Tired of Overloaded Schedules? Maybe It’s Time to Create a ‘Don’t Do List’

  • October 16, 2014
  • Allison Shields

Another day, another five million things on the “to do” list. Most days, nothing even gets crossed off the list because too many other things come up — phone calls, unanticipated client problems, a last-minute emergency that must be handled today. And at the end of the day, has anything of value been accomplished?

You think you’re organized because you’ve got a “to do” list — you’ve thought about what you want to get done, and you’ve got it all planned out. But somehow, it just never works out. The problem might not be your “to do” list — it might be that you need a “don’t do” list.

What’s a “don’t do” list? It’s all the things you shouldn’t be doing, the things that could be delegated to someone else or outsourced. The “don’t do” list also includes all of the things you completely let go — things that can be eliminated entirely (or eliminated for a specified time period).

Clearing the distractions

As lawyers, we’re so preoccupied with how much needs to get done: always on the go, rushing from one thing to the next to the next. And while we’re busy doing the first thing on our list, ten other things crop up, or we’re thinking about what we need to do as soon as we’re done with what we’re working on. It’s frustrating, exhausting and ultimately, unproductive.

Law school trains lawyers to spot issues, but this issue-spotting behaviour isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to run a law practice. In fact, it often leads to “analysis paralysis” — every issue must be at least considered, if not addressed, creating too many distractions. In effect, the “don’t do” list narrows your options so that you’re not overwhelmed by so many choices every time something new arises.

A “don’t do” list lets you identify from the outset the kinds of things you don’t want to do, or just shouldn’t be doing because they prevent you from accomplishing more important tasks. If it’s already on the “don’t do” list, it’s easy to immediately recognize it and move on to more productive endeavors.

How do you decide what goes on the “don’t do” list? Anything that diverts you from the goals you want to accomplish belongs there. The “don’t do” list can come into play in many areas in your practice: your choice of day-to-day activities, your selection of clients or matters, or even what matters you should respond to first.

I had one client, the managing partner of a four-lawyer firm, who felt it was her obligation to open the mail every day, so

she could be on top of what was going on at the firm. But the time it took for her to open and sort the mail was time away from her other, more valuable duties.

When she finally used her “don’t do” list and gave the job of opening and sorting the mail to her receptionist, she reclaimed a lot of billable time. Now she can breeze through the already opened, date-stamped and sorted mail and still keep current.

It’s not just tasks

Your “don’t do” list could also include certain types of clients. A friend of mine recently fired a client who was difficult from the moment she first met him, and she finally drew the line when he began treating her abusively. She’s since added abusive clients to her “don’t do” list. Now when she sees one coming, she’ll just say no.

She won’t add to her stress level by dealing with clients who don’t respect her and don’t value her work. The money that client might bring in just isn’t worth it. She has saved herself endless hours of worry and unproductive activity, because dealing with that abusive client was distracting, even when she was working with other clients.

Think about your strengths and weaknesses when making your “don’t do” list. If you’re a great speaker but a poor writer, maybe writing articles, motions, briefs, etc. should go on your “don’t do” list. You can use a ghostwriter, hire a contract lawyer to do the writing for you, or give the task to someone else in the firm with excellent writing skills. Then you can focus your energies on litigating cases, giving seminars or making presentations where you can showcase your speaking skills.

Some marketing activities might also belong on your “don’t do” list. One solo I know belongs to so many networking groups that he’s at a networking event every day, sometimes two or three times daily. That means he’s at his office late into the night and every single weekend handling his regular work.

Marketing and practice building are very high-value activities for a solo to perform. But they’re only valuable if they’re strategic — if they’re putting you in front of potential clients or leads, or if the groups or events are ones about which you’re passionate.

Make room for yourself

Saying “no” is an essential part of your “don’t do” list. If you don’t say “no” to a request when you’re already overburdened, you’re making a mistake. If you can’t devote the time and energy necessary to a project or group, your participation can end up working against you by creating a negative impression. (see sidebar, p. X)

Evaluate which groups or activities will be the most beneficial to you, or to the people or causes you’re supporting. Limit your participation to the most valuable events or organizations. You can get more value for less time, energy and stress. If the things already on the “to do” list are more important or more valuable, these “invitations” belong on the “don’t do” list.

Although we need to be responsive and accessible to our clients, a good “don’t do” list might include particular days or times when you’re “off limits.” Allowing constant interruptions for family or leisure time not only robs you of much-needed recharging and rest, but is a disservice to clients who are only getting part of your attention.

The same goes for interruptions of important business or client-related activities. It’s rare that clients have a real emergency that can’t wait an hour or two for you to finish preparing your motion or complete a meal with your family.

Know your limitations

Practice areas can also be on your “don’t do” list. If your practice focuses on family law and a client brings you a medical malpractice case, or if you’re a transactional lawyer and you’re asked to try a case, turning it down is almost certainly the right decision. If you aren’t well-versed in the particular area of the law, don’t have the time or resources to learn, or don’t have someone to help you, you may be asking for more trouble than taking the case on is worth.

A ready network of lawyers to whom you can refer cases in other practice areas, so that you know these clients are well taken care of, can assure that you’re meeting your clients’ needs while still remaining true to your own goals.

Identifying the “don’t dos” can be an effective tool for managing your time and reducing your stress. Knowing in advance what you won’t do lets you move quickly, without wasting additional time analyzing everything that comes to your attention.

The “don’t do” list also reminds you to ask for help in the areas that aren’t your strengths, so you can focus your efforts on what you do best and what brings the most value to your clients and to your life. It allows you to let go of the idea that you can do everything and be everything to everyone. It’s a shorthand way of cutting through all the clutter, so you can get back to providing great service to your clients.

This article was first published in March 2007 issue of National magazine.

Allison C. Shields is the New York-based president of Legal Ease Consulting (http://legalease.blogs.com/). She has been a practising lawyer for 14 years and currently helps small to mid-sized law firms get the most value out of their billable hours and to attract better clients (631) 642-0221.