no more to-do lists.jpg

I’m not an expert on time management. However, the biggest business development obstacle that the lawyers I coach report to me is finding (actually, it’s “making”) time for it. Too often, our weekly progress calls feature a rehashing of action items from the previous week that weren’t completed due to lack of time.

If you Google “time management tips,” or anything similar, embedded somewhere in each of those thousands of articles you’ll find an exhortation to make a To-Do list, or Action list, or whatever label they affix to the same idea.

Some will argue in favor of making the list the night before for the next day. Others, first thing in the morning, when you’re freshest. Still others tell you to plan the whole week on Sunday night. Whatever the scheme, a list will be involved.

I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that everyone makes To-Do lists. They’re easy. Too easy, and mostly useless.

To-Do lists are your enemy

There are lots of reasons to eschew To-Do lists. Among them:

  • The process of writing down chores, errands, and action items may feel satisfying, but it’s shortsighted. What happens when you finish today’s to-do list? You make another one.

  • To-do lists are distractions. Writing down an endless list of action items encourages tactical- over strategic thinking and prevents forward progress.

  • There’s no correlation with time-to-complete. Some tasks will take 10 seconds to complete, some will take 10 minutes, and some will take 10 hours. The average person will automatically focus on crossing off the 10-second tasks so he can receive the psychological payoff and dopamine release that comes with it.

  • No context, no hierarchy. The tasks that are most important to you “right now” will take top priority, even if they’re a low priority overall. Simultaneously, the tasks themselves don’t provide any information about the best time to complete the task or how long each task will take.

  • Too many options. The more action items you create, the less likely you are to decide on any one of them. And the less likely you are to take action.

Your calendar is your friend

Instead of adding “Write outline for webinar” to a list, create a calendar entry. That will require you to estimate how long it will take to complete the outline. You might realize that “outline” isn’t a single task, but a macro that needs to be broken up into sub-tasks. For example, “Follow up with contacts from ABC Conference” isn’t a single task. To communicate meaningfully with each person, you’ll have to review notes from your conference encounter, look up the person’s LinkedIn profile, check her company’s website, and any number of other things required to inform your outreach email so it will be relevant and get opened.

It will also cause you to think about the best day and time to do it.

If it requires a lot of creativity or thinking, you’ll want to schedule it for early in the morning when you’re fresh, or whatever time of day you’re at your best. You’ll also consider the effect that other calendar entries have on it. For example, you won’t schedule something that requires original thinking right after a meeting that you know will be contentious or energy-sapping.

Don’t break the chain

Someone asked Jerry Seinfeld for the best advice he could give a young comic. Seinfeld said the best way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the best way to create better jokes was to write every day and the best way to get better at anything was to do it a little bit each day.

Seinfeld revealed his system for pressuring himself to write every day. The system, later known as the “don’t break the chain” technique, involves a large wall calendar and a big red marker. The key to the system is marking a big red “X” on the calendar for each day that you write, or work on your skill. As the number of red “X’s” increases, the pressure to not break the chain also increases.

It’s like a sports team’s pressure to sustain a winning streak one more game. This is the same idea behind the signs you see in industrial plants or on construction sites showing the number of days since the last workplace injury. Nobody wants to be the one to stop the winning streak.


Prioritizing biz dev

The most important system to modify, though, is the one in your head. The one that causes you to relegate business development to second- or third-tier status, squeezing it in whenever you have extra time. Every busy lawyer knows that “extra time” is a laughable concept.

So, why entrust your most critical business function to a principle that, in practical terms, doesn’t exist? And, yes, I’ll argue that BD is your most critical business function because if you don’t have enough business, everything else that you allow yourself to think is so important is going to go away before long.

Blank Time blocks

To make sure you allocate time for BD, get it into your calendar before you fill it up with everything you’re in the habit of prioritizing higher. Decide on a weekly BD time budget that you’ll commit to. And, please, don’t make it a grudging hour or two. That’s not going to get it done. If you’re not spending an absolute minimum of an hour per day in prime time, and another in off hours, you’re kidding yourself.

Create blank 30- and 60-minute time blocks throughout the week. These are appointments with your most important client -- you -- to assure your future, so add reminder alerts just as you’d do with any other appointment. Anything you would have added to a To-Do list should instead go into one of these blocks. If it can’t be done in an hour, break it up.

Outcome-oriented labels

These appointments should have a useful description and agenda that relates to the intended outcome. Avoid meaningless descriptions like “follow up,” in favor of “Create email that motivates Ms. Prospect to agree to a call with me about [issue].” That will enable you to assess how much time it will take. Otherwise, when that appointment arises, you’ll waste a portion of it thinking about what “follow up” means, and what you should do. Make that decision when you populate the appointment block with your specifics. Then, you can get right to it.

Let’s say that you do all this in response to having met and collected biz cards from 10 people at a conference you attended. If you’re struggling to define the follow-up action in useful terms, it’s a reliable indicator that you need to change how you interact at the conference so that next steps are explicit. Or, maybe it means that you shouldn’t go to that conference at all because the right people aren’t there, and you’re trying to manufacture meaningful interaction out of whole cloth.

Stop making lists that delude you into feeling like you’re doing something about BD, and begin making appointments with yourself to take specific actions to produce specific outcomes that further your aims.

Mike O’Horo