Ten Things: How to be More Productive Every Day

As in-house counsel one of the questions you frequently ask yourself is “how am I ever going to get all of this stuff done?”  Don’t worry, you are not the only one asking that question.   In the in-house world, there is never enough time, money, resource, or people to get to everything that needs to be done.  If you’re someone who cannot live with this type of situation, then you will not be happy as an in-house attorney.  On the other hand, if you do not faint at the sight of an endless “to-do” list and a decreasing legal budget, you’ve overcome the biggest hurdle and you’re probably interested in trying to figure out ways to get more done within the hours you currently work and still leave some time for your family and yourself.  I have written about using technology to increase productivity but there are other things you can do.

First, let me say that I struggled with this problem almost every day I was in-house – especially when it came to balancing out time spent on work vs. time spent with my family.    I put a lot of thought and effort into trying different things to help me be more productive at the office so I could get myself out the door at a reasonable time every night.  I didn’t always get it right, but over the years I found a number of things that did help.  This edition of Ten Things will share some of those ideas on how to be more productive every day.

  1. Get up an hour earlier. This is not a very popular option but it does really work.  If you can manage to rise an hour earlier every day you will get a dramatic increase in your ability to get things done.   I found that the time period before 9:00 am on any workday was always more productive than the hours between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm (i.e., the time most of your clients are in the office or otherwise working).  How productive?  I estimate that I could get twice the amount of work done before 9:00 am than I could in any 2-hour window during the day.  It’s quiet, there are few if any phone calls or meetings, and the email “pile” has not reached Mt. Everest proportions – yet.  There is also the math to consider:  If you can add an hour to your workday that’s five extra hours a week, 20 extra hours a month, and (cutting out days for vacations, etc.) and around an extra 200 hours a year (or a month of extra time).   You do not have to spend all of this extra time on work, it’s just extra time you have to spend however you think best, e.g., on yourself, with your family, or on work.
  2. Start the day with a “Top Three.” You can start each day with the most awesome, beautiful-looking, detailed, comprehensive “to-do” list in the world but we all know it gets blown to hell once the emails, meetings, and phone calls start (and more about “to-do” lists below). One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to write down the “three things” you really need to get done today and let that be your guide for the day.  A “to-do” list of 30+ items can make you feel like you’re never going to get anything finished.  Having a focused list of three things lets you adapt more easily to the ebb and flow of the day but still keep your eye on the most important tasks.   If something doesn’t make your Top Three list then it can probably wait until tomorrow.  And if you cross-off all three things on your list you can call it a good day at the office!
  3. Stop multi-tasking. I hate to be the one to break this to you but you actually cannot join a conference call, check email, and sign bills, or do other paperwork all at the same time.  If you’re on a call, those people deserve your full attention.  If you’re at a meeting, put down the iPhone and pay attention.  If you’re at your desk and on a call, turn off the screen or close your laptop – an easy way to stop getting distracted by incoming email.  Turn off social media and save if for lunchtime or a break.  While you may think multi-tasking is letting you get more done, you’re actually just doing a crappy job on multiple things.  You’ll actually get more done and be more effective by staying on task and in the moment.  Put another way, slow down and focus.  You’ll be much more productive and a better in-house lawyer for it.
  4. Learn to truly delegate work.  You may have heard of the “Four D’s” – do it, delegate it, defer it, or delete it.  This is a pretty good way of looking at things as they come across your desk.  I happen to think that “delegate it” is the most important one.  Why?  Because if you do it correctly and you truly let someone run with the project (i.e., telling them what you need and let them figure out the best way to do it) not only do you take work off your plate, you give challenging opportunities to your team so they can learn new things, new skills and feel like they are adding value to the department.   I used to look at something in my inbox and first think – “Is this something only I can do?”  If not, who on my team can or deserves the chance?  Next, “Is this only something a lawyer can do?”  If not, who on the support staff can do it?  Finally, “Is this something Legal should be doing at all?”  Meaning, don’t fall victim to the business sending things to Legal that they can actually do for themselves.  There are a lot of things that come into Legal that do not require a law degree to handle.  Push those tasks back to the business.  Be willing to help them, just don’t be willing to do their work for them.  That’s a disservice to them and to the company.
  5. Dedicate set times to key projects. If you have a “big rock” to break up it can become the project you never start because you’re always waiting for the “right time” to get to it.  In the meanwhile, you’re filling up your day with smaller, less important tasks, or maybe just any task that you can use as an excuse to not tackle the big problems.  Block out times on your calendar to work on these “big rocks” (yea, it took me a while to figure out that I could use my calendar for more than just setting meetings with others).   Set aside an hour or two and only work on one project – no emails, no phone calls, and no interruptions.  Once the time is up, stop and go on to other things.  You’ll be amazed at how much progress you made and how much better you feel that you finally got started busting up that rock.
  6. “Barf it up.” Apologies for the analogy but when I was just out of law school and in my first law firm job I was having trouble getting started on writing an important memo.  I felt a bit overwhelmed due to a strong desire to impress everyone with my writing skills.  The young partner (who was waiting for me to get him the memo) came to my office and said “Just barf it up on paper dude and get started.”  What he meant was don’t sit there and try to write the perfect first draft or even the perfect introductory paragraph– just start writing.   He was exactly right.  You can waste a ton of time stalling and cursing the assignment or you can actually save time by just “barfing it up” and get going.  Don’t worry that you’ve just typed to the longest run-on sentence in history or that you dangled that participle.  You’re going to need to edit what you write anyway, so just get going.   It will come to you and it will get easier and go faster once you get started.
  7. Use the “small chunks” of time. I never left my desk without bringing something along that I could work on or read or sign during the inevitable delay of the meeting getting started or any of the other many ways you can find yourself with five, 10, 15 minutes to kill during the workday.  You can check your phone of course, but to me, that’s just spinning your wheels as you’re going to look at all of those emails again when you get back to your desk.  If you have an article you want to read, some invoices to sign, a brief or memo to edit, a budget sheet to look at, whatever, use the little chunks of time to get things out of the way.  And while we are on the topic of meetings, get out of the habit of scheduling every meeting for an hour.  That seems to be the default setting for some reason.  If you set a one-hour meeting the laws of human nature dictate that the group will stretch the proceedings to use-up the full one hour, even if it could have been a 30-minute meeting.  Start setting 30-minute meetings and just be more organized and ready to go.
  8. Lose the “to-do” list. If you’re someone who spends time creating a detailed and comprehensive “to-do” list and religiously updating it, you’re probably spending way too much time on a thankless task.  Take it from someone who’s tried to make it work – lose the “to-do” list.  First, your email inbox is already a “to-do” list (and Outlook has a lot of neat features to help you be more productive).  Second, I found that focusing on my Top Three and using post-it notes to write down other tasks and slap them on my desk worked far better than spending time trying to maintain a detailed “to-do” list.  As I completed a task, I tossed the post-it note in the trash.  Another useful trick is to keep a folded piece of paper in your pocket and jot down things throughout the day, usually little notes to yourself to help you remember things.  At the end of the day take out the paper and decide what you need to do with each of the items you jotted down.
  9. Use forms and checklists. As you go about your work over the next couple of weeks start to jot down the times when a form or a checklist would have been (or was) helpful.  If you’re like most in-house lawyers, there will be at least a few times a week when this is true.   If you have tasks or work that lend themselves to a form, a checklist, or any type of repeatable process, you can save a lot of time by putting those things into place – not only for you but across the legal department if possible.  Contract forms are the best example here, but it works in other areas too.  For example, there are several things you’re going to need to do when a new piece of litigation comes in.  Have a checklist ready that reminds you exactly what to do, who to contact (e.g., insurance, corporate communications, investor relations), and what information to pass along.  Since you know there are several pieces of information about the suit that people will want to know, create a standard form/template where you can capture those things, e.g., the parties, the court, a summary of the dispute, a summary of the claimed damages, etc.  Putting the information into a standard form, with a standard look, and into a repeatable process will save time.  You may even be able to delegate completion of the form to a paralegal or other staff member.
  10. Plan for next week/Declutter your office. I know that a lot of people like to get out the door as early as possible on Friday afternoon.  I liked to take 30 minutes at the end of the day on Fridays to plan for next week and declutter my office.  First, since most people are bolting for the door, it will be fairly quiet, with few phone calls or meetings or urgent emails.  Meaning you have some time to reflect back on the past week and think about what’s going to be important next week and start to plan ahead (and more planning is a good thing).  Go ahead and get your Top Three for Monday ready to go.  Hopefully, whatever happens over the weekend will not change the list.  Second, coming back to a clean desk on Monday will put you in a much better state of mind than coming back to a mess.  Go ahead and spend a little time getting things in their files or drawers and get your post-it notes updated/cleaned-up.  And begin to practice the “six-month rule,” i.e.,  if there are any magazines, articles, bar journals, and other clutter that you have not read or touched in six months – toss them into the recycle bin and move on.  If it’s sat on your desk or in your office untouched for six months it just cannot be anything you need to keep around.   Plus it feels really, really good to toss things. 

There are many other ideas to increase productivity.  One really good website to check out is Likehacker. To be clear, I am not advocating that anyone spend more time at work.  Work is a jealous and fickle mistress and it’s challenging enough to balance the demands on your time without dedicating more of your time to the office.  As in-house counsel, you need to accept that you will never get everything done.  Learn to leave things for tomorrow.   That said, there are ways to be more productive with your day without spending more time in the office.

Sterling Miller

October 30, 2015

Follow me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel daily.

(If you find this blog useful, please click “follow” in the top right and pass it along to colleagues or friends and/or “Tweet” it. “Ten Things” is not legal advice or legal opinion.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers. You can find this blog and all past posts at www.TenThings.net.  If you have questions or comments, please contact me at either sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net or smiller@goberhilgers.com)


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