What You Really Need is a Don’t-Do List

What’s a don’t-do list? It’s a list of 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 for a specified time period).

Creating a don’t-do list doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to take time to write an actual list, but it is a conceptual reminder that you need to first identify habits, behaviors, and tasks that are time wasters or reduce your productivity and then constantly reevaluate what you’re doing and how you’re doing it to make sure that the tasks you undertake are serving you, your firm, and your clients. If you need a physical reminder to stop engaging in those behaviors or taking on those tasks, by all means make a list and refer to it.

Narrow Your Options

Law school trains lawyers to spot issues, but this issue-spotting behavior 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, and this hampers lawyers by creating too many distractions.

Have you ever been to a restaurant with a huge menu and found it so overwhelming that you ended up just ordering a burger because there were too many choices? The same thing happens with an overwhelming to-do list; it is so massive that it’s easier to do the familiar or return to reactive mode, even if the resulting tasks are not priorities. The don’t-do list counteracts this by narrowing your options so that you’re not overwhelmed by so many choices every time something new arises.

Having a don’t-do list lets you identify tasks you don’t want to do or that you shouldn’t be doing because they distract you and 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 distracts you from the main goals that you want to accomplish belongs on the list. The don’t-do list can come into play in a variety of areas in your practice: in the choice of day-to-day activities, your selection of clients or matters, or even which matters you should respond to first.

Take, for example, one of Allison’s clients, 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 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.

Your don’t-do list may also include certain types of clients. Another lawyer finally fired a client who was difficult from the very first meeting; she finally drew the line when the client began treating her abusively. She’s added abusive clients to her don’t-do list. Now when she sees one coming, she just says 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 they might bring in just isn’t worth it. She is saving 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, perhaps writing articles, motions, and briefs should go on your don’t-do list. You can create a “go-to” list, including copywriters, contract lawyers, and others whom you can rely upon to do the work for you, or delegate the task to someone else in the firm with excellent writing skills and, if necessary, simply provide final approval. Then you can focus your energies on trying cases, giving seminars or presentations, or other activities where you can showcase your speaking skills.

Some marketing activities may belong on your don’t-do list. Consider the solo lawyer who belongs to so many networking groups that he’s at a networking event every day, sometimes two or three a day. That means he’s at his office late into the night and every single weekend handling his regular work. As a long-term strategy, this might not be the best for him or his family. Marketing and practice building are very high-value activities for a solo. But they’re only valuable if they are strategic—if they’re putting the solo in front of potential clients or leads, or if the groups or events are ones which the solo is passionate about.

Saying no is an essential part of your don’t-do list. Accepting a request when you’re already overburdened is a mistake. If you’re unable to devote the time and energy necessary to a project or group, your participation can end up working against you by creating a negative impression. 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 your to-do list are more important or more valuable, these “invitations” belong on the don’t-do list.

Although lawyers need to be responsive and accessible to clients, a good don’t-do list might include particular days or times when you’re “off-limits.” Allowing constant interruptions of family or leisure time—including taking work calls at home or on your cell phone—robs you of much-needed recharging and rest, and, as we’ve already seen, it 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 in limine or complete a meal with your family.

Your don’t-do list may also highlight where you need to set boundaries with clients and others. Technology has added to our daily interruptions; smartphones, e-mail, text messages, instant messaging, and the like have contributed to the idea that lawyers are available to clients 24/7. By allowing those interruptions and responding to clients immediately, regardless of where you are and what you’re doing, you reinforce clients’ expectations that you’re always available. Instead, train your clients to expect responses within a specific period of time or within a particular time frame, but set boundaries and limits in the same way you would set them for staff or colleagues. For example, you may want to explain to clients that your office policy is to return all calls within one business day or that you only respond to e-mail in the late afternoon.

Practice areas can also be items to add to 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 who has never seen the inside of a courtroom and a client wants you to try a case, turning down the request or referring it to a colleague who regularly handles such matters is probably the right decision. Compile a list of referral lawyers (to whom you send these cases and who refer cases in your practice areas to you). If you aren’t well versed in a particular area of the law, don’t have the time or resources to learn, or don’t have someone in your firm to help you, you may be asking for more trouble than the case is worth. Having a network of lawyers to whom you can refer cases in other practice areas so you know that clients are well taken care of can assure that you’re meeting clients’ needs while still remaining true to your own goals.

Identifying your “don’t dos” can be an effective tool for managing your time and reducing your stress. Knowing in advance the things you won’t do lets you move on quickly, without wasting 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 of what needs to be done so you can get back to providing great service to your clients.

Do More in Less Time 
This post was adapted from the Law Practice Division’s publication How to Do More in Less Time. In this book, authors Allison Shields and Daniel Siegel share tips for boosting efficiency and improving your bottom line.

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