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Five Things to Add to Your To-Do List

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

As if you need any help adding things to your to-do list, right? You are justifiably more interested in removing things — or at least checking them off. But hang on, and I hope you’ll see the sense of it.

If you’re like me, nearly every item on your list is there to meet someone else’s needs, solve someone else’s problem, make someone else happy. Today, let’s put other people’s needs on hold — for just a moment — and add a few things to meet our own.

Please Yourself for a Change

It can be frustrating when the only reward for finishing something on that to-do list is the opportunity to add more to it. So if the game is indeed based on constantly checking off things, let’s build in some activities that demand an added incentive. These are only suggestions. But you’re an intelligent person, if they don’t fit you’ll come up with your own.

1. Stop. When going faster and doing more is only serving to demonstrate the law of diminishing returns, perhaps it’s time to pause and regroup. You can do it however you want, but barring painful circumstances, chances are you won’t do anything at all unless you get it on your list. You could add one of these:

  • Pursue a contemplative practice.
  • Close the door and take a power nap.
  • Take a vacation for goodness’ sake!

2. Connect. I have a friend who claims the primary difference between electronic communication and an in-person chat relates to the sense of smell. Hmmm … perhaps he chats with a different sort of person than I do? Regardless, there is something different and more nourishing about time spent in the company of real human beings, whether it’s scent, heat or just the chance to look them in the eye or touch their hand. Make sure you’re getting enough — be assertive about it and put it on the list. You might add:

  • Have a cup of coffee with an old friend.
  • Resist the temptation to spend your weekends in introvert heaven and spend that down time idling with family or friends — with no purpose beyond enjoying each others’ company.
  • Go to your client’s office for the next meeting. Take donuts. (Make sure they know it’s your treat!)

3. Back up. Surely you’ve noticed that the further away you get from something, the more clearly you seem to see it. Fact patterns in trial, for example. Astronauts call it the “Overview Effect,” and it makes a great beginning for a conversation about the environment. But the same theory can apply to any task or problem. An artist backs up to see how her painting is developing. When you reach an impasse with that crossword puzzle, turning it upside-down inevitably produces a handful of new answers. Build a little perspective into your to-do list by adding one of these:

  • Discuss a problem you are working on with a child.
  • Set aside 10 minutes to watch the classic Charles and Ray Eames film Powers of Ten.
  • Take a different route to work once a week.
  • Go for a walk outside.

4. Refuel. Yep, that running on empty feeling will get you if you’re not careful to fill ‘er up from time to time. Next time you realize your get up and go has got up and gone, add one or two refreshing things to your list for some renewed psychic energy:

5. Listen. In the 1970s, Hewlett Packard developed a people management concept they called “Management by Wandering Around.” There are those who argue the idea is much older, since it was Shakespeare’s stage direction to Henry V (the original “undercover boss”) the night before the Battle of Agincourt. It is simply a practice of walking around, asking how things are going and then listening. (Politicians now like to call it a “listening tour, although how much listening occurs on those is up for debate.) If you try this from time to time you will be amazed what you learn. Don’t make a big deal of it, but try one of these:

  • Stop by a different colleague’s office each morning to learn how they are seeing things.
  • Make a dinner date with one of your children.
  • Use a suggestion box app to get feedback from clients and colleagues and staff.
Categories: Attorney Work-Life Balance, Daily Dispatch, You At Work
Originally published October 3, 2014
Last updated October 21, 2019
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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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