We all want to increase productivity. And we don’t have time to waste on strategies with poor ROI.
According to research conducted at Harvard University and published in Science magazine, we spend almost half of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are currently doing. It’s no wonder that we reach the end of our days without feeling a sense of accomplishment. This impacts attorneys more than most. As attorneys, we operate in a constant state of competing tasks – from the deluge of client calls and e-mails to administrative and financial responsibilities and much more. What if we could tune out the distractions and focus on what was immediately in front of us? We’d be more successful advocates for our clients, we’d bill and collect more, and we might even find time to take a break once in a while. But just how do we minimize intrusions and reclaim precious time? Well, there are strategies and tools. Here are a few of my favorites:
Develop Good E-Mail Habits. Let’s tackle e-mail first because, as you well know, it can be a deep dark hole that sucks you in and may never let you out. Here are a few tips to help you avoid drowning in that black hole:
- Do not check your e-mail first thing in the morning. When you arrive in your office fresh and focused, use that time to do something that requires brain power, say drafting an argument for a brief or composing your opening statements for trial, rather than get caught up in a boondoggle of e-mails. Once you’ve trained yourself not to check your e-mail immediately in the morning, you’ll have added at least an hour of productive work time each day.
- Schedule time to process e-mails. If you have your e-mail client open all day long on your computer screen or listen to the constant ping of notifications for new e-mails, you’ll never get anything accomplished. Instead, close your e-mail client, turn off notifications, and schedule two to three times during the day to check and process your e-mails. This might occur mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and before you leave your office that evening. If you are waiting for an important e-mail, configure your e-mail client to alert you only if you receive an e-mail from that sender.
- Respond if it takes two minutes or less. When you spend the time to process e-mails, include responses to any e-mails that will take two minutes or less. For everything other message, you should either delete it, forward it to someone that you wish to delegate it to, or store it elsewhere – such as a folder or task management program – for later action.
Identify Your Most Important Tasks. When it comes to actually getting your work done, a very simple way to identify tasks that need to be completed that day is by listing out your “Most Important Tasks” (MITs). Do this exercise each morning, listing one to three MITs that must be accomplished that day. Then plan your work – this MIT + GTD template can help.
Eat the Frog. Mark Twain famously said that if you must eat a live frog, do it first thing in the morning and you’ll go through the day knowing the worst is behind you. The same goes for your MITs. These are the tasks that you are most likely to procrastinate on, so if you wait until the end of the day, it’s unlikely you’ll get them done.
Use Your Power Hour. When do you feel most energized and ready to conquer the day? Figure out when you are most productive and then use that time to work on substantive tasks. As suggested above, don’t spend your power hour checking your e-mail!
Block Out Time. Having trouble accomplishing a certain task? Has it been weeks or even months since you first added that task to your to-do list, but you haven’t made any progress on it? Try blocking out time on your calendar devoted solely to that task. Rather than perseverating over the task, when the time comes, you’ll have to get down to it. By calendaring your time, you’ll also alert others in your office that you are preoccupied, thus helping to minimize distractions.
Do One Task at a Time. Sorry to burst your bubble, but multitasking is merely a myth. It is impossible to fully engage in two separate tasks that require you to use your prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of your brain. Thus, when you attempt to multitask, it will take you twice as long to complete each task and you’ll likely make double the number of mistakes. Instead, get in the habit of focusing only on one task at a time, then take a break and move onto the next task. If you are having trouble with this, try using what’s called a Pomodoro timer (yes, there’s an app for that). Decide what task you’d like to tackle, set your Pomodoro timer for twenty-five minutes, focus only on that one task, and when the time is up, give yourself a break. Not only will you increase your concentration, but you’ll reduce burnout with this method.
Systematic Collection, Processing, Organizing, and Reviewing. Many time management techniques rely on a foundational system for collecting, processing, organizing, and reviewing tasks. One method in particular, “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, focuses on these four pillars. First, you need a way to capture information and thoughts quickly so that you don’t waste brain power trying to remember that information and then lose focus on the task at hand. Because we are tied to our smartphones, an electronic system works well here. Pick an app, such as Evernote, OneNote, Apple Notes or Reminders, Outlook Tasks, ToDoist, or a case management system, that will allow you to very easily capture information – whether it be in the form of text, audio, or image. Second, you need a system to process all the information that you have collected and turn it into actionable tasks. That requires information be accumulated into a centralized repository and time devoted to processing it. Third, you need to take those actionable tasks and organize/prioritize them. The above mentioned strategies, like MIT and Eat the Frog, can help with that. Allen’s final step is to review the tasks. You might try this on a weekly basis. The purpose is to reprioritize and reassess tasks – if something has been on your list for months now, maybe it’s time to delete it completely. By having a system to collect, process, organize, and review your tasks, you’ll spend more time focused on priority tasks and less time juggling distractions.
None of the above suggestions require a major investment, only a slight change in mindset. Go ahead and try one of these methods for yourself. Even if you can reclaim ten minutes per day, that’s an extra ten minutes you didn’t have previously. What do you have to lose?
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This article was originally published in the Women’s Bar Review (Fall 2016 Issue) as “Winning Strategies to Get More Done in Less Time”.