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One of a Kind

How to Set Yourself Up for a Productive Day

By Jay Harrington

In college, I worked as a restaurant prep cook. The chef had French training and emphasized the importance of “mise en place” — a French term for “everything in its place.”

Mise en place (pronounced meez ahn plas) is a system chefs use to prepare themselves and their kitchens in the hours leading up to mealtime. The “meez,” as kitchen professionals refer to it, involves studying recipes, making lists of necessary ingredients, prepping food and assembling the tools for cooking that day’s menu.

The meez is utilitarian but it runs deeper than that. In his classic “Kitchen Confidential,” Anthony Bourdain writes: “The universe is in order when your station is set.”

Although it’s been a long time since I worked at a stainless-steel countertop, the meez is a mindset that has played an important role in my life and work — and I bet it can for you too.

Everything in Its Place: Embracing the “Meez Mindset”

I’m more likely to work out if I lay my clothes and shoes out the night before. I’m more organized at work when I make my to-do list the day before.

The “Meez Mindset” helps me plan for what’s coming next.

Putting everything in its place means prioritizing and focusing only on the essential, separating what should be done from what could be done.

The problem is that most of us begin our days in reactive mode rather than being proactive about our priorities.

What’s the first thing most lawyers do when they get to the office? They open up email, listen to voicemails, and begin tabbing through web browsers — often all at the same time. These types of activities are productivity killers. Some, like web surfing, are distractions that eat away at your time. Others, like checking email, have the potential to entirely disrupt the precious time you have to prepare yourself for the hard work of the day ahead. The only thing you’ll find in an email is a demand or request reflecting someone else’s priorities.

Those distractions can and should wait if you’re serious about making progress. Almost everything you’ll find in email can wait for at least an hour, so reserve the first hour of your day for yourself. Put another way, as billionaire investor Charlie Munger advises all of us to do, start treating yourself as your own most important client and “sell” yourself the most valuable hour of your day.

Five Tips for Creating Your Daily Plan

Your approach to planning and productivity should be unique to your own unique circumstances, but here is a tried-and-true process you may want to consider.

  1. Start each day with a 10-minute planning session. Get a handle on what needs to get done. And don’t forget to focus on what is important and not merely what is urgent.
  2. Identify no more than three important priorities for the day. For many lawyers, identifying a single priority is even better, because we all know that urgent demands may, and likely will, arise and inevitably pull you off task. Regardless of the number, write your priorities down, because we know from studies that the simple act of putting goals down on paper greatly increases our odds of achieving them.
  3. Block time on your calendar for when you’ll get your work done. Time-blocking, like list-building, is about setting priorities. To schedule your day effectively, you need a handle on not just available time, but also on the optimal time to tackle different tasks. Once you gain that understanding, you can then build your calendar in accordance with your priorities.
  4. Get your “deep work” (creative, analytical) done early in the day when your mind is fresh and energy is high. Creativity, willpower, focus and energy are finite resources. Prioritize your most important work for times when you’re at your peak. Reserve your administrative work, such as timekeeping and responses to non-urgent emails, for later in the afternoon.
  5. And schedule a bit of time for self-care into your day (such as taking a short walk outside). Great athletes train hard, then rest and recover. Lawyers who don’t want to burn out should do the same.

The point is, plan your days. Create structure for yourself amid the whirlwind of law firm life. There’s plenty to react to — and if you’re not careful that’s all you’ll do.

Take a hint from the great chefs and build some meez into your daily routine, such as by adopting some of the planning and productivity practices described above. They’re essential ingredients of a proven recipe for success.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @harringj75.

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