that will cost you peace of mind – and it may even cost you clients.

The solution?  An easy 3-step process:

  1.  Keep a running list of all tasks, both business and personal.  (You’ll need to accomplish all these tasks, so why separate those lists?)  Whenever you think of something you need to do, it goes on the list.  Every.  Single.  Time.
  2. Create a list of weekly “to do” items from your master list.
  3. At the end of each day, draw up a daily “to do” list from your weekly list, supplemented with whatever additions are necessary.

By writing down every task as it arises, you free yourself from the mental “to do” list that will float around the back of your mind, distracting you from what you’re actually doing or, perhaps, chiming in too late to get the task done.  You must train yourself to write everything down.

Create a system for capturing your task list that matches your life.  If you do most of your work in a single location, you might create a word processing document or spreadsheet that lists the project (by client name or number, for example), the specific task, the category (client work, administrative, vacation planning, etc.), and the due date.   Be sure you can sort based on each of these so you can know at a glance, for instance, what’s due when or how much work you have to do for each client.

If you frequently travel, you’ll want to look for a more robust solution that will sync your computer and wireless devices.  A few that I’ve used or that clients have recommended:

Finally, since looking for a new “to do” list organizer likely wasn’t on your task list for today, try this handy gadget for marking those web pages for later comparison.

Taking Risks

Failure is often a difficult topic for high performers. After all, those who achieve much do so by making it a habit to avoid failure.  More than a few times, when I’ve talked with my own coach, the conversation has ended up with me saying, “Well, that’s fine, but failure just isn’t an option for me.  I don’t do that.” How ridiculous – and also, perhaps, how familiar.

I’ve failed plenty of times. When it comes to business, my goal is to fail quickly if I’m going to fail.  When a task is important, failure often leads to a better-informed next attempt, which usually leads (directly or not) to success.  So, when failure is inevitable, fast failure is the way to go.

And yet, failure is still unpalatable to me.  Is it to you, as well?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a client and out popped what I believe to be a truism: You cannot succeed unless you’re willing to fail.  This was reinforced in a story I read recently about a ne’er-do-well door-to-door salesman.  He’d march up to someone’s doorstep, extend his finger to press the doorbell, and then pull back, muttering, “She won’t buy anything.”  And he’d turn around, guaranteeing his failure on that potential sale.  No wonder he was a ne’er-do-well.

Now, most of us don’t do door-to-door sales, but the principle is just the same. You must take a risk to have any chance of success.  Whether it’s reaching out to a potential client, asking a current client how they think things are going, or stepping onto a stage (literal or figurative) to make a presentation to some of your ideal clients, if you don’t risk, you don’t get.

Where is your aversion to risk causing you to stop? After I talked with my client, I challenged myself to write down all of the things I’m holding back on doing because I realistically think I might fail, and then to come up with a way to mitigate that risk.  I quickly produced a fresh to-do list.  Even though I might fail, I also may succeed on my first shot with those items, thanks to this five-minute exercise.

Today, I invite you to do this quick exercise yourself, specifically in the realm of business development: 

  1. What are you avoiding for fear of failure? List three to five items, both general (attending a networking luncheon) and specific (calling the promising contact you met last week who promised to call you but didn’t).
  2. What are the consequences if you do fail? Consider the financial, professional, reputational, and emotional risks.  Don’t overstate them; despite your first response, chances are good that you won’t actually die.  However, if a misstep could constitute professional suicide (with an ethics violation, for example), you need to get absolute clarity before you move forward.
  3. How might your mitigate the risks? Consider steps such as running a limited test, having a conversation to try out your idea on clients and/or former clients, or launching your idea in phases.  If you’re not sure what to do, seek help from a mentor or consultant.
  4. Choose one or two actions to take, with the modifications you made in step three. 

I don’t encourage failure. However, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”  Take some calculated risks. If you fail (as sometimes you will), make it your practice to just back into action quickly, with a better appreciation of what you might do differently so that each attempt increases your chances of success.