While technology has revolutionized the practice of law and our personal lives, it can also lead to a state of almost constant distraction. Whether we are avoiding a difficult brief to check email or a favorite news feed—or maybe just to play one more turn in Words With Friends—it can be harder than ever to get our work done.
There is no shortage of tricks and techniques to overcome these common distractions. We have surveyed a few of them in this article. Embrace one that speaks to you, or adopt ideas from a few. Figure out how to become more efficient with your work, and there will be more time to play—maybe even off the computer.
Eat That Frog
Mark Twain said, "If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first." This simple quote is the basis for Brian Tracy's book, Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.
Your "frog" is the most distasteful task on your list—the one that you may be most likely to avoid through procrastination. If you eat that frog first, you can accomplish two goals: First, the task will be done, and second, you can work better the rest of the day because you will not experience the emotional drain of an uncompleted task. To eat the frog, you must see it clearly, which is why seeking clarity and planning are important parts of Tracy's method as well.
Peter Bregman's book, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, encourages its readers to spend at least—you guessed it—18 minutes per day on time management. Bregman's method starts with setting aside five minutes at the beginning of your day to plan your goals. Then, every hour, take another minute to assess whether your last hour was consistent with your plan. Finally, review your performance at the end of the day to identify what was successful and what was a waste of time, and transfer those lessons over into tomorrow's 18 minutes.
The 4-Hour Workweek
For those lawyers still billing by the hour, the concept of a four-hour workweek described by Timothy Ferriss in his popular book, The 4-Hour Workweek, may come as a shock. But, even though adopting all of its principles would mean substantial change in the lives and careers of most attorneys, there are still good takeaways.
There are four stages in Ferriss' method: definition, elimination, automation and liberation. Time management is included in the elimination phase, including Parkinson's law (work expands to fit the time allotted).
Getting Things Done
This method was launched with Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, a book by David Allen, published in 2002. The key to the method, known as GTD, is planning and tracking, meaning that nothing important should be kept in your head. Allen calls this "stuff," and notes that it causes stress and anxiety. Through GTD, Allen recommends you either get rid of unimportant stuff or convert worthwhile stuff into action items that can be completed.
GTD takes some effort, but its adherents view Allen as a guru. Allen teaches seminars and has a newsletter called "Productive Living." See the interview with Allen on page 44.
The Now Habit
Dr. Neil Fiore's The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play attacks one of the most feared enemies of effective time management: procrastination. Fiore posits that procrastination is not a product of poor time management skills or insufficient organization, but is instead a habit developed over time.
His methods include taking on a positive attitude about work; overcoming fear of failure and the overwhelming pressure of perfection; and using your worry and the symptoms of procrastination against themselves by reversing the procrastination habit, thereby helping you accomplish your goals. Once you have overcome your own procrastination issues, Fiore encourages you to pay it forward by helping others struggling with the procrastination habit to kick it for good.
Organizing From the Inside Out
Author Julie Morgenstern first came to public attention through appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and, at first blush, her method may seem more about cleaning your closet than managing your time. But her mantra is as applicable to undone tasks as they are to a messy utensil drawer: "analyze, strategize, attack."
Morgenstern also attempts to explain the challenges we face in overcoming chaos because she believes that being organized is a "learnable skill." You may find her book, Time Management from the Inside Out, helps you discover the psychological stumbling blocks that keep you from getting organized and gives you the means for developing a time management program that suits you.
The Pareto Principle, sometimes referred to as the "80-20 rule" or the "law of the vital few," was the conception of a business management consultant, Joseph M. Juran. He observed that, in most instances, about 80 percent of your sales or profits come from about 20 percent of your clients. Therefore, that 20 percent deserves your closest attention, while the other 80 percent of your clients need to be reevaluated. For lawyers, Juran would suggest reevaluating your 80 percent to determine whether some of your clients should be eliminated—perhaps referred out—or reassigned to subordinates. That way, you are free to provide the highest level of client service for your most profitable 20 percent.
The Pomodoro Technique
It all started with a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato, which in Italian, is a pomodoro. The idea is simple: 1) Set a timer for 25-minute increments and allow yourself to work only on a single task. 2) After the timer rings, take a three- to five-minute break. 3) After four "pomodoros," take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes. You start by planning a list of tasks for the day, and then keep track of how many pomodoros you complete. The tools are up to you; you can acquire a kitchen timer or try one of the many mobile apps available to help you keep track.
The technique was created by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. He wrote The Pomodoro Technique in 2006. The book is available for download, with numerous other resources, at pomodorotechnique.com. Larry Port of Rocket Matter brought the technique to the attention of the legal community with the online Legal Pomodoro Series and various CLE presentations.
The Principle of Relevance
Stefania Lucchetti asks three questions: What is worth knowing? What is worth doing? What is worth responding to? Her focus is on digital overload and her process intends to "train the mind" to "select, access, use and respond to" the flood of digital input. Lucchetti has worked as an attorney, so her methods are particularly applicable to a lawyer's workflow.
7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen R. Covey's landmark work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has been a top seller in the time management genre for over 20 years. It professes a desire to cut through theories laden with "trends and pop psychology" while focusing on "proven principles of fairness, integrity, honesty and human dignity."
Covey acknowledges that success is defined by achieving a balance between our professional and personal lives, and his work is rife with examples from both spheres. Covey challenges his readers to go through a kind of existential "paradigm shift" before they attempt to implement his ideas. This shift is accomplished by taking on a more positive attitude and by developing one's "proactive muscles," i.e., acting affirmatively on your own intuition rather than simply reacting to your environment.
The Six-Minute Lawyer
Gregory Lois takes the principles of David Allen's Getting Things Done and applies them to lawyers. The six-minute increment works well for attorneys, since that is the smallest increment of time used in most systems for billable time. Like Allen, Lois seeks to reduce stress and anxiety. The six-minute rule is simple: Do anything that can be done in six minutes or less right when it comes up. His suggestions for handling email are particularly helpful: Trash the junk, do anything you can in six minutes, file reference material and the rest are "inputs that trigger actions."
Tell Your Time
Tell Your Time by Amy Lynn Andrews asks a basic question: Are the things you are doing eventually leading you to your highest aspirations in life? Once you have decided what your dreams are, Tell Your Time gives you a four-step approach to achieve them. Andrews encourages her readers to save time, improve their organization and refocus their lives.
In addition to telling you how to refocus, Andrews provides forms for other tools in her appendices to make the process even simpler. Because the book is streamlined into 30 pages, if you are looking for a method that gets to the point, Tell Your Time may be the best return on your investment.
The Time Trap
The Time Trap is a theory of self-management espoused by Alec Mackenzie. The focus is on time wasters, such as telephone interruptions, the "inability to say no" and lack of delegation. To respond to the Great Recession, the book's third edition also reviews time problems associated with technology, downsizing and self-employment, which are the all-too-common impediments in our new state of financial crisis.
The Time Trap intends to help readers understand why we are prone to distraction, then identifies the serial culprits of time waste. By developing a system of realistic goals, Mackenzie promises to help individuals achieve the highest level of success in their personal and professional lives.
Total Workday Control
Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook by Michael Linenberger seeks to help its readers by teaching them how to maximize the capabilities for task and email management already built into Outlook. By utilizing eight proven best practices of task and email management, Linenberger promises his readers that they can save up to 25 percent of their workdays, allowing them to instill a better work-life balance into their lives.
Among his various suggestions, Linenberger recommends setting up dedicated time during the day to clear out your inbox. This allows you to avoid distraction when working on your other major projects, while still dedicating times to clear your inbox and avoid falling out of contact. Total Workday Control is unique because it can either be used by itself or in conjunction with other time management systems.