Some tasks and activities get done and goals get met, even if they get done at the last minute after late nights at the office. Usually, those goals, tasks, or activities get done because they have built in deadlines.
Deadlines create urgency. When we discussed prioritizing in tip #4, we talked about the fact that “urgent” tasks tend to get done. For example, when you have a scheduled meeting with a client or a hearing date for a motion, somehow the preparation work gets done on time. Those deadlines create urgency and provide a framework within which to structure your activities.
But what about those activities that Steven Covey calls “important but not urgent?” Those are the tasks that often get carried on a never-ending to do list because they do not have built in deadlines even though they are the activities that will make the biggest difference to your practice – they’ll save you time and money or generate more revenue in the long run.
One way to actually get these “important but not urgent” tasks done is by creating external deadlines. Even concrete goals are useless without external deadlines. Without a ‘drop dead’ date for accomplishing a particular task or activity within your practice, chances are you’ll never manage to get around to accomplishing your goal. This is particularly true when the goal or activity doesn’t immediately strike you as urgent or doesn’t directly affect a specific client engagement.
Steps to making external deadlines work for you
1. Decide what goals you’d like to accomplish.
Use the Power of Three from tip #6 for big goals - focus on just three. Or choose smaller, discrete tasks to work on (like getting through that pile of periodicals on your office floor, cleaning up your file room, creating a template for one specific document, etc.).
2. Choose an outside deadline for accomplishing each goal.
Choose a deadline that is a bit of a ‘stretch’ for you, or that will take a concerted effort on your part to reach, but that isn’t so unrealistic that you’ll blow it right away. In other words, don’t make the deadline too short so that it’s impossible, but don’t make it so long that you put the activity or goal right back on the back burner again.
3. List the steps you’ll need to accomplish to reach the goal, and set deadlines for each step (or at least for the first step).
For example, if one of your goals is to get a website up and running, steps could include things like choosing a web designer, deciding on a style, creating the content for the pages, choosing a web host, etc. Even those steps can be broken up into smaller steps. (Think Next Actions from tip #7). Choosing the deadline for the final outcome won't be as meaningful if you don't create interim deadlines for the smaller steps that need to be accomplished to reach that goal.
4. Make the deadline an external one.
One of the reasons that deadlines are effective is that there are consequences for your failure to meet them. If you don’t file your motion timely you may be precluded from making the argument; if you don’t complete the contract, the client’s deal might fall through, etc.
But “important, not urgent” tasks often have no consequences (or at least no immediate consequences) if you fail to complete them.
Setting your own deadlines – and even putting them on your calendar – may have failed in the past. That may be because those kinds of deadlines are internal – you’re the only one who knows about them, so they are easy to ignore.
These deadlines need to be external. That means they need to be shared and have consequences.
The most important aspect of setting external deadlines is making those deadlines have meaning outside of your own personal wish list or calendar. The way to make deadlines external is by sharing them with someone else, and by asking them to hold you accountable for accomplishing your goals.
The nature of your goal will determine who to share it (and the deadline) with and what the consequences for failure to meet it will be. Sometimes it’s an attorney or staff member within your office. Other times, a consultant or colleague is more appropriate. Often, sharing your goals and deadlines with clients is the most effective way to accomplish your goal.
Why external deadlines work
External deadlines use the power of peer pressure. They work because they act like commitments to other people, even if the only one that really benefits is you. Nobody likes to break their word or fail to fulfill a promise to someone else. Nobody likes to look like a failure or give the impression that they can’t follow through.
External deadlines also work because they create a support system for your efforts where you wouldn’t normally have support. When you share your deadlines with others and ask them to keep you accountable, you’ve created a cheering section – and perhaps even an offer of help. At the very least, you’ll have moral support.
For example, if your goal is to go through the publications on your office floor, your assistant may be the most appropriate person to share the deadline with. Most likely, your assistant will be just as happy as you are to see the clutter disappear. And your assistant can help you, either by actively going through them with you or by helping to clear your schedule and reduce or eliminate interruptions.
Publicize your deadlines
To make your external deadlines truly effective, publicize them.
Plan to ramp up your business development efforts this summer? Devise a seminar topic and set an external deadline. Publicize the date on your website, do a press release, and/or send a mailing to your clients notifying them of the seminar. Short of canceling the event, there’s no way out.
Want to finally get that website up and running? Choose a launch date and send postcards to clients and strategic alliances letting them know when you’ll finally be on line. With this much build-up, you’re much more likely to get moving on the project.
If a task or activity is truly important to you and your practice but it doesn’t have a built in deadline, create one. Then, to be sure that you won’t wriggle out of it, make the deadline public by sharing it with someone else.
Try setting external deadlines for some of the “important, not urgent” items on your list and let me know how it works for you by leaving your comments!