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If productivity hacks worked, we’d already be productive, right?
We’re suckers for productivity hacks. We feel overwhelmed and we like to believe that something like a “Bullet Journal” (or whatever’s trendy today) is the magic “bullet.”
I plead guilty to hyping productivity to desperate lawyers. I love a good headline with a number–like “15 Habits That Will Totally Transform Your Productivity”–because it makes me feel good when my website traffic jumps up. I look at my stats constantly, and I’m a dopamine addict: guilty as charged.
Sadly, what’s good for my mental state isn’t always helpful to your productivity.
The quick fix is broken
These productivity hacks don’t stick. Sure, they work for a minute, or a day, or even a week if you’re lucky. You’ll briefly be more productive when you decide to take action.
But your productivity won’t improve because of the hack.
Your productivity improves because you made a decision to focus, commit time, and do the work. It’s not the hack. The hack just briefly encouraged you. Diet books work too–for a few days.
But once the new found energy fades, your productivity sags right back to where it started. That’s true even if you still have the Bullet Journal, or the Getting Things Done notes, or the latest iPhone to-do application.
The powerful part of the productivity equation is not the hack. It’s you.
But there is a simple productivity hack that works
I’ve got a productivity hack for you today. This one works. If you’ll do it, you’ll get results that’ll last a lifetime.
This productivity hack isn’t sexy. It doesn’t involve reorganizing your calendar into blocks. It doesn’t require special software that pre-screens your email. It doesn’t involve downloading an app or buying a monthly subscription. Nope, it’s just you getting things done.
The ultimate productivity hack works because it reduces the time you spend doing the same thing over and over again. Instead of repeating yourself, you reduce your workload by streamlining the decision making and information sharing processes.
Let me explain. Here’s the ultimate productivity hack:
1. Search EVERY interaction/thought/action for questions
Countless questions come your way all day. They come from your clients, your team, your vendors, your family, people in the check-out line at the supermarket, and even from yourself. If you feel like a question answering machine, it’s because most lawyers are, in fact, question answering machines.
The person standing in front of you is asking for an answer. Step outside of your body and watch what’s happening. They’re almost always asking a question. Look for it.
Keep your ears open for questions even if you work mostly alone–you may find that you are asking yourself questions. Sure, you performed a task two weeks ago, but do you remember the details of how you got it done? You may find yourself unable to recall the answer; when this happens, we often start from scratch without even realizing it. We look up the same things over and over again each time they arise. I can’t tell you how many times I read the same provisions of the Rules of Civil Procedure to figure out the timing of discovery. I asked one courtroom clerk the same questions so often that she started rolling her eyes when I walked through her door.
2. Write down the question
When the questions come, write them down. Do it immediately before you forget. Stop the conversation if necessary in order to get it down. Feel free to write the questions in a Bullet Journal or a to-do app on your phone or whatever’s left from the last productivity hack. Write them wherever you like, but write them down–making a record is central to this hack.
Your list of questions will grow quickly, and you’ll start to see a pattern.
Before long you’ll discover that the same questions are being asked more than once. Whenever a question is repeated, mark it with an asterisk. Some questions will quickly get lots of asterisks.
You’ll also notice that these questions fall into different categories. Take note.
Permission Questions: Some questions you get are permission questions. The person asking simply wants to know if they’re permitted to take action. “May I pay the coffee delivery guy?” he asks you. “Can I file the discovery response now?” she wants to know. Mark those questions with a big “P” for permission.
Knowledge Questions: Some questions are knowledge questions. The questioner doesn’t know how to do the thing needing to be done. You’re the easiest person to ask. “How do I draft a discovery response?” or “What do I do when the copier runs out of paper?” are good examples. Mark those questions with a big “K” for knowledge.
3. Prioritize your list
Scan your list of questions and look for those asked most frequently (count the asterisks). Those questions are your highest priority for answering because they save you the most time.
Distinguish between the permission questions and the knowledge questions. We’re going to address them separately.
4. Categorize your questions
Questions mostly break down into the two types mentioned above–Permission Questions and Knowledge Questions.
Permission Questions. Permission questions are quickly eliminated by changing the level of permission you choose to grant. Permission questions are easy to handle intellectually. Emotionally, however, they’re a challenge.
As a group, we’re hesitant to grant permission. We’ve got a host of rationalizations for restricting permission when it comes to filing documents, handling money, or making other decisions.
“The bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle.” — Peter Drucker
Having your team come to you for permission creates a bottleneck: you.
How far should you go in granting permission? Start letting go and watch the permission questions fall away. When those interruptions stop, you’ll start making more progress in your business. Go further than is comfortable and you’ll find yourself continuing to make progress. You’ll free up time and mental bandwidth. Raise the dollar limits you allow individuals to manage. Give away final approvals to others. Let the person doing the work decide when it’s right to take action. Your judgment isn’t required for every step. Micromanagement discourages growth: let go.
Permission questions can be mostly eliminated as you get comfortable with less control and overtly authorize others to make decisions. You’ll be amazed at the time you’ve freed up.
Knowledge Questions. Most of the questions you get each day are knowledge questions. It’s tempting to get frustrated and send folks to the original source information, where they can do the research themselves. But realistically, they and you save time by acknowledging the need to keep these answers close once they’re located.
I’ve lost track of the times I’ve looked deeply into a questioner’s eyes and responded with let me Google that for you, to which they have looked deeply into my eyes and known that I’m a prick. Nobody wins.
Recording the information for easy access is the way to win. Knowledge questions require written answers, recorded for future reference. These answers will be used by your team (and by you when you can’t remember how to get something done). They’re worth the effort when you know the same questions will be repeated indefinitely.
5. Write down the answer to the question
Start creating answers to the knowledge questions. Get the info out of your head and into your system. Give your team, and yourself, a repository upon which everyone can rely. Your brain isn’t instantly accessible. Your repository will be easily accessible each and every day.
Finding the right place to save the answers isn’t critical. Some lawyers do it in a fancy tool like Process Street. Others save the information in Office 365 or Google Docs. Some print information out and store it in notebooks. It’s the accessibility that matters. Don’t get bogged down in the specifics.
Getting the answers written is a much bigger challenge than deciding where to save them. I know lawyers who write their responses on paper and have someone type what they’ve written. I know other lawyers who record their responses on a computer while making a screen recording of the process they’re describing. Personally, I like to explain the answer to the person asking the question and have them turn my response into something useful for others. I usually edit their work before pushing it into our repository of answers. The key is not the format or the process of getting the answers recorded. The key is getting it done.
The more answers you record, the more time you save. Of course, you’ll still get some of the same questions, but you’ll now be able to refer the questioner to the documented answer. And over time, the questions will stop coming. You’ll get lonesome in your office. Of course, you can use that time to be more productive if you like.
All questions, including client questions, are fair game for this system. One lawyer I know has a standardized format for recording client questions along with the answers. Over the years he has created hundreds of answer sheets that he prints and hands out to clients. Other lawyers do the same thing on their website or in an app on a mobile device. Use whatever medium you like.
After operating the legal forum on Rosen.com for several years, I realized that about 20 unique questions made up the vast majority of what was asked. Eventually, I loaded up the answers as shortcuts in TextExpander so I could reply without much thought. When I handed the job off to another attorney, I just shared the shortcuts list and they were up and running.
It’s like magic–it never stops working
Someone is standing in front of you. You’re about to make a decision and give them an answer. Imagine if you didn’t have to do that all day long. Imagine if you could focus on the important issues, problems, and decisions that only you can solve.
Imagine getting all the smaller questions figured out and answered, and then moving up to the bigger questions. Imagine your team knowing what to do and how to handle the big problems currently being dropped on your desk. Imagine what your business would look like if the team could deal with nearly every issue arising on most days.
Implement this hack–catch the question, record it, answer it–and you work yourself right out of a job. But the profits keep coming and your work gets easier and easier. That’s not a dream–that’s an achievable goal.
What are you waiting for?
The solution to every productivity problem
Let’s face facts: this hack just isn’t sexy. There’s no secret ingredient or shiny new toy. You’ll likely ignore me. I understand.
But if you follow my advice, you’ll be making a solid investment in your business. Start today and use this hack every day and you’ll discover the compounding effect of this process. You’ll ferret out new, harder questions, which you’ll write down, answer, and share with your clients and team. That’ll happen each day as you go deeper, grow faster, get more efficient, and reap the rewards.
It’s a simple approach to productivity. It’s powerful. It grows your business exponentially as your progress gets layered over with more progress. It’s time to quit jumping into the hack of the moment, discard the shortcuts, and focus on getting the answers recorded, so you don’t have to keep repeating yourself from now until the end of time.
Listen to the questions, write them down, record the answers–that’s it. Do it. Then do it again. That’s the best productivity hack ever.