Once upon a time, the days right before the beginning of a vacation were the most productive of the entire year. We would focus, push ourselves, and get things done.
Those pre-vacation sprints used to be incredible. We knew that if we didn’t hit the deadline, we’d have to either cancel our trip or accept the consequences of being late.
But the internet and our portable devices have diminished that effect.
Now we can work at the airport, on the plane, and even at the beach. We’re connected all the time. The deadlines have become portable, too–they follow us even when we're away, so we use our precious vacation time to work.
What if you could get everything done within normal work hours?
What if you could reserve downtime for actual rest?
What if you could take a vacation without bringing those deadlines along?
You can. You can get it all done by the end of the day.
You can allocate specific hours for work and take the rest of the time off. It's possible if you're willing to implement these techniques.
Here's my advice for being more productive, more efficient, and limiting your work to work time.
1. Make a list
I can't believe I'm saying this because it seems obvious, but I also can’t believe how many lawyers don’t have a list.
I’m serious. These lawyers often use a “pile” system.
They operate from piles of paper on their desks or piles of emails in their inbox.
Their priority is whatever’s urgent right now. They don’t take time to organize their approach because they have a deadline right now.
They don’t see any point in changing their system because the pile system has “worked” for a long time. They may be miserable, but they can meet the deadlines (mostly).
A list changes things in several ways:
- It takes tasks out of your head, freeing up mental space. You're immediately more productive when your brain doesn't have to keep track of everything.
- It lets you evaluate tasks and push the higher value/bigger opportunities to the top.
- It gives you a sense of control and reduces anxiety and stress, which makes your effort more effective.
- It helps you identify tasks that can be delegated or outsourced in advance, so you don’t have to handle trivial tasks at the last minute.
A list can be simple or complicated. I use something really simple. But I know people who use sophisticated systems with sorting, prioritization, ranking, and sharing features.
Anything is better than a pile. Make a list.
2. Keep the list on top
I used to be great at list-making. That was the easy part for me.
Then I’d lose the list.
Early in my career, I kept my list on a legal pad which would immediately disappear into the pile of legal pads stacked on my desk.
Later I kept it on my computer, but failed to check the list because of my addiction to email and messaging. I repeatedly made lists only to forget about them. Making a list you never look at is pointless.
Keep your task list up front where you can see it. Everyone finds their own way to keep the list front and center, so you’ll need to find yours.
Maybe you could…
- Check the list first thing in the morning (instead of Facebook).
- Put reminders on your calendar to check it at certain times each day.
- Block calendar time daily to work on whatever is on the list.
- Have your assistant review it with you first and last thing.
- Have Siri mention it when you arrive at the office and when you return from lunch.
- Tattoo “check the list” on the back of your hand.
Make the list a big part of your life. Use it to start the day and focus on what’s due. When your first task is done, check it off and move to the next.
Add incoming tasks to your list as they come in instead of scrawling them on random scraps of paper. Keep your list active all day.
3. Pick one thing the night before
Scan your list each night and decide what you’ll do the next day. If you do this, two things will happen:
First, you’ll process the project while you sleep. You might have a brilliant idea!
Second, you’ll know exactly what to do when you get to work instead of wasting valuable time and energy choosing the day’s priority.
When you start your day, focus on the thing you chose the night before. Give it your full attention, energy, and focus.
Mute your phone and put it out of reach. Push yourself to finish that one thing. Make that one thing a life-or-death deadline.
If your days are currently full of random calls and interruptions, then doing one priority thing per day will dramatically increase your productivity.
4. Call the client before they call you
It's counter-intuitive, but calling the client before the client calls you will shorten your time on the call.
A big part of why clients call you is to reduce their own anxiety. They want someone to tell them everything will be okay, but they won't come right out and say “Tell me I’m going to be safe and free from harm.” That’s not how they roll.
Instead they call for an update. They complain that you haven't returned their calls and they want hear what's going on directly from you, instead of from someone else in your office.
Proactively calling them first will reduce the amount of time you spend on the call, it will make your clients happier, and it will reduce the stress of having unreturned calls hanging over your head.
Yes, it's easier to email, but calling is more powerful and effective. Clients like the reassuring sound of your voice.
5. Schedule email time
It's tempting to check your email all day long. I used to do it before I got out bed, while I was eating breakfast, and again as I started working. Then I'd keep an eye on it all day long and into the evening.
Stop checking your email constantly. It’s time-consuming, distracting, and it takes up more of your day than you realize.
It's not just about the time you spend reading, deleting and responding to email. The greater cost is the distraction.
Email pulls your attention away from the big task you set for the day. It uses up your mental energy. It spins your brain in circles when the news is distressing. It causes you to take a break to celebrate when it's exhilarating.
Batch your email. Check it twice a day. Put it on your calendar as an activity. Go through the incoming messages and delete, respond, delegate, or add them to your task list.
A focused approach limited to twice per day will dramatically increase the time available for other, higher value activities. Route your voicemail into the email box and check it along with the email.
6. Find a meeting rhythm
Regardless of the size of your team, your number one challenge is communication. Your team won’t be effective if its members can’t communicate.
Find a system for communicating with your team and stick to it. Many Rosen Institute members adopt a daily stand-up meeting to discuss priorities and obstacles. They implement weekly one-to-one meetings between employees and their supervisor (to go deeper than the daily meetings) as well as regular meetings with the entire team.
Some businesses complain about having too many meetings, but most law firms have too few.
Getting your team moving toward the same objectives makes all of you more efficient. This is another one of those counter-intuitive ideas. Adding a meeting to your calendar feels like it costs you time, but it will actually save you time once you get in the rhythm.
7. Buy some simple technology
If you can install an app on your phone, you know enough about tech to run a law firm.
At a minimum, you need some simple, basic technology you can run without much help.
But remember–keep it simple. If it gets complicated, either educate yourself or switch to something easier. These tools are intended to make your life better, not frustrate you.
Dinosaurs are extinct, and so are law office servers, on-premises phone systems, cables, and anything else that involves calling “the guy” to “come take a look.”
If you want to stay efficient, keep it simple and easy.
Use Google G Suite (my choice) or Office 365 for email, calendar, contacts, and file storage.
Implement a simple cloud-based practice management system and integrate it with an online accounting tool (Xero or QuickBooks).
These basic technology products will save you time in the same way that booking your dental appointment online, renewing your driver’s license online, or buying from Amazon saves you time.
If you’re adventurous, take it further. Add an abbreviation expander (TextExpander) and a document assembly engine (TheFormTool). These products take a little while to set up, but they save huge amounts of time.
You don't need to go tech-crazy to become efficient. Efficiency is more about focus than technology, but technology sure can help.
8. Document your systems
“How do I send a fax?” is not a question you have time to answer.
I'm not suggesting you turn your business into McDonalds or Starbucks (unless that's your dream), but if you have to teach every new employee how to use the coffee maker, it’s time to document your systems.
Systems–even rudimentary ones–let you move closer to your goal each day instead of repeating the same day over and over for your entire career.
When I push people to create systems, I get this objection all the time:
“We don't have systems and we don't have time to create them!”
Well, you do have systems. They just might not be written down and available to everyone.
You've got a system for processing a credit card payment and a system for mailing a certified letter. You've got a system for locking the front door and answering the phone. You've got a system for scheduling a new client appointment. You've got lots of systems.
Now it's time to write them down. This is not rocket science.
Documenting systems simply means taking them out of your head and putting them in a central repository (I use ProcessStreet).
Next time you explain something to an employee, ask them to write it down and add any pertinent screen shots to illustrate the process. The next thing you know you'll have a bunch of systems documented and you'll find yourself leaving the office early because everything is finished.
9. Delegate like your life depends on it
Delegation is the key to leveraging your knowledge.
Instead of standing in front of the copier, stand in front of a judge making an argument, or in front of a Rotary Club meeting making a marketing speech.
Get yourself away from the tasks that can be done just as well (or better) by other people. Save yourself for the things only you can do.
We have a master class on delegation inside the Rosen Institute along with a program on outsourcing. By outsourcing, you can delegate whether you have employees or not.
Outsourcing tasks is easier than ever with online platforms to facilitate the flow of work. Getting away from the office on time is dramatically easier when other people are doing some of the work on your behalf.
10. Do your marketing first
Functioning efficiently means having healthy revenue. Panicking about money creates chaos and inefficiency.
A steady stream of revenue keeps the creditors at bay, the employees compensated, and your stress level under control. Put marketing at the top of your task list and make it a habit.
Different types of marketing work for different lawyers. Once you find your approach, build it into your daily routine.
For instance, if you like building your personal referral network, task yourself to make a couple of calls each day. Put it right on your daily list so you'll do it.
11. Write down your vision
Write down your vision, your dreams, your hopes, and your goals. Write down where you’re going. Share it with your spouse, roommate, or whoever matters to you.
Get some clarity about what you're doing and why you're doing it. Where are you going? What is the point?
Once you get clarity, it will be easier to make decisions. You’ll start to see how the small decisions you make today fit into your larger goals. Instead of deciding on a path at every step, you’ll already know which way to go to reach your objective.
Should we take this client? You already know the answer.
Is she right for this job? Yes, if she gets you closer to your goal.
Should I attend this CLE? Only if it gets you where you’re going.
By envisioning your objective, you’ll streamline your daily decisions. You’ll become dramatically more efficient because every decision moves you forward instead of sideways.
Redundant data entry is the bane of every lawyer’s existence.
We’re forever cutting and pasting data from spreadsheets or fillable PDFs into our practice management systems. Sometimes we then move it all to our document assembly or word processing system.
Like my team, you probably have blisters on your cut-and-paste fingers.
Take it further with your own ideas. Use our outsourcing course to understand the ins and outs of hiring a developer on Upwork to build custom applications and integrations so daily tasks become as simple as clicking a button.
13. Keep learning
In the long-term, learning makes you more efficient. But in the short-term, learning can feel like a burden.
You probably let professional publications pile up in the corner of your office or your digital storage space.
Put reading on your task list and invest some time each week into staying current on recent developments.
Ultimately, learning creates greater efficiency. Keep learning about substantive law, practice management, marketing, and technology.
The more you know, the more you grow.
Then go home–on time
Running an efficient, effective, and lucrative law firm while producing good results for clients feels good.
In a great law firm, it’s easy to stay late because the environment is positive and fun.
It's tempting to stick around the office and do one more thing. It's tempting to get ahead. It's tempting to hang out with the team.
But it’s important to get out. Use the time you create to live your life, rejuvenate, and power up by doing other things, spending time with family, and resting.
Growing a successful practice is exhilarating. Do it, then go home. Take time for yourself, keep your nights and weekends free, and come back to have another great day.
You can leave by 5 PM if you choose. You can get things done and reserve your downtime for yourself.