Seven years ago, I was a messy desk person, a disaster. Disgusted, buried and boxed in, I decided to change my ways, to become one of those organized people with a leather planner and an attached pen, post-its and a label maker. Something odd happened: when I started learning how to clean up my act, I unwittingly started a domino effect of change. Change in the way I processed, analyzed and presented information. Change in the way I measured progress and accomplishment. Change that diverted me from one small set of personal priorities to a different, giant set of goals. Change that restored my fascination, but also made me obsess and destroy a lot of what I had worked for since I was 9. Change in the way I saw time.
I started with Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, which led me to adopt a personal mission statement and injected me with a little hope for a meaningful life. I wrote about that in “I’m Ashamed To Admit Stephen Covey Saved My Life.” Then, I spotted a book in the bargain bin at Borders (RIP). Time Tactics of Very Successful People by B. Eugene Griessman was $4.39 – how could I pass it up. It may sound stupid, but Griessman’s ideas blew my mind. Before I read his book, I thought the difference between my disorganized self and effective people was innate talent for putting things in folders. I assumed others had longer memories, and thus were never late for conference calls. I believed, at my core, that better people remembered to transcribe their handwritten notes, so they didn’t have to go back through illegible notes months after they wrote them. These beliefs turned out to be only half true.
Some people do, in fact, have dependable memories, enjoy filing and manage to record phone numbers for posterity, not just the next call. But, even those people had to use strategies and tactics to keep on track. Further, it turned out that people with brains like mine had their own tactics to overcome their weaknesses. That people actually plan to be productive – and I could too – was a revelation. If you think I sound overly excited, you’re probably naturally organized. I admire you. But, you will never know the struggle of the orderly, hard-fought email folder pane.
My progress under Time Tactics was 3 steps forward, 2 back. The most profound lesson I took from Time Tactics was to keep lists of things I had to do. At first, I would write things down on a legal pad, then close the pad and lose the page. Then, I bought a series of tiny notebooks, hoping portability would be my friend. On the days I remembered to (1) use it; and (2) read it, this method worked. But, then there were the days when the notebook got buried under paper, I used the pages out of order or simply forgot to pick up the book and read it. So, I improved, but I didn’t evolve. My personal evolution came when I stumbled on the book that changed my life, my brain and the way I experience time. That book was David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I’m glassy eyed, I’m committed, I’m unashamed of my devotion to David Allen. You’ll have to throw me in the back of a van for reprogramming to strip me of my love for the man and his methods. My gushing comes in a future post.
PS: Below are my top 5 time tactics from the book and how I reacted when I encountered them.
1. Don’t use the top of your desk as storage
Don’t use the top of your desk as storage? Seriously? If you don’t use the top of your desk for storage, how do you know what to work on? How many people do you know who use file folders instead of their desk, floor, credenza and chair? This seemed ridiculous to me. Of course, back then, I couldn’t find anything on my desk even though I could see it. It didn’t help that corporate lawyer papers all look alike.
2. Create to-do and projects lists every day
Every day? That seemed like a lot of work. Usually, I would sprint into work and just attack my desk top. Or, surf the net and drink coffee because I didn’t know where to start.
I check and rebuild my task list consistently – most of the time. When I don’t, I get totally screwed up. When I do, I stay almost on track.
3. Rely on checklists and templates.
Funny story: lawyers don’t often create systems around the actual doing of legal work. And, we don’t often keep a record of what we do, learn and gather. I did occasionally. And, now I do religiously.
But, this had a downside. Over the following couple of years, I became addicted to productivity porn. I was always searching for just the right template or flowchart tool. First, it was just a few excel templates. Then, I tried browser add ons. Then, I got into the heavy stuff – web apps and databases. I lost a lot of time and brain cells to my habit. It got so I started hiding my searches on go2web20.net and simplespark.com. Now, I’m in recovery, but I still relapse.
4. Use your commute time or eliminate your commute
My commute is 45 minutes on the train, which I spent reading the crappy, news-free daily journal by the Chicago Tribune. If I could bring work – contracts, letters and memos – to mark up, I would free some time during the day. Of course, my train productivity depended (and depends) on getting a good seat. No seat, and I can’t write anything. Double seat and I can work, but only reading. Single seat and I can merge two companies by the time I hit the loop.
Today, I’m a productivity machine on the train. Sometimes I almost miss my stop.
Delegate. This is tricky for a lawyer. See, lawyers’ credibility is built on two things: amount of hours billed and amount of billed dollars collected from clients. As a young lawyer, I didn’t have many of my own clients. So, I had to bill hours. By delegating, I would be giving up hours. This one seemed impossible at the time.