tech, productivity, + an agile practice

The following post originally appeared on the MyCase blog, thanks to a kind invitation from Niki Black. It’s the first in a series that I’ll be publishing here about the ins-and-outs of an agile practice.

An inconvenient truth: technology doesn’t improve productivity. It won’t make you more efficient, successful, or happy. What it can do is help you create a workflow (or even a lifestyle) that enables your productivity, efficiency, success, and happiness.

It’s taken me 16 years in law practice to figure it out, but I’ve finally created a tech-rich workflow that really supports my productivity.

I call it my “agile practice,” in part because I’ve cherry-picked elements of agile methodology that fit into a modern-day law practice. Why agile? Because lawyers spend a lot of time putting out fires instead of working our to-do lists. Not me. Not anymore. An agile system accommodates the fires. Allowing me to stay on track, do more good work, in less time.

How? By following the core principles of productivity, and adding technology only if it supports the principles.  Start with these four:

Eat the frog. This simply means do the most important thing first, no matter how much you don’t want to, every day. If you do this, then it’s much less likely that you’ll be derailed by the unexpected or urgent. As well, it’s motivating to check that important thing off your list. Supporting tech: I currently use Workflowy, a simple and ubiquitous app, to manage my to-do list. The frog is always at the top.

Touch it once. When something (an email, a phone call, a task) appears in front of you, your goal is to touch it only once (or twice, at most). The order of action: (1) do it; or (2) file it away for doing at a specific time; or (3) delegate it. If (2) is the action, then touch it only once at the appointed time. Supporting tech: especially if you’re delegating tasks, a web-based app such as Trello or the collaboration features built into MyCase support this principle masterfully.

No multitasking. You can’t do two (or more) things concurrently and expect to do any of them well. In fact, trying to multitask can sap up to 40% of your productivity. So stop. At the end of each day, create your list of work to be done the following day, ideally arranged from most to least important. Then start doing the work, once step at a time. Supporting tech: here, the goal is to put down the tech while you focus on the work in front of you. But technology can also help you do this – try one of these 10 apps that fight distraction and support concentration.

Email management. Technology and principle are inextricably linked here. Managing email, instead of allowing it to manage you, is crucial for setting up a productive workflow. Simple steps: don’t work with your email open all day; check email only at set times during the day; reply immediately if doing so will take two minutes or less; get email out of the inbox once you’ve acted on it. Supporting tech: I use Boomerang to set automatic reminders for responding to email (or to remind me if someone has failed to respond to my email). Inbox zero is an unattainable myth, but with Boomerang I can keep my inbox under control.

Some final words of advice: If you spend more time trying to make the tech work, or fit in your desired workflow, ditch it. And don’t adopt new tech unless it truly solves a problem you’re having.

links i like.

It’s already Friday again! And you know what that means …

The links:

One of the best PowerPoints on how not to use PowerPoint (or any other slide/presentation software) appears here. Read this. Live it.

How to handle these 6 types of people who are really hard to talk to.

This doesn’t apply to all lawyers. But I know quite a few who need to read this and do what it says.

I may struggle with forgetfulness every once in a while. Knowing how memory works is helpful.

Success is a process – five steps.

Apparently we shouldn’t delegate the rote work to technology, as it turns out we’re happiest doing the mindless tasks.?

If I had an iPad Air, I’d grab at least one of these cases.

An 8-step process to writing blog posts that don’t suck.

I kind of like making my way slowly through a book. But this way to read faster, more, better [?] is interesting.

A list of iPad apps for litigators: jury selection, pre-trial, and trial apps.

an antidote.

Throw a stone online and you’ll hit an article discussing how unhappy and depressed lawyers are. I’ve written about it here, as well.

What’s the antidote? There likely are many. Sleep more. Eat better. Exercise. Meditate. Stop being a lawyer.

One I’ve been practicing for awhile now is gratitude. If you’ve read many of my posts you may note I tend to write only about those things that really excite me. The practice of gratitude is one of those things.

Interested in exploring gratitude and what it can bring to your life? Try these exercises from Martin Seligman (psychologist in the study of happiness and author of Flourish – a recommended read).

THE GRATITUDE VISIT.

Close your eyes. Call up the face of someone still alive who years ago did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who you never properly thanked; someone you could meet face-to-face next week. Got a face?

Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them. But sometimes our thank you is said so casually or quickly that it is nearly meaningless. In this exercise … you will have the opportunity to experience what it is like to express your gratitude in a thoughtful, purposeful manner.

Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person. The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words: be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life. Let her know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing! Once you have written the testimonial, call the person and tell her you’d like to visit her, but be vague about the purpose of the meeting; this exercise is much more fun when it is a surprise. When you meet her, take your time reading your letter.

I did this with a former teacher of mine. It was by far one of the most amazing and humbling experiences I’ve ever had. It’s an incredible gift to both people involved.

THE THREE GRATITUDES. 

This one is perhaps less daunting. Commonly called the “three blessings,” I call it the “three gratitudes.”

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).

Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause … “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”

Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier.

I practice the three gratitudes somewhat religiously. I used to blog about them, and now keep a written journal. My family and I often do it together at the dinner table. No money-back guarantees offered, but I can attest that this is a powerful way to retrain your brain to focus first on the positive.

And not to state the obvious, but we lawyers are paid to focus on the negative. We spend our days mired in it. The reason I left litigation? Because, always and every time, and even after getting the client exactly what she wanted at the outset, everyone involved was miserable from the experience. Including me. The negative was overwhelming.

In my experience, it requires thoughtful, intentional, and consistent effort to combat the negative. One antidote: the regular practice of gratitude. Give it a go. Let me know what you think.

squirrels support the creative process!

image

Questions I’ve pondered often: does technology really support me, my goals, my practice, my creative efforts? Or does it distract me more than support me?

As in: “Look! A squirrel!” I feel that’s often my reaction when I learn of a new app or digital toy I must play with. I get distracted, run off (and away from my present work), and chase it.

The perspective offered in this article  by Greg Satell helped me identify the context for answering these queries. Or maybe not even asking them anymore.

The answer: technology (aka my “squirrel”) does support me, my goals, my creativity. When used to do so. What’s important to understand is how technology functions to support what and how you create, no matter how defined.

Because we all create. Even lawyers stuck in rather dull, uninspired practices create. May I suggest that leveraging technology to handle the dull and uninspiring minutiae may even open up the wellspring of creativity in your practice? Yep.

The Creative Process. Satell offers the following three steps as key to this process:

1. Forming intent. You have a purpose, a problem to solve, a goal to reach. This process of forming an intent to create is inherently human.

2. Searching the domain. As a student of your craft, you search your domain — your toolbox of techniques, approaches and philosophies — to create solutions, combinations, purpose.

3. Tangling hierarchies. When you synthesize across domains [discovering and/or creating connections among the seemingly unrelated], creation rises to the level of innovation.

image

So where does technology fit in? A few spots, actually.

Eliminating barriers to creative excellence. Access to new knowledge and information contributes to our creative toolbox. As Satell observes, “The sum total of human knowledge is merely a few clicks away.” Searching this technologically flat Earth makes it much easier, and more likely, that we’ll discover just the connection(s) we seek to create (and perhaps even innovate).

This applies to everything we do, really, but isn’t it absolutely apropos to the practice of law? With so many rich (and mostly free) legal resources online , barriers to discovery in the legal realm are almost non-existent. Not to mention the sheer volume of information about pretty much anything else you may need to know, floating about on the internet, just waiting for you to find it.

Simulating failure. Great work is the result of producing a lot of work. Because a lot of it isn’t going to be great. But the more work you do, the greater the chance you’ll do the great work. Lower the cost of producing the work? It’s easier (and cheaper) to produce lots of it. Lots of it will fail. But the cost to do so can be minimized, if not nearly eliminated, by using the right technology. So we’re encouraged to increase output, thereby leading to a greater likelihood of achieving greater creative success.

I think most every human has a natural aversion to failure. Us lawyers? Especially so. We’re programed (if not hardwired) to be right. All of the time. Technology gives us some breathing room. Using the right software, for example, we can analyze, project, predict. With ease and speed. We can work out options, test them, experience virtual failure. Before we create the bestcourse of action for the client. Whew, isn’t that a relief?

Rise of the creative class. Satell posits that creativity is becoming a daily part of work life for all of us: “The man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the hipster with spiky hair and tattoos.” How so? Because technology is taking over the rote, the mundane, the stuff that can be turned into a tech-driven process precisely because it doesn’t rely on the inherently human act of creativity. So what’s left? The work that does.

Yes, even in the staid, traditional legal profession. (Though the tattoos likely will remain concealed under the gray flannel.) Why? Because technology is taking over a lot of the rote stuff for us, too. And freeing up our time and mental energy to focus on the really creative part of solving legal problems. By automating documents, processes, internal and external systems, your brain is involved less in that and more in the part that only a trained human brain can do.

The dangers? I like that technology frees my brain. I know I do better work because I have the tools (and information they provide) at my disposal. But I know that technology can give us a false sense of security and confidence, too. Automate too much, make everything a process, remove yourself from it, and the creative opportunities start to flatten out. You may end up being less creative then you were before technology stepped in to help.

And we aren’t entirely free of the squirrel effect. Every day, some new app comes along, offering to help you do something better, faster, easier. That new app may be great. Maybe you should take the time and mental energy to explore it. Or maybe you should ask if the problem it solves is one that you need to fix? If the answer is not really, then ignore the squirrel. Stick with the one you have. The right squirrels are what you seek, not the shiny new ones.

on receiving criticism.

image

Criticism sucks. Would you agree? In my experience, most folks do. It’s not particularly fun or enjoyable. It’s perceived as negative. It makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s tough on our tender lawyer egos.

So we avoid it. Both accepting it and giving it (at least effectively).

But it’s also an incredibly effective communication and personal growth tool. You ignore this power at your own peril.

Following up on yesterday’s brief post, I’m interested in exploring criticism precisely because it is both so important and so avoided.

The power lies in our ability to transform the negative feelings criticism elicits into positive results. Perhaps not easy, but definitely not impossible.

An inspiration? This article suggests we look to the Japanese martial art Aikido, which has a single goal: defend yourself and simultaneously protect your attacker from injury. A practitioner of Aikido does something amazing when faced with an attack: he incorporates its energy and momentum and redirects it. Without hurting the attacker.

Sounds like a crazy-effective communication technique, doesn’t it? Yes!

Here’s how it works: when you’re “attacked” with criticism (from your boss, co-worker, a client, your spouse, etc.), have the presence of mind to defend yourself without harming the underlying relationship with the criticizing party. Then, look for (and at) the underlying truth in the criticism, and not just how it’s being delivered. Learn from this.

Try these four steps:

1. Determine the purpose of the criticism. If constructive, then move on to step 2. If destructive (intended solely to focus on your shortcomings and very clearly violating this rule of criticism), IGNORE.

2. Analyze the validity of the criticism. Really wrap your mind around what is being said to you. Is there anything there that’s valid and that you should adopt?

3. Define the corrective action (if needed): If purpose and validity considerations warrant, then figure out how to correct and just do it. As importantly, if you’ve concluded that no corrective action is needed, then explain this (and why) to the criticizing party.

4. Learn from the critique. Think about what you learned through the corrective action and consider this an additional tool for being a better lawyer, spouse, parent, friend. Learn from it, as it probably will apply in future situations.

[Go here for the source of these suggestions, as well as some additional tips. Such as: don’t waste time getting angry, especially if the criticism is a negative personal attack. MOVE ON.]

Giving effective criticism is as much an art as receiving it. Stay tuned for more on that topic.

extensions make life online better.

That little line of icons above? Some of my current Chrome extensions — integrated little extra features and functionalities that make online life better. (Other browsers offer extensions, too, but I’m focusing on Chrome as that’s my browser of choice.)

Following is a list of a few favorites (in no particular order) I shared recently at the Tennessee Bar Association’s Tech unConference. With one addition — OneTab, which I just discovered.

OneTab: click its icon and your current open tabs are converted to a list that you can click on individually to reopen, or reopen all at any time. Saves a lot of memory to collapse tabs if you’re a tab hoarder like me. 🙂

Evernote Web Clipper: instantly clip content from any webpage into a designated Evernote notebook, including notes and tags. I click this little elephant icon dozens of times daily, easy.

Feedly: feedly is an RSS aggregator — you can “save” the feeds of all your favorite online information sources (e.g. blogs) and the posts appear instantly in your feedly account, which can be accessed via the extension.

Pocket: Pocket’s extension is another web clipper that saves anything (articles, images, video clips) from the web into your Pocket account for reading later (accessible online and syncs with desktop and smart device apps).

Clearly: by Evernote, Clearly simplifies the look of any webpage to improve readability — a great tool when you land on a webpage full of banner ads and popups, as it eliminates all of these focusing only on the content you want to consume.

AdBlock Plus: blocks ads on most websites.

After the Deadline: adds a spell, style and grammar checker to any webpage — crucial if you draft emails, social media posts, or other content online.

Boomerang for Gmail: use this extension to schedule messages to be sent or returned to at a later date.

Disconnect: blocks otherwise invisible websites that track your search and browsing history – improves site load time, stops tracking of 1,000s of sites, and encrypts data you share with major sites.

Enlocked: encrypts outgoing email messages (with Gmail and Google Apps).

Google Voice: make calls, send SMS and more via your browser.

iDoc: an internet in-page editor, allowing you to edit any webpage and save it.

If you’re not using extensions already, hopefully something on this list will inspire you to investigate. You can find (lots) more in the Google Chrome Store. Or look for these in the Firefox or Safari extension stores if you’re not a Chrome user.

Have a favorite extension that I didn’t mention? I’m an extension hoarder, too. So I’d love to know about it. Comments always welcome.