Why be LESS productive?

This weekend, I opened an email and read a list of 10 tested, proven ways to become less productive. Nobody wants to be less productive, but it just happens some days, right?

Problem is, as I read the list I realized that it’s like a checklist of problems that prevent lawyers from succeeding in business development—or really, anything else.  Nobody wants to fail (especially while working to succeed) but these ten behaviors will undermine productivity. Of these ten, the most common that I hear are:

  • Spend more time planning than doing: creating and honing a business development plan can be a great way to avoid ever taking action.
  • Pack your schedule: being busy is an alarmingly easy way to push business development tasks to the back burner.
  • Work on autopilot: reacting to demands rather than setting a plan and sticking to it absent an emergency is a great way to feel needed and productive, but you may be accomplishing the less important things while leaving your true priorities behind.

If you’re feeling less productive than you’d like when it comes to business development (or to any other priority in your life), check this list to identify the likely reasons… And then do the opposite.

Not the same year-end pablum again!

We’re at the tail-end of the year, a busy time whether you’re celebrating with family or pushing to meet a year-end matter deadline. At year’s end, the ‘net is awash in articles about evaluating last year and prepping for the new year that are just warmed over from previous years. Ugh! Who has time? But…

Here are two articles worth making time to read this week because they’ll challenge your way of thinking:

  • Paying the Smart Phone Tax by Seth Godin. I essentially run my business from a smart phone, and I rely on it for critical news about a terminally ill family member. When I saw the title of this post, I immediately worried about a financial tax on my phone, but the post itself points out a much more significant price to pay from overusing it.
  • The Four Hardest Questions to Answer at the End of the Year  by Michael Bungay Stanier. We all reflect on the closing year as a new one approaches, and our questions tend to scratch only the surface. As Stanier argues, asking only “what did you do” and “how did it go” allows you to avoid going deeper into what’s really going on. He recommends four alternate questions:
o    What do I need to kill off?

o    Where have I stayed stuck?

o    How did I let myself down?

o    Where are you really headed?

Read the article for further explanation of these questions, and then answer them honestly to gain deep insight leading into to purposeful action. I particularly like Stanier’s suggestion that you answer the questions out loud with a trusted friend or colleague.
These two articles got me thinking in a fresh and challenging direction. I’ll be working on Stanier’s four questions next week. Will you join me?

Productivity thrives in a clear mind

Have you ever had one of those nights, when you doze off only to be jolted awake with worry about something you need to do? Or caught yourself thinking “as soon as I get back to the office, I’ll send that email to the client,” only to realize hours later that you didn’t do it?

When you have a lot going on, things tend to get dropped or otherwise fouled up. Especially if you’re worried about something or you’re facing a difficult decision, your thoughts may be agitated by the “noise” of life. To-do items blend with ideas and interruptions into one big fog of mental chaos.

One example from 2003: I was preparing for a major client meeting in between meeting with my mother’s doctors and hospice aides. On the way home, I stopped the grocery store.  By some miracle, I had a list of the items I needed to buy.  But I was so distracted that I returned to my car to find the keys in the ignition and the car engine running!  Just today, I passed by an empty car parked in a garage with the engine running, and I wondered what stress caused the driver to make that mistake.

Maybe you’ve never left a car running, but almost everyone has a story of errors, omissions, and just plain dumb moves that come from an overfull brain. An oldie-but-goodie post by Zen Habits titled 15 Can’t-Miss Ways to Declutter Your Mind can help you get clarity and focus so you can get things done.  The tactics (with clarification available in the Zen Habits post):

  1. Breathe.
  2. Write it down.
  3. Identify the essential.
  4. Eliminate.
  5. Journal.
  6. Rethink your sleep.
  7. Take a walk.
  8. Watch less TV.
  9. Get in touch with nature.
  10. Do less.
  11. Go slower.
  12. Let go.
  13. Declutter your surroundings.
  14. Single-task.
  15. Get a load off.  (Vent!)

Does this seem soft? It’s just another step to reach the focused mind described in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. If what you’re doing isn’t working as well as you’d like, maybe it’s time to try another tactic.

Make the Most of Your Summer with These Productivity and Efficiency Tips

Over the years, I’ve put together a lot of tips about how to accomplish more, how to get energized, and how to make the most of time away from the office.
 In honor of the unofficial start of summer in the U.S. (and vacations everywhere!), I’m sharing a potpourri of greatest hits here.  Click on each link to visit the full article.

  1. Increase your efficiency by cutting the time you spend in the office:  This post shares three tips about how you can shift your approach to work so you can get more done and get out the door.
  2. The Reset Button:  Two tips to help you feel less pressured, which in turn will increase your efficiency and effectiveness.
  3. Addressing Burnout:  Your Productivity Depends on It:  How can disconnecting from your work improve your productivity?
  4. Get Out of the Office:  Your best thoughts about work probably won’t happen at work.
  5. The Productive Value of Vacation:  How short bursts of recreation can refresh and reinvigorate you.

PDA Peace

Pavlov’s dog had nothing on most BlackBerry/iPhone/BlackJack/other PDA users.

All too often, we (and I include myself) hear the “beep” or feel the vibration and pounce immediately, even in the middle of a sentence — our own or someone else’s.  And I’ve seen (and though I’d prefer not to admit it, experienced) the discomfort that can occur when someone knows there’s an email waiting but doesn’t pounce.  The ticks, the nervousness.  It’s almost pathological sometimes.

Recently, I decided to drive for a business trip rather than fly, and for safety’s sake, I didn’t want to be tempted to look at my BlackBerry everytime an email came in.  So I set the profile to ring for phone calls only, and to be silent otherwise.  I drove almost 150 miles before I had to stop for gas, and I checked the BlackBerry then.  I had about 40 messages, none of them urgent.  And I had a strange feeling that I subsequently identified as peace.  Peace!  No irritating noises, no demands, no irrelevant press releases.  It was a good change.

That was a month ago, and I’ve continued to keep my BlackBerry on “phone only.”  If I’m expecting something urgent, I ask for a phone call rather than an email, and it’s been truly instructive to discover how much better conversations are when I’m not wondering about the email I just heard arriving.  And the truth is, I have yet to miss anything important as a result of this practice.

Try it.  Just for today.  You can change back tomorrow if you like.  I predict you won’t want to, and I predict you’ll be more present to your work, the people you’re with, even your own relaxation.  And in turn, you’ll be more productive and more creative.

Not a bad return on eliminating an irritant, is it?

Social networking, yea or nay: Part 2

Just a few months ago, I wrote a blog entry titled, Social networking, yea or nay?, in which I reviewed an issue of Law Practice Management that featured several article advocating the use of social networking.  Since then, I’ve networked on LinkedIn and I even set up a Facebook profile, though I drew the line at Twitter — microblogging is not for me.  Meanwhile, I’m getting pelted with Plaxo requests and trying to figure out how social networking can work for me.  My next step was to listen to a few teleseminars, on how to use Facebook and LinkedIn, and I was aghast at the amount of time people were spending.  An hour or two a day???  Is it just me, or does that sound insane to anyone else?

So I was mightily curious when I saw a recent article by Larry Bodine titled, Is the Party Over for Social Networking?  Larry starts out like this:

What if you gave a party, hundreds of people showed up, but almost nobody talked to each other? That describes the state of social networking for lawyers on sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace and the new Plaxo Pulse. The masses get the idea, but only the evangelists are using it.

Ah, so it isn’t just me.  Citing research by the ABA about the online networking habits of young lawyers, Bodine concludes that few lawyers (only 8% of the young lawyer respondents, who might be presumed to be early adopters of such technology) find social networking important.  LinkedIn seems to be the professional tool of choice for lawyers (at least, “old” lawyers, which I fear means those over 30 or so), and Facebook seems to be preferred for personal use and by younger lawyers.

But here’s my question: other than using these tools to update contact information, employers, and the like, what are lawyers doing with social networking?  As a teen and college student, and even into law school, I used to play online and met some dear friends that way, through forerunners of IM technology, so I’m certainly not opposed to it — and I’d certainly prefer to network online while sipping good coffee than to schlep to another breakfast networking event (usually, it seems, in the rain) in hopes of making a connection.  I just don’t get how it works.

And so, I’m going to try an experiment.  I have one more week of very heavy travel, and then I’ll have a bit of a pause, when I’ll be in my office with computer handy for most days of May.  So, I’m going to give social networking a shot for the month of May and see what happens.

As I prepare, I invite your comments.  Do you use social networking sites?  Do you find them fun and/or professionally useful?  What’s your favorite site?  How much time do you spend on social networking?  I’ll keep you posted on what I learn!

(And, an aside about the blog: one of the kinks yet to be worked out is image-posting.  They will return!)

Clear your mind to increase productivity.

Every office has one: the messy lawyer, whose desk and/or office always looks like a bomb exploded and left behind papers and files and coffee cups and who-knows-what-else scattered everywhere.  It’s a good practice to clear the decks weekly or following the end of a major project, just to keep some level of tidiness.  This time of year is especially auspicious, since you may find a few spare minutes for cleaning, and it’s such a good feeling to return to a clean office on January 2.  Especially if you have the luxury of calling in an assistant to help with filing and organization, 30 minutes to an hour will often prevent an overflow.

What if it’s your mind that needs decluttering?  When your brain is filled with “must do” tasks of both professional and personal origin, when you’re worried about something, when you’re trying to make a difficult decision, and when all of your thoughts are further agitated by the “noise” of life, it’s easy to get lost in mental chaos.  One day when I was preparing for a major client meeting and dealing with my mother’s terminal illness, I stopped by the grocery store on my way home.  I knew I was distracted, so I’d takent he time to write down the items I needed to buy.  But I proved how distracted I was when I returned to my car to find it still running with the keys in the ignition!  I wish I’d had access to the recent terrific post by Zen Habits titled 15 Can’t-Miss Ways to Declutter Your Mind.  The tactics (with clarification available in the Zen Habits post):

1.  Breathe.
2.  Write it down.
3.  Identify the essential.
4.  Eliminate.
5.  Journal.
6.  Rethink your sleep.
7.  Take a walk.
8.  Watch less TV.
9.  Get in touch with nature.
10.  Do less.
11.  Go slower.
12.  Let go.
13.  Declutter your surroundings.
14.  Single-task.
15.  Get a load off.  (Vent!)

And I’d add one more: do something creative that gets you into a state of flow, where time passes without your notice.  Examples might be drawing or playing music.  Time spent in any of these areas is indeed time well spent.

What’s the most important step you can take?

Only 34 days remain in 2007, including weekends and holidays.  Before we know it, the books will close and another year will have passed.  What’s the most important step you can take today to ensure that you’re well-positioned as you move into 2008?

  • Business development: Perhaps you could set aside a couple of hours to evaluate your business development plan for 2007 and to lay out your strategy for next year.  Or you could make some appointments to take important contacts to lunch, for coffee, or whatever is appropriate.  If you’ve noticed that there’s something in your way concerning client development, invest some time now determining what you need to do to be more productive.  At a minimum, set aside a few minutes every day to take some marketing action.
  • Time management: How are your hours?  If they’re low, what do you need to do to get appropriate work?  (Perhaps see the business development ideas!)  Are you billing for the time you’re actually working, and are you using that time well?  Do you need to update your methods for filing, time tracking, or scheduling?  Perhaps it’s time to check in with your assistant and see what ideas he or she has for using time more effectively.
  • Professional development:  This is often a great time of year to pick up CLE.  Or check out some of the new publications in your area of practice or on practice management.  But first, check your progress on the development plans you set for this year.  What can you do to close out this year with a success?
  • Career:  If you’ve been considering a move, this is a good time to put out feelers and position yourself.  You may not have an opportunity to interview until the new year, but putting yourself “on the market” now will be beneficial.  If you’re mid-search, you may find this a busy period as employers try to wrap up hiring decisions before the close of the year.If you’re planning to stay in your current position, what can you do to improve your performance?  How successful have you been this year, and what changes would be helpful as you move forward?  The holiday season is also an opportunity to show your gratitude to support staff and colleagues who have made your professional life work well and perhaps brightened your days: don’t miss your chance.
  • Work/life integration: Are you happy with the amount of time and energy you’re putting into your personal life?  Do you need to rearrange your schedule, get some help on the home front, or turn off your BlackBerry while you talk with your spouse/partner/child?  Are you putting in time on the activities that will increase your energy, such as exercise and getting sufficient sleep?
  • Other:  If there’s an area that needs attention, you know what it is.  Spend some time putting it right, whatever that may mean.

Taking these steps will help you to realize or exceed the goals you’ve set for 2007 and carry you forward into 2008 with momentum.  Choose the most important action in the most important area and do it this week.

Simplicity: where personal and professional meet

One of the rules I keep in mind when writing  is that good writing is clear, crisp, and simple.  The same rule often applies more generally as well.  As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

When it comes to managing one’s personal life while maintaining a practice, “simple” is the name of the game.  (And this is a good time to note a favorite distinction: “simple” is not a synonym for “easy.”)  For instance, it’s much less stressful to prepare a simple dinner — say, a salad with various store-bought toppings and dressing — than it is to prepare a meal that requires numerous ingredients.  Likewise, I find that dressing in the morning is much more simple when my clothes are in reasonably good order and my closet not overstuffed.  Aspects of life that are more complicated than necessary drain energy.

And the same is true in the office.  If my files are a mess and I can’t find anything, I’ll have to stop and launch a search everytime I need a document, and that takes a tremendous amount of energy away from the task at hand.  Having a cluttered email box pulls at me because when I check for new messages, my eye is drawn to all of the messages I need to answer or otherwise handle, and slick filing system that put the messages out of sight make my life even more complicated.

Simplicity is especially important when personal and professional life intersect or affect one another.  One of my favorite questions to clients working on work/life integration issues is, “What can you stop doing?”  Releasing an activity that isn’t productive (in pleasure or in business) is often one of the most simple and most impactful steps to take.

Unfortunately, though, simplifying isn’t always an easy thing to do.  An overcrowded, disorganized closet may take hours or even days to get straightened.  So, I was delighted to find Simple Living Simplified: 10 Things You Can Do Today to Simplify Your Life on the zenhabits blog.  Ideas include:

— making a short list of top priorities (similar to an Absolute Yes list, which I previously discussed in this post);

— simplifying the “to do” list by identifying tasks that can be “eliminated, delegated, automated, outsourced or ignored;” and

— focusing on one task at a time.

And if 10 simplification steps aren’t enough, check the expanded list of the Simple Living Manifesto: 72 Ideas to Simplify Your Life.  Any list of 72 items feels unwieldy to me, but it’s worth a skim.