Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less concerned about the later than the former. Space we can recover, lost time never.
Last week, I wrote about how, once I was faced with monitoring of 50-odd class actions at once, I wound up developing a memo for each case that I could use to keep track of what was going on. There’s a second issue with running 50 cases at once, however. You have to find the time to do everything you need to do. And that’s a lot of stuff. At the time, I mentioned this problem to a friend, who recommended a book that wound up changing my approach to managing all of these cases: Getting Things Done by David Allen.
Getting Things Done ("GTD" to its adherents, of whom there are many), is one method of tracking and actually doing all of the things on those endless to-do lists that make up complex litigation. And Allen’s system relies on a number of ideas that are pretty simple, but still very powerful case (and life) management techniques. Among the most helpful:
Mind Like Water. This, according to Allen is the goal of getting things done. As he puts it:
In karate there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: "mind like water." Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.
For many litigators, this state of mind is where the best arguments come from, as well as the best strategies. Sometimes we achieve this by locking our doors so no one can disturb us. What Allen shoots for is more about making sure that at any given moment, the mind is clear of all of the internal distractions.
Ubiquitous Capture. Those distractions have to go somewhere, though. Mind like water doesn’t work very well if you keep missing your conference calls. So write down everything you have to do. No, seriously. Everything. As Allen puts it:
The big difference between what I do and what others do is that I capture and organize 100 percent of my ‘stuff’ in and with objective tools at hand, not in my mind. And that applies to everything–little or big, personal or professional, urgent or not. Everything.
(Second emphasis in original.) Allen recommends the first time someone does this, they block out several hours and bring a ream of typing paper. Because most busy people (including litigators) have to do a lot. And not just at the office. We also have to remember to buy groceries, pick up the kids from soccer practice, and get our oil checked. Not to mention plan the vacation we so desperately need. Writing it all down means having no voicemails, no outstanding emails, and no assortment of weird post-its.
The Two-Minute Rule. Within the first two minutes of writing down something, you should do it, defer it, or delegate it. If it will take less than two minutes, do it. If someone else can do it better (like your admin assistant or an associate), delegate it. If you need some time to do it, defer it to when you have time.
"Even if the item is not a "high priority" one, do it now if you’re ever going to do it at all. The rationale for the two-minute rule is that that’s more or less the point when it starts taking longer to store and track an item than to deal with it the first time it’s in your hands–in other words, it’s the efficiency cutoff. If the thing’s not important enough to be done, throw it away. If it is, and if you’re going to do it sometime, the efficiency factor should come into play."
(Emphasis in original.) I should admit, I’m terrible at this one. You can ask my wife. But every time I use it, things get done faster.
Next Actions. Too many of us write to-do lists that make no sense when we read them over later. And then we skip the tasks that require too much thought. Part of GTD is writing down the actions you need to take on a given project.
This may sound obvious. However, it might amaze you to discovery how many next actions for how many projects and commitments remain undetermined by most people. It’s extremely difficult to manage actions you haven’t identified or decided on. Most people have dozens of things that they need to do to make progress on many fronts, but they don’t yet know what they are. And the common complaint that "I don’t have time to" (fill in the blank) is understandable because many projects seem overwhelming–and are overwhelming because you can’t do a project at all! You can only do an action related to it.
(Emphasis in original.) So, as I write a brief, instead of writing "Outline brief," I wind up having tasks like "Draft commonality section, focus on MD v. Perry," or "Draft book review post on why more lawyers don’t use Martin Redish." That way, when I come back to the task later, I know what I’m supposed to be doing. (Incidentally, identifying all of the "next actions" involved in a case? That’s the basics behind legal project management.)
Contexts. Not all work gets done in the same place. Some gets done in front of the computer. Some gets done on the phone. Some work is just errands. So, for each place that one can get things done, have a list for that context: "@computer," "@phone," "@errands."
As I’ve said, you should always organize your action reminders by context–"Calls," "At Home," "At Computer," "Errands," "Agenda for Joe," "Agenda for Staff Meeting," and so on. Since context is the first criterion that comes into play in your choose of actions, context-sorted lists prevent unnecessary reassessments about what to do.
In other words, when you’re somewhere you can be productive, you don’t need to sift through twenty projects to bang something out, you just use the context list.
Continuous Review. Here’s the other tricky part, at least for me: that big overhaul list? Do that every week. As Allen argues:
The Weekly Review will also sharpen your intuitive focus on your important projects as you deal with the flood of new input and potential distractions coming at you the rest of the week. You’re going to have to learn to say no–faster, and to more things–in order to stay afloat and comfortable. Having some dedicated time in which to at least get up to the project level of thinking goes a long way toward making that easier.
Allen recommends Friday afternoons; I personally prefer Sunday mornings (my wife’s a later sleeper).
Let’s be clear. I have never–no matter how hard I’ve tried–worked this system perfectly. But then, so many of those who use it never have. And that’s OK. The real issue here is whether one can find principles in this book that can help them with case management.
And I will say this: even implemented sporadically and imperfectly (which is the way I do it), my experience is that GTD works pretty darned well. Since that moment of panic years ago, I’ve kept up my legal work, published a book, contracted to write a few others, started a blog, begun speaking more on class-action issues, and moved overseas. I’ve mentioned before, I am not a naturally organized person. Those kinds of extra projects would have killed me without some system to keep everything straight. Every good strategy requires good logistics. And that’s what makes GTD such a great tool for managing complex litigation.