As we head into summer I wanted to share with a list of my favorite practice habits for productivity, stress-reduction, and working efficiently. Enjoy!
Open the day with a quick planning session. Review priorities and upcoming deadlines. Choose your top three priorities for the day (see the “Top Three” habit below).
This habit comes from Steven Covey’s work. At the beginning of each week, identify one, two or three big and important things you want to move forward in the coming week – your “big rocks”. Our days are filled with email, phone calls and fighting fires, and it is easy for those “important but not urgent” projects to be pushed aside. There will always be emergencies to take care of, but this habit helps you to remain focused on priorities. Know your big rocks.
On a daily basis identify one to three of the most important tasks to complete during the day. Write them on a slip of paper and keep it visible on your desk. Aim to get one or more of these tasks accomplished by noon. Your top three might include a big rock (see above) as well as other urgent matters that have come up.
Neuroscience has revealed that the mind’s executive centre – our prefrontal cortex- is sensitive, drains energy, and can only hold a small amount of information at one time. When we overload the cortex with our to-do lists and reminders we lose valuable cognitive capacity and experience a physical stress response in the body. This habit is about capturing all your to-do items in one spot. Carry around a notebook such as a moleskin, or use your phone to record all to do’s as they come up during the day. Take it with you to meetings, and home at the end of the day. When you are back at your office review the captured items and add to your to-do list. This practical and valuable habit prevents dropped balls, keeps your mind clear, and reduces stress.
Weekly Meeting with Yourself
Put it in your calendar and don’t book over it. Treat it with the respect you would give to a client meeting. Go somewhere where you can be undisturbed. If you stay in your office turn off your email and phone. Work on your big rocks (see “Big Rock” habit above) and to-do list, and schedule blocks of time for focused work.
If you want to get better at delegation, this habit will help. The weekly meeting is a chance to take a big picture look at what is coming up and to answer the question “what can I delegate?”
The weekly meeting is also useful for business development. Decide which clients/contacts you would like to see for lunch or coffee in the coming weeks and after the meeting shoot off a quick email to get those face-to-face meetings scheduled.
Prioritize by Complexity and Energy
This habit has three steps. First create a list of your tasks for the week. Next, divide the tasks into three categories, level one, level 2, and level 3 according to complexity. Then, consider your energy levels during the day and perform each task based on the appropriate fit of complexity to energy level. For instance, if you do your best work in the morning then that is the time for working on the most highly complex tasks.
Develop checklists to guide you through managing complex projects such as transactions or litigation files. Save old checklists as precedents and at the beginning of a new project select a precedent checklist and update it with the relevant information. Complex legal work has too many moving pieces to carry in your brain. Checklists are one way to put the important information in one place and to then be able to work on the matter piece by piece.
This habit is for when you find yourself spinning your wheels or outright procrastinating on a big project. It is related to the checklist habit above. At times when a project or task is highly complex we can’t get a handle on how to start. We also might tell ourselves that we need a BIG block of time for it and until that comes available we put it off. The Turtle Steps habit recognises that every big complicated project can be broken down into smaller pieces. Sometimes the key is to open the file and start with a next steps review. Or just start to work on it for thirty minutes and when you have to put it aside take some notes to remind you of where you left off and what you were planning on doing next. The main thing is that as soon as you feel yourself stalling, stop, think again, and take the next small step.
Cotemporaneous time keeping – that is, entering time as the work is done – is the best way to handle time keeping when you consider just how much cognitive resources are required to reconstruct time at the end of the day, or worse, days later.
Tips for developing a contemporaneous time keeping habit include:
- Work in blocks of time and start and stop your timer at the beginning and end of each block.
- Do email in blocks, for instance at the top of the hour, so that you can more easily capture your time on email.
- Recognise the “I will remember this later” for the thinking trap it represents and get the time down immediately.
(See my article with further tips for establishing a contemporaneous time keeping habit.)
One Thing at a Time
Our brains are built for focused attention and intellectual performance drops radically when multi-tasking.
Create zones for intense and focused work during the day. Choose a time during the work day when you are most productive. Turn off the email. Close the door. Focus on one project for up to ninety minutes. Notice the impact this practice has on the quality of your intellectual output. To help protect this time – which one of my clients calls “the vortex” – get your assistant involved. Let your assistant know this is your time for intensely focused work and ask them to help prevent interruptions.
Two Minute List
Start keeping a two minute action list. Here you will list all your short and snappy to do’s. During the day work in one or two 15 minute time blocks for clearing items off this list (see “Batch” habit below). This habit recognises that short two minute tasks are best dealt with in batches during the day in order to support our focus on bigger and more important tasks.
Process email and two-minute tasks in batches. Schedule blocks of time for dealing with email or your two minute to do’s (see “Two Minute List” habit) periodically throughout the day. For complex emails with attachments print, read, and formulate a response at a later time.
Beat the Clock
When the priorities are piling up it is essential to move through the work as effectively as possible. Use a beat the clock habit to give each task the appropriate amount of effort and no more. Evaluate the task and assign a time deadline. Strive to complete the work within the set amount of time.
Run a Dash
There’s something you have been avoiding? Then set a timer and work on it for just 10 or 15 minutes. This works for everything from filing, to phone calls, or even the next step on a complex project. It is also great for business development – connecting with contacts over email, scheduling lunches, or sending a client a useful article.
Follow the advice of Harvard cardiologist Dr. Bensen. When you feel your stress levels rising, pause for just one to two minutes. Place your hand on your heart and take a slow breath in, and then slowly exhale. Count off ten breaths. Your heart rate will slow and your stress level will decrease. This is a very simple and effective habit that sends a physical signal to your brain that you are relaxing and deactivates the stress response.
Listen First and More
The ability to focus and listen with full attention is a critical leadership, legal, and business skill. I had the opportunity recently to meet the CEO and founder of successful private equity firm who took listening very seriously. He had formerly been a partner at one of the top five accounting firms. He told me that when he started his firm he knew that listening would be vital to his success. To improve his skills he hired a psychologist to work with him and attend all his meetings. The psychologist observed the CEO in action and provided him with feedback on his listening skills.
The good news is you don’t have to go to the trouble of hiring a psychologist or coach to help you listen better. Start by setting the habit of always listening first. Listen first when you meet someone. Listen first in meetings. Listen first with your friends. To do this, you will need to also develop the skill of asking questions to get the other person talking. If someone beats you to an opening question, answer, and then ask them a question so that you can get back to listening. Challenge yourself to Listen First for a week and see what happens.
Set the timer on your cell phone to ring 15 minutes before your scheduled departure time. Tidy your desk. Prepare your list of priorities for the next day. Complete the daily time entry. End the day well for an optimal start to the next day.