No matter how hard you try to list what you need to accomplish, instead of getting shorter, your list gets longer – new things crop up, unanticipated client problems arise, or a last minute emergency that “must” be handled today gets in the way. It’s frustrating, exhausting and ultimately, completely unproductive.
The answer may be a ‘don’t do’ list.
What’s a ‘don’t do’ list? It’s a list of the things you shouldn't be doing, tasks that could be delegated to someone else or outsourced, and all of the items that can be eliminated entirely (or eliminated for a specified time period).
Law school education trains lawyers to spot issues, but this issue spotting behavior isn’t the most efficient way to run a law practice. Issue spotting can lead to “analysis paralysis” by creating the feeling that every issue must be at least considered, if not addressed. This creates additional distractions.
Narrow Your Options
The ‘don’t do’ list counteracts this by narrowing your options so that you’re not overwhelmed by so many choices every time something new arises.
Having a ‘don’t do’ list lets you identify tasks you don’t want to do or that you shouldn’t be doing because they distract you and prevent you from accomplishing more important tasks; if it’s already on the ‘don’t do’ list, it’s easy to immediately recognize it and move on to more productive endeavors.
Make Your Own Don't Do List
How do you decide what goes on the ‘don’t do’ list? Anything that distracts you from the main goals that you want to accomplish belongs on the list. The ‘don’t do’ list can include day to day activities, specific types of clients or matters or behaviors that don’t serve you.
Think about your strengths and weaknesses when making your ‘don’t do’ list. Are you a great speaker but a poor writer? Maybe writing articles, motions, briefs, etc. should go on your ‘don’t do’ list. You can use a ghostwriter, hire a contract lawyer to do the writing for you, or give the task to someone else in the firm with excellent writing skills. Then you can focus your energies on trying cases, giving seminars or presentations, or other activities where you can showcase your speaking skills.
Which marketing activities belong on your ‘don’t do’ list? Marketing and practice building are very high value activities, but they’re only valuable if they are strategic - if they’re putting you in front of potential clients or leads, or if the groups or events are ones which you’re passionate about.
Prioritize: evaluate which groups or activities will be the most beneficial to you (or to the people or causes you’re supporting). Limit your participation to the most valuable events or organizations. You can get more value for less time, energy and stress. If the things already on the ‘to do’ list are more important or more valuable, these ‘invitations’ belong on the ‘don’t do’ list.
Although you need to be responsive and accessible to your clients and colleagues, a good ‘don’t do’ list might include particular days or times when you’re ‘off limits.’ Allowing constant interruptions of family or leisure time not only robs you of much-needed recharging and rest, but is a disservice to clients who are only getting part of your attention. The same goes for interruptions of important business or client-related activities. It’s rare that clients have a real emergency that can’t wait an hour or two for you to finish preparing your motion in limine or complete a meal with your family (and don’t try to do both at once – remember Tip #3: Give Up Multi-Tasking).
Practice areas can also be items to add to your ‘don’t do’ list; sometimes turning down work is the best decision you can make. If you aren’t well-versed in the particular area of the law, don’t have the time or resources to learn or don’t have someone to help you, you may be asking for more trouble than the case is worth.
Identifying the ‘don’t dos’ can be an effective tool for managing your time and reducing your stress. Knowing in advance what things you won’t do lets you move on quickly, without wasting additional time analyzing everything that comes to your attention.
The ‘don’t do’ list also reminds you to ask for help in the areas that aren’t your strengths, so you can focus our efforts on what you do best and what brings the most value to your clients and to your life. It allows you to let go of the idea that you can do everything and be everything to everyone. It’s a shorthand way of cutting through all of the clutter of what needs to be done so you can get back to providing great service to your clients.
(Versions of this post previously appeared on this blog, in Sue magazine, and in Law Practice Today).