In my first post about legal project management, we talked about the big-picture goals of this series:
- Managing all the firm’s projects/matters.
- Managing each project/matter.
- Managing your tasks within each project/matter.
We also distinguished workflows (ongoing projects) from “regular” projects or matters (projects with an end goal). In the second post, we worked on managing individual projects and set up basic project and workflow boards and check-ins.
In this post, we’ll address a topic frequently overlooked when it comes to project management: managing your own tasks.
If you only had one project board for your firm, it would be easy to manage your tasks. Just pull the top card from your backlog/to-do column into your in-progress column and get to work (as discussed in Part 2). In reality, most firms will have a dozen or more boards, one for each project or matter, and you may be responsible for some cards on each of those boards. Some cards are at the top of the backlog, some need to be prioritized into a backlog, some will take minutes, others will take days, and so on.
Organizing your day — personal productivity — is a different skill than organizing your firm’s projects and workflows, though the two are certainly related.
So how do you figure out how to organize your day?
Most Important Tasks
There are many personal productivity systems in the world, from the immensely popular Getting Things Done to Lawyerist Productivity Journal. But for now, let’s keep things simple with a straightforward daily practice called Most Important Tasks (MITs).
There are just two steps:
- Each morning, before you actually get to work, spend 10 to 15 minutes looking over your project and workflow boards, your calendar, your inboxes and anywhere else tasks might be hiding. Then identify the three to five most important tasks to get done today.
- Write down those three to five most important tasks on something you can carry with you all day, like an index card. Avoid digital tools for this. Make it tangible.
Try to limit yourself to three things. Definitely don’t write down more than five things unless you have already finished your first batch of MITs. Keep the tasks manageable. Don’t add “Draft motion for summary judgment” if you haven’t even started it and it isn’t due for a week. That’s probably not a must-do-today task, and it is too big a task for one day, anyway. Instead, try something like “Draft statement of facts for MSJ.”
The point of MITs is to avoid the productivity trap of treating everything as equally important. With MITs, you deliberately prioritize some tasks above others and focus on them. Sure, other things will crop up during the day, but they shouldn’t take priority over your MITs without a pretty compelling justification.
Setting aside a few minutes every day to put your MITs down on paper will make you more productive. And knowing what’s most important every day will probably lower your stress level a bit, too.
Getting Started — And Sticking With It
The hardest part of project management and being productive is building new habits. On the one hand, it seems easy. Just organize your boards, prioritize your backlogs, identify the day’s most important tasks, and get to work. In practice, it’s like developing any healthy habit. People say they’d like to be more productive in exactly the way they say they’d like to get in shape.
People say they’d like to be more productive in exactly the way they say they’d like to get in shape.
So now that you know what to do, it’s on you to commit to actually doing it. There’s no silver bullet for getting started. Many people go to the gym in January, but only a few are still at the gym in December. In the same way, many people create project boards and make to-do lists, but few people commit to using them.
That said, here are things you can do to help you get organized and stick with it:
- Start small. Try using a project board for just one case or marketing workflow while you get a feel for it.
- Set aside time for productivity and keep it sacred. Once a week and once a quarter, schedule time to check in (with yourself or your team) on your projects and workflows, set priorities for the coming week or quarter, and solve any problems that have cropped up.
- Remind yourself of the problem you are trying to solve. Put a Post-it note on your mirror or monitor that describes the way you feel when you are disorganized. Like HAIR ON FIRE or FRAZZLED.
- Remind yourself what you hope to accomplish when your workflows are flowing and your projects are progressing and you are crossing off your MITs. Use a Post-it note with WORK-LIFE HARMONY or ATTORNEY + CLIENT = LOVE or something.
- Find an accountability partner. If you practice solo, identify someone who cares about you and your success and schedule a weekly 10-minute check-in to update them on how you are doing on project management and productivity. Firms of two or more can use internal accountability partners.
This series’ overview of legal project management and personal productivity should be enough to get you started. But you will need to keep learning if you want to succeed. You should at least read more about modern practice management components like lean, agile, scrum and kanban. On Lawyerist.com, we also have project management and personal productivity resources.
Here are the key takeaways and things to do next from this series:
- Visualize the workflows and projects that make up your firm’s “software.”
- Build Kanban-style boards for your workflows and projects that make the invisible visible.
- Always look for opportunities to improve. The key to success is relentless improvement. Your workflows and projects should not be stagnant things.
- Check in regularly. I suggest weekly check-ins for status updates, problem-solving and retrospectives. Hold a quarterly meeting to set goals.
- Continue working your Most Important Tasks system.
More Project Management Tips on Attorney at Work
- “Legal Project Management Demystified” by Larry Port
- “How to Take the Work Out of Your Workflow: Process Mapping Your Practice” by Nehal Madhani
Subscribe to Attorney at Work
Get really good ideas every day for your law practice: Subscribe to the Daily Dispatch (it’s free). Follow us on Twitter @attnyatwork.Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com