Don’t Sweat the Recurring Tasks (and it’s all recurring tasks)

I didn’t see it early on. I’m only just beginning to see it now. It took me decades. I hope your pattern recognition skills are better than mine.

I used to think each day was different. Each day felt like the first time climbing Mount Everest.

I’d encounter a different client each day.

Each case would be different from the others.

One day would start with client work and end with marketing tasks. Another day would start with administrative issues and end with a court appearance. Every day felt different.

Employees would make mistakes, I’d make mistakes, a new employee would start, an old employee would leave. One employee would come to me with a personal problem, another with a health issue, another with a money concern.

I truly believed each day was different. In fact, I thought the variety was the reason I enjoyed my work. I used to tell people that it was never boring. Life felt like a grand adventure.

Then a lightbulb came on over my head. POP!!! I could see it. I was living in Groundhog Day. The same day didn’t repeat quite as precisely the next day, but my work did repeat over and over. Sometimes it happened in the same day, sometimes the repetitions were separated by weeks, or months. Sometimes it took a year for the repeat. But eventually it did–everything repeats, with only minor variations on the theme.

Seeing the pattern changes everything

At some point the patterns start to emerge.

You realize that you wake up, roll out of bed, shower, eat breakfast, drive to the office, park, walk to the entrance, scan your card, push the elevator button, unlock the door, grab the coffee, say good morning, and make your way to your desk.

Call it what you will: it’s a routine, a system, a sequence of recurring tasks. It’s do, repeat, do again, repeat again, over, and over, and over.

Then you see even more patterns. You realize that you have the same conversations with your clients each day. You repeat the same words, with the same kinds of people, worried about the same things.

You draft the same documents, you have the same meetings, you make the same calls, you send the same texts.

Repeat,

repeat,

repeat.

The lawyers who see it early are able to document the system, see the opportunities for efficiencies, and scale the business upward.

They realize they can expand the marketing, the technology, the management, and the financial systems into something bigger, and that can grow the revenues and the profits.

Some lawyers don’t see the patterns as quickly. They think of each day as new. Maybe they’re happier and having more fun. For them, life is an adventure of discovery. They’re not living in Groundhog Day, repeating the same patterns over and over at an ever increasing scale.

That’s when you build momentum

Seeing that it’s all recurring tasks after having seen each piece separately and individually for thirty years isn’t particularly helpful to me now. I could be much more efficient at running a law firm, except that I no longer have a law firm to run.

But this could be a breakthrough moment for you. You can benefit from the tragedy of my recurring days, months, and years.

What if you treat everything as a list of recurring tasks right now?

What if you start systematically tackling your life and your work?

What if you see what you’re doing for the first time as something you’ll do five more times, fifty more times, or even five hundred more times? Would that knowledge encourage you to make observations, take notes, create forms and systems, treat this as a different kind of opportunity?

Even the weirdest, most awful, challenging, upsetting, disturbing, unique situations tend to repeat. It’s all going to come back again if you’re still doing the work. Sure the crazy old guy might be a crazy old woman next time. Her money buried in the backyard may be a little different than the old man’s money hidden in the dead brother’s laundry room. And one may tell you they hired you because you’re Jewish when you’re not, and the other may tell you they hired you because you’re white when you’re not (who are we to correct their bigoted little brains?).

It’s all patterns. You can sit there dumbstruck by the coincidence or you can recognize now that it’s all a jumble of circumstances, people, and their stories. There are only so many variations and they keep coming around again. There really is nothing new under the sun.

In my systems course I teach lawyers how to document the basics. We start with getting the lights turned on in the morning and go from there. We tend to max out at the fairly obvious. We learn to systematize office processes, document production, and even certain litigation events like witness preparation, cross examination, and jury arguments.

You can take it further. You can begin seeing everything about your practice as a system of recurring tasks. It’s all going to happen again. That perspective changes the way you manage a given event so that you’ll be better prepared when it happens again. It’s going to happen again, and I’m sure that’s disturbing to contemplate. Yep, it’s going to happen again.

How do you apply your insight?

I hear you asking “so what does this mean, what do I do differently now that I’m seeing my day-to-day differently?”

Good question. I’m glad you asked.

Start small. Play with the idea. Let it seep in. Then get busy seeing your business as a sequence of recurring tasks.

Literally take your task list and start seeing how the work recurs over time.

Brief aside: you do have a task list, right? There’s something built into most calendar systems. Personally, I use a stand-alone task manager and I keep it front and center. Also, you know that you can set tasks to repeat, right? Mine repeats at whatever interval I set–daily, weekly, monthly, annual, or custom. If you don’t already have a task management system in place, stop here and download something useful.

Daily

What about recurring daily tasks? Are they on the list? Check email once each morning and afternoon, call mom, deposit the client payments, praise someone on your team, call a referral source–all good items to add to your list.

Weekly

Weekly tasks recur as well, stuff like checking on the time entries and coffee stockpile. How about investing a few minutes in your long-term success each week? What about adding tasks like (1) create a new systems document, (2) create/edit an automated document, and (3) have a one-to-one meeting with each staff member.

Monthly

Team meetings and financial reviews tend to dominate my monthly recurring tasks, along with monthly publications I try to read. It’s also a time to review the upcoming month with each team member and look at their tasks and recurring tasks as well. Cranking out monthly bills is a big recurring task for many firms, followed by a sequence of dunning calls and systematic collection activities.

Quarterly

Team planning meetings, financial review discussions with your accountant, and quarterly tax payments all belong on the recurring list as well. The things on the list are the things that get done. There’s something about our nature which requires us to do the things on the list. It’s like we’ve been directed to take action by a higher authority. Maybe we forget that we put it on the list three months earlier? I’m not sure why it works, but it works.

Semi-Annual

Your teeth need to be cleaned every six months, right? Is that on your list as a recurring task? Think of it as an opportunity. I’m 57 now and not sure how many more dental cleanings I’ll need. Enjoy each cleaning like it could be your last.

Annual

Holiday gifts, corporate minutes, renewals with the state bar, tax returns, employee birthdays, continuing education, firm parties, renewing or canceling all those online services, and conducting personnel reviews (if you still do that in this instant feedback world).

Five Years

I just checked my list and I’ve got renewal of Global Entry (the fast track through US immigration) on my list for 2021. I’ve also got my passport renewal on the list for 2027. What’s on your list? Maybe the lease on your copier, or your office space?

The opportunity

Wouldn’t it be nice, in the midst of an incredibly challenging moment, to realize that you’ve been here before? And, if this is the first time, wouldn’t it be grand to know you can use the lesson you’re about to learn at some point in the future?

The work you’re about to do is either a repeat of a recurring task or it’s a new task to add to your list. And, if it’s one of those horrible things which happens only a few times, like committing malpractice (I did), wouldn’t it be awesome to take notes so that next time you’ll know exactly what to do? Even in the middle of the horror, it’s comforting to know that next time, you’ll know exactly whom to call first.

Once you see your business as a series of recurring tasks, you’ll be able to bring some very practical solutions to the problems presented.

First, start a list (I use Wunderlist). It’s brain-dead-simple to create a task list of daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual tasks. Set them up to recur so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when you complete the list. Your practice is a cycle that repeats, remember? Make it work for you so you can spend your time on other things and level up.

Second, document your approach to solving problems even when you don’t expect them to recur. Why? Because they’ll recur. Find a searchable repository you can use to retrieve this information when you inevitably need it (some lawyers love Evernote). Think about how powerful your database of advice to yourself might become as you grow the business and get others involved in finding even more solutions.

I get that in the midst of the chaos, it’s hard to see the recurring nature of the work. It seems like we’re climbing Mount Everest and we’re committed, if we survive, to never doing that again.

But practicing law always feels like Mount Everest the first time you do the climb. Then, when it recurs, the mountain looks a little smaller. The second time around we have experience. But when there’s a big time-lag between the first and the second climb, that layer of experience is harder to remember. We forget our approach and our technique over time.

When, however, you see the first climb as leading to the second climb–knowing you’ll do it again at some point–you experience the climb differently. Sure, it’s still about survival, but it’s also about gathering data, so you can climb more easily next time. You process your mistakes differently. You record the experience in a whole new manner. You’re thinking through how you’ll do better in the next go-round.

Seeing your work as part of a cycle, a system, a sequence of recurring tasks, changes the way you absorb lessons. You’ll improve faster. You’ll get where you’re going more efficiently this time, and next time, and the time after that. You’ll become ever more effective because you have a past which bolsters your current effort.

Practicing law is still a tough climb. But your law practice will start to look less like your first approach of Mount Everest. Unfortunately, recurring tasks won’t make climbing the mountain easy. But seeing your work as a series of recurring tasks will definitely make the climb more manageable.

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