If you’re like most lawyers I know, life is coming at you faster than you can manage it. You feel busy but not necessarily productive. You’re thinking too much, juggling too much, and doing too much.
Before I became a law professor, I was a lawyer myself. A few years in the trenches left me overwhelmed and burnt out. I gave up my hobbies and began to think of my life in six-minute increments. After entering academia, I became a productivity nerd, devouring every resource imaginable on how to construct a healthier, happier, and more effective work life. I started a coaching program, Effective Lawyer, to share these resources with overwhelmed attorneys and save them up 20+ hours per month.
Here are four strategies you can implement right away to get started.
1. Calendar everything
A typical day in my life as an attorney went something like this:
- I get to the office determined to do work. I start writing a brief that’s due later in the week. This feels good. I’m getting real, actual work done.
- 20 minutes into my productive session, I get a phone call from a partner with a question. She asks me to pop into her office for a chat. I oblige, and we spend the next hour talking.
- I return to my office only to see the massive onslaught of email notifications. I decide to tackle my inbox instead of returning to that brief. While I’m diligently eliminating one email after another, a colleague pops into my office and asks, “Up for lunch?” “Sure,” I say. The day is long, and I can take care of the brief in the afternoon.
- The afternoon comes, and two meeting notices pop up in my schedule. I attend them, ignoring my inner disciplined voice that tells me that the brief is far more important than these meetings.
- It’s 5 pm. I’ve written only one page.
Looking back on this experience, I realize that I wasn’t being proactive enough to protect my time. When you’re in defensive mode, you’re reacting to other people’s agendas. You’re attending their meetings, tackling their to-do lists, and answering their questions.
You must protect your time. How? Calendar it. Do you have an important contract to draft? Carve out a 4-hour block on your calendar. And treat that time like a hearing date or a deposition. If someone asks you whether you’re free for a meeting during that block, the answer is a firm no. You’re unavailable.
Only the active protection of your time can yield the extraordinary progress you’re seeking.
2. Stop moving your pianos
Frank Sinatra’s tour schedule brought a new definition to the term “crazy.” Yet he managed to maintain his sanity and put out work that stood the test of time. He had one simple trick: He didn’t move his own pianos. He focused on his one unique ability: Singing. Everything else, he left to others.
Could Sinatra have become truly great if he were moving his own pianos, handling the lighting and staging, and hustling to sell his concert tickets? No. He focused on the essentials so he could bring out the best of himself.
Most lawyers that I work with move their own pianos. They’re so busy handling the minutiae of day-to-day life that they don’t have time to focus on the essentials and figure out the song that only they can play.
If something can be done 80 percent as well by someone else, delegate it. I use a virtual assistant on a daily basis, and I couldn’t be happier.
3. Batch similar tasks together
If you’re anything like me when I was in practice, you switch from writing to email to a phone call, back to writing, back to email…all in a span of 20 minutes. You can’t afford these constant interruptions. Depending on the research, each hit of distraction costs you anywhere between 15 to 45 minutes to completely regain your focus. This squirrel mode of working leaves you distracted, unfocused, and exhausted.
Instead, try batching similar tasks together. Write down the calls you need to make, and do them all at once. Where possible, schedule meetings back to back so that you’re not interrupted when you’re in deep work mode.
The idea of batch processing applies to email as well. There is no need to check email at 2:03 pm and again at 2:14 pm and again at 2:23 pm. You will survive and so will others who depend on you.
4. Eliminate distractions
Silicon Valley is spending billions of dollars to distract you and get you hooked on the latest technology. You can take small steps to resist these distractions.
Begin by disabling all email notifications. I’m still surprised to see how many lawyers haven’t switched off the default setting on their email program that notifies them of each incoming message. Even if you don’t respond to these emails, the email notification will linger in your brain and distract you from the far more important task you’re working on.
Do the same for your phone by disabling all notifications. It’s hard to get work done when Facebook, Twitter, and CNN news alerts are screaming their 100-decibel sirens for attention.
If you need help managing distractions, try the Freedom app, which works on your computer and mobile devices. Freedom allows you to block the entire Internet or only certain websites that are particularly distracting for you.