Law students and lawyers, deluged daily with data, details, and deadlines, are often inclined towards prescriptions and practices for personal and professional productivity.
David Allen’s classic Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2001), which spawned numerous “GTD”-related websites, begins from the premise that “Most people walk around with their [short-term memory] bursting at the seams. They’re constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload.”
Allen identifies, diagrams, and discusses sequentially “five separate stages” of working, which he recommends implementing at least weekly:
“We (1) collect things that command our attention; (2) process what they mean and what to do about them; and (3) organize the results, which we (4) review as options for what we (5) do.”
GTD’s reassuring system and structures might not contain many revelations, but could well repay regular rereading. Allen’s principles remain relevant, and could easily be adopted and/or adapted, in an increasingly-digital environment.
Among Allen’s advice:
● “It’s. . . just a great habit to date everything you hand-write. . . The 3 percent of the time that this little piece of information will be extremely useful makes it worth developing the habit.”
● “Whenever you come across something [in hard copy that] you want to keep, make a label for it, put it in a file folder, and tuck that into your filing drawer. . . . [I]f you can’t get it into your system immediately, you’re probably not ever going to.”
● When processing an item, determine the “next action” related to it. “If the next action can be done in two minutes or less, do it when you first pick the item up. . . . If you have a long open window of time in which to process your in-basket, you can extend the cutoff for each item to five or ten minutes.”
Getting Things Done frequently features lists (including examples and enumerations of categories of other listable items): current projects; next actions; “someday/maybe” initiatives; action reminders and “incompletion triggers”; elements of a “Weekly Review”; helpful office supplies; physical areas to organize; and, six levels of perspective on one’s work (Current actions; Current projects; Areas of responsibility; One- to two-year goals; Three- to five-year visions; and, Life).
For a specifically hard-copy-based system of productivity, many have turned to Ryder Carroll’s The Bullet Journal Method (2018), presented as “a way to stem the tide of digital distractions [and] an analog solution that provides the offline space needed to process, to think, and to focus.”
Like Allen (who offers detailed instructions for “corralling your ‘stuff’” and then conducting a “mind-sweep”), Carroll invites readers to take an initial inventory (of “all the things you are presently working on”; “all the things you should be working on”; and, “the things you want to be working on”).
Not everyone might employ his various “signifiers and custom bullets” (symbols such as dashes, < , > , and ◦) to designate and distinguish Tasks, Events, Notes, and other information entered.
Moreover, the “journal” aspect of Carroll’s method is extremely abbreviated, because “Not having to articulate the complexity of an experience makes it much more likely for us to write it down. That’s the most important part: to have a record.” (One example: “Signed the lease. Yay!”) Similarly short are sample “notes” about aspects of pending, or completed, events.
The full Bullet Journal system, which some might consider overly elaborate, includes “four core Collections: the Daily Log (compiled as the day progresses; as with Allen’s approach, “The idea is to be consistently unburdening your mind”); the Monthly Log (prepared before the month begins, and added to during the month); the Future Log (which “stores entries that have specific dates that fall outside of current month”); and the Index, which contains lists of previous page references, organized by topic.
Whatever one’s preferred mechanics of time management, the expansive—and often counterintuitive—philosophy of Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021) should be a sobering, but also refreshing, companion.
Burkeman’s title refers to the human lifespan; and his introduction, “In the Long Run, We’re All Dead,” summarizes the book’s theme:
“Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.’”
Burkeman counsels readers to acknowledge their limitations; to disregard FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out), since no one can travel every road; and to resist the temptation to keep one’s options endlessly open (instead, “deliberately mak[e] big, daunting, irreversable commitments, which you can’t know in advance will turn out for the best, but which reliably prove more fulfilling in the end”).
He recommends that readers pursue hobbies (“it’s fine, and perhaps preferable, to be mediocre at them”); “develop a taste for having problems” rather than fantasizing about a friction-free future; patiently proceed through “the trial-and-error phase of copying others, learning new skills, and accumulating experience”; work steadily and incrementally on large projects; and, to “strengthen the muscle of patience” and sustain long-term productivity, “be willing to stop when your daily [scheduled] time is up, even when you’re bursting with energy and feel as though you could get much more done.”
Burkeman’s closing advice is to “Practice doing nothing,” even for only a few minutes at a time, which will help you “begin to regain your autonomy—to stop being motivated by the attempt to evade how reality feels here and now, to calm down, and to make better choices with your brief allotment of life.”
In those meditative moments, one might recall the (translated) poem of Zen-influenced haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):
Sitting quietly, doing nothing
And the grass grows by itself.