Why most lawyer’s To-Do Lists don’t work!

15688_BLOGJPG_20130301061421026Why not just use the venerable “to-do” list to stay organized and productive?

The answer – they don’t work. The problem with the typical to-do list is that it is “unlimited”, meaning that it is never completed. By definition, a to-do list is a collection of everything you need to do.

There may be days, weeks or even months of work or client actions on this list. How many to-do lists are unstructured, outdated, incomplete or impossibly long?  Paper to-do lists seem to disappear. Even worse, if you have one, you have to re-write and cross off to-dos to keep it current. Some people give up and keep everything they need to do in their head and trust their memory. All of these practices will kill your ability to work at peak performance.

The problem with an “unlimited” to-do list is that it actually saps energy to do the work, rather than instill motivation. Having an unlimited amount of work on your to-do list, and feeling like you are falling behind, means you are losing the time management battle. How am I going to get all of this done? How do I dig myself out from under the burden of work? How do I find time for other responsibilities, like marketing or non-billable activities?

Of more concern is that unlimited to-do lists can sometimes promote procrastination on the files we least likely want to do, as they seem to stay at or near the bottom of our list. Isn’t it true that less important matters sometimes jump ahead of the files that we really don’t feel motivated to work on?

On the other end of the spectrum, if you do not have a current and complete to-do list or you keep everything you need to do in your mind then you are creating a layer of stress, without even knowing it. Time management guru David Allen calls these psychological “open loops” which means that they are things that are outstanding and pulling for your attention. Your precious mental energy is burned up when you constantly need to think, worry and remember what you need to get done. The casualties are concentration and even, restful sleep.

Is there an airtight, trusted system for keeping track of everything you need to do, both at work and at home? The answer is to create a limited and unlimited to-do or task list.  How does this work?

First, empty your mind and collect all of your to-dos in one place.  This includes paper to-do lists, sticky notes, telephone messages, short memos, reminders and so on. I call these Tasks. They are simply the next action you need to do to advance a particular client matter. When you write down what’s on your mind, and stop worrying about forgetting things, you immediately free up critical mental resources, energy and focus for the tasks that lie ahead.

Second, after creating an unlimited list of Tasks, which can be lengthy in a busy practice, you create a limited list of Tasks to work on. This limited list is called Must Do Today.

Third, follow The Rule of Five. There are likely no more than five pressing Must Dos that need your immediate attention. Start your day with those Must Dos. You can always add less important Tasks to your Must Do Today list if and when you finish the first five.

You need to be selective. The Tasks you would “like to do” may only be a tease. They often represent the things you prefer to work on, but which are not necessarily what is critical or important at the moment. They are simply distractions. Ask: “What are the Tasks I must do today before I go home and shut off the lights?” Begin by selecting just five Tasks for your Must Do Today list.

To help decide which are the top five Must Dos to start with, consider this pivotal question: “If I do not complete this work by the end of the day, or at least get started on a multi-day assignment, will my client’s perception of the quality and timeliness of my work suffer?”

Client surveys show that timeliness is just as important as quality in the delivery of legal services. Will the price of your professional stock drop in the eyes of your client if you turn out work late? Do not give your client a reason to stop trusting you when you say you will have something ready – and then don’t deliver.

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Jeff Morris

Jeff Morris

Lawyer, Executive Coach, Partner at Edge International, a leading law firm consultant, founder of Must Do Legal – an iPhone/iPad app for lawyers who like time management tools. at Must Do Legal
Jeff Morris
Jeff Morris

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