Practicing Well: Taming the never-ending to-do list
By Meri Althauser
A great meme on the internet (credit unknown) goes a little something like:
How to clean up glitter.
1) Burn down your house.
3) The glitter followed you. There is no escape.
Parents out there, you know that the glitter is everywhere. Where did it come from? I’ve never even bought glitter, yet here it is in all the crevices of the couch. Find me one person who voluntarily invited glitter into their home and I’ll owe you a beer.
So, what am I actually talking about? Glitter = Stuff you need to do. Tasks! In law practice, the tasks come from everywhere. Your paralegal walks by and lovingly sprinkles a load of tasks on your desk. You take a single phone call and oops, there’s a new pile of tasks! Open email: glitter bomb! Staff meeting: serious glitter bomb! You could burn down your office but you know the glitter will follow you home. There is no end. One simply does not clean up glitter (finish tasks).
Some jobs wrap up nicely at 5 o’clock or at the end of every month or every project, but in contrast, there is little hope of ever having a clean slate or a perfectly done to-do list in the practice of law. When we feel like we have no control over the volume of work, the cadence of deadlines or stressful events, and no dam at the mouth of the glitter spout to give us any end in sight, we’re on a fast track to burnout.
This is why in well-being circles we talk a lot about time management. Time and task management IS wellbeing, so long as the goal is to give you space to focus on your own well-being and to give you greater peace of mind. Yes, we need cultural work on why we have so much work (who can’t say no? is our culture too litigious?), this article gives advice on better managing time in order to give you peace of mind and NOT to make space for more work. This advice is largely based on the method “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.
1) Where do all the tasks come from? Make a list. Do they come from your paralegal, post-it’s that appear on your desk from nowhere, phone, supervisor, email, text, random person in the hallway, pager, fax, physical inbox, and carrier pigeon? Try to cut this down to no more than five sources. If you feel like people pop into your office and gift you with tasks, deadlines and questions willy-nilly, think of using a daily or weekly check in where you collaboratively plan the tasks, rather than just lobbing glitter bombs at each other with abandon.
2) Where do you capture the tasks? Scan your desk right now and look for the places, lists, or objects you use to keep track of what you need to do. Do you have three physical inboxes? A wall of sticky notes? Does your assistant do all of this for you and you just do what they say? Is it a day planner, clipboard, flagged emails, and an online to-do list or calendar?
After making a list of all the places, decide on one place that you will capture all tasks. This can be a tough one and may take some trial and error if you don’t take your “capture device” with you everywhere. Though you may always have your phone with you, it can be hard to make organized lists on a phone. Use a backup plan when you don’t have your trusty capture tool- like sending an email to yourself titled “PUT IN PLANNER” then put the task in your planner when you’re back at your desk.
It takes some time, but if you make a habit of sticking to your one to-do list, then you can start to trust in yourself that your list is always complete. Eventually, your confidence in your method will drastically limit the amount of time you spend away from your desk stressing that you forgot to calendar a task.
3) Rethink the way you organize your list. Do you organize your to do list by date, file name, file number, or order that the task was given to you? Is your list a wild wild west of to-do’s in no particular order??? These methods give you no quick way to prioritize and you still have to go through the secondary step of scrolling through your list to decide what to do next.
The first and easiest solution is to divide up your list by the amount of time your tasks take. So you might divide a piece of paper into four squares with one quadrant each for 5 minute tasks, 1 hour tasks, ½ day tasks, and full-day or multi-day tasks. Then, you’ll know if you have a 20 minute break, you can take a few of those quick tasks rather than sorting through a fog of unorganized to-do’s. Then, as you get used to this new way of organization, you may come up with categories that amplify your ability to get things done easier without waffling about what to do next. For example, I have a “back burner” list of tasks to do when I get to them that are non-urgent, and an “at home” list of tasks I can do when I’m working from home and know I’ll be interrupted often- so these are easier tasks that I don’t mind stopping and starting.
Second, be sure to be granular about what goes on the list. If you just put “Depose Johnny Depp” on the list, you still have to think through all of the little tasks that lead up to that bigger project. Instead, write out all the baby steps: “line up court reporter” “assign background research” “main focus/outline Johnny” and “draft Johnny’s questions” so that you never lose sleep worrying whether you remembered some element of that all-important depo.
And last, capture what feels like the un-capture-able. These are the things that tend to keep you up at night or perpetually come to you at random times in a panic. Like strategizing, debriefing or “wait for response from opposing counsel about X.” Write it down (so your brain doesn’t have to fixate) and delightfully cross it off when it happens.
4) Last and best, time block your calendar. Now, use your calendar to schedule times to do the types of tasks you’ve organized and to maintain your organization. For example, schedule one 20-minute break at the end of each day to ensure you’ve swept all your to-do’s over to your list. Schedule one time per week to clean up your back burner and a full ½ day for your major tasks. Most importantly: keep your appointments! Putting yourself on do not disturb to remain focused on these upkeep tasks will pay off in the end. When you spend quality time devoted to only one task, it’s good for your brain. And, when you front load staying organized you can finally stop worrying about how you’ll ever be able to clean up all this glitter!
With this in mind, you’re sure to get that glitter under complete control by 2023!
Meri Althauser is an attorney of over 10 years practicing family law and mediation in Missoula. Her practice focuses on collaboration and solution-finding for her clients and their families. She also offers consulting services in workplace wellness, with a certification as a Workplace Wellness Specialist through the National Wellness Institute and as a Resilience and Thriving Facilitator through Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems.