English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously wrote in his poem Leviathan that, “Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That is a startling clear sentiment, both powerful and scary… Um, sorry. This has absolutely nothing to do with today’s “Ten Things” post. Just got off on a tangent here. Let me start over…
I have always been able to get a lot of things done in a day. I never really thought much about it. I just assumed everyone was the same. Over time I realized that was not the case. Everyone has a different ability or capacity to get things done in a day or a week or a month. I just happened to be really good at it. I was never really sure why. I certainly wasn’t the smartest person in the room – though I know now that being smart has little to do with it. It isn’t because my concentration abilities surpass those of mere mortals. I get as distracted by things as the next person. Nope, I could never put my finger on it. Then a few years back I came upon an interview with time-management author Laura Vanderkam. She led off with this statement, “Small things done consistently add up to big things.” It was literally as though someone had turned on the lights in the room. I had not been bitten by a radioactive spider. I had no secret superpower. I had simply stumbled upon the productive power of “little things!” This edition of “Ten Things” discusses what this is and how in-house counsel can harness it to get things done:
1. Letting problems fester. Let’s start with the problem – one we are all guilty of, i.e., letting problems fester because they seem too large or painful or too numerous to tackle. This can paralyze even the best of us, keeping us from getting other things (or anything) done because everything feels dwarfed by the giant mountain of indecision as to how to get going. My approach to big or numerous problems has always been not to focus on solving the whole thing today, but to find some part of it I can accomplish right now and worry about the rest later. To me, it made sense that if I can get one piece done everything else starts to fall into place as well. Or, as Professor Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School more eloquently states it:
“Small wins can give people an enormous boost emotionally, and can really raise their level of intrinsic motivation for what they’re doing and lead to creativity. So in one of our studies, as we analyzed these data, we found that if people are experiencing progress in their work, they’re much more likely to feel emotionally positive about themselves and about what they’re doing. Under those conditions, they’re more likely to come up with a creative idea.”
I had not thought of it as small wins, but she is exactly right. Amabile refers to these small wins as the “Progress Principle,” building on the notion that the single most important thing to boost the inner-life of work (i.e., motivation, perception, etc.) is making progress – of any kind – in meaningful work. The momentum generated by accomplishing something, even if small progress, will, over time, create enough force to solve the problem. Or, as the proverb goes, “constant drops of water break the stone.” I put it this way, “People feel good about work when they get shit done.”
2. The “Domino Effect.” The authors of the book, The ONE Thing, use dominoes to show the power of small wins, of getting one little thing started. They discuss the fact that a single domino is capable of knocking down an object 50% bigger than itself, referring to a study whereby a scientist used eight pieces of plywood to create different size dominos (each 50% larger than the one preceding it). The first domino was two inches tall. The last was three feet tall and went down with a loud bang once the first domino unleashed its mighty superpower of falling onto something bigger than itself. If you take this 50% larger geometric progression out to its logical extreme a single 2 inch-high domino will ultimately grow to dwarf the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower, and Mt. Everest. It becomes unstoppable. And, if you start each day finding the first domino – no matter how small – and giving it a push, i.e., getting something done, good things happen. “The key is over time. Success is built sequentially. It’s one thing at a time” or as demonstrated by this illustration from the book:
Image from The ONE Thing, Keller and Papasan.
This is why I – unknowing – landed on starting each day with a simple to-do list of three things. These are my dominoes. If I can give them a push, they knock down other things and big things happen in the end.
3. Let’s make sliders! If you have worked for me you know that one of my favorite sayings is “Hey, gang. We don’t have to make the world’s largest cheeseburger here to get this done. Let’s just make a few sliders and move on!” Just something I came up with to illustrate what I wanted my team to understand: get small bits done and the larger bit will resolve itself. I didn’t realize then that I was playing with small wins or “pushing dominoes,” it just seemed like an effective way to start to solve the problem. For in-house counsel, small wins is a way to be both more productive and get big projects moving. It starts with orienting yourself to two things: (a) the overall goal or problem (the “big”) and (b) the steps needed to accomplish the goal (the “little”). When you figure out what (b) entails (and it doesn’t have to be a perfect list), you know the sliders you have to start to make. These tiny bits are typically easily doable and, over time, add up to more available time, more money, or the pathway to complete a task you were dreading because it seemed too big or too complicated to take on.
4. Time. Early in my legal career, I realized the value of maximizing small amounts of time (perhaps due to keeping track of my law firm work-life in increments of (.1)). Simply put, small amounts of time add up to large amounts. For example, if I can reduce the amount of time I spend in meetings by one hour a week, that is four hours per month and 48 hours per year – almost a full work week just by reducing time spent on something I don’t like that much anyway (see my blog post on Escaping Meeting Hell). Likewise, if I can reduce the time I spend on emails by 15 minutes a day just by unsubscribing to all the junky emails I normally waste time looking at before deleting them, that is 1.25 hours per week, five hours per month, and 60 hours a year to spend on more productive work (see my post on Slaying the Email Jabberwocky). If I can do just those two things, I get back over 100 hours of my time for a year. Ways to save time are all around you. Take a look at how you are spending your day and your week. What can you “not do?” Those small chunks add up!
5. Tasks. The power of doing little things applies to tasks as easily as it does to time. Here, however, you are focused on accomplishing small bits of a larger project. Let’s say I have seven direct reports and I need to complete annual evaluations for all of them by the end of the month. A typical plan would be to wait until a day or two before they are due and then do them all in one day. Not a terrible strategy other than your ability to find an uninterrupted chunk of time during a single day is handicapped by the one truism all in-house counsel face: whatever you planned on doing today will be blown out of the water by 10:00 am. So, unless you started your reviews at 4:00 a.m., you will likely get one or two done and then realize you are completely screwed on the deadline and will either need to beg for an extension or do a crappy job. Neither is a great outcome. If instead, you had planned on doing one review every other day two weeks before the deadline, odds are very good that – even with the guaranteed interruptions – you would be done in time and had time to do a bang-up job of it. Moreover, you would not feel stressed with having to write seven proper performance reviews in one day. It all comes down to planning and making do with small chunks of time vs. falling for the mirage of having large chunks of uninterrupted time to work with. Another domino tipper is one I call “The Sprint.” The Sprint is literally that, i.e., if I have a window of time (or set one on my calendar), I pick a task and I work like mad on it for that chunk of time and then stop and go onto something else, e.g., a meeting, a call, another project. Let’s say I have 15 minutes before a conference call and I am working on a PowerPoint presentation. Assuming I am not completely unprepared for the call, I have two choices: 1) go get a Diet Coke and a Snickers and wait for the call to start, or 2) pull up the PowerPoint and crank through as many slides as I can in 14 minutes then shut it down and join the call. I almost always go with number two. I can probably spend two hours on the PowerPoint in a day just by sprinting and using small chunks of time when they are available. Try it. You’ll be amazed at what you can get done in just a five or 10-minute sprint!
6. Writing. Writing is a difficult task for many lawyers. In our minds we envision the finished product, so eloquent, so perceptive, so neatly typed up. This, unfortunately, causes many of us to spend way too much time just sitting in front of the blank computer screen trying to come up with the perfect sentence or paragraph. Guess what? You won’t. No one does. That is what second and third drafts are for. To get started, harness the power of little things; all you need to write is one paragraph. Come back later and write another, then another. Over the course of the day or several days, you will have a solid first draft. Then you can spend time editing and revising it – a much easier task. Take this blog post for example. I started with taking 15 minutes to type up some of the introduction and 10 to 15 things I thought would be interesting to talk about. I came back the next day and picked my final 10 and worked for about 60 minutes on three of the ten. The next day, I wrote three more (and did a little bit of editing of the first three). Over the next few days, I wrote the rest. Before I knew it I had 3,000 words down though I never just sat down and wrote 3,000 perfect words. I did not worry if what I was drafting was ready to publish (it wasn’t), I was only concerned with getting bits of it down on paper so later I could work on honing it. Want to write a book? Write 500-600 words a day (or as many as you can during your lunch hour) and stop there. You do that in many of the emails you write each day. In three months you will have 45,000 words, in six months 90,000. That is enough for a book. Create the first domino, give it a shove, and watch the bits and pieces add up.
7. People. If accomplishing small wins generates motivation and progress, it is incumbent on managers, including the general counsel, to recognize and celebrate all wins (even the small ones) of their team. Make this part of your department or staff meetings, 1-on-1 meetings, or even any type of daily message to the team. Reinforcing the importance of small wins is a key strategy to harnessing all the value they can provide. And don’t forget that little things also add up quickly when dealing with people generally. Start with the basics, i.e., always be polite and respectful. Say “please” and “thank you.” Recognize the good work of others and share credit. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Don’t be a butthead. Be true to your word. Be helpful. Don’t be mean-spirited or petty. Remember birthdays and congratulate people on special events or accomplishments. There are more but I know you get the point. None of these things take much effort on your part but the positive impact they have is tremendous and, over time, create and reinforce relationships that you can draw upon when things get tough – these people will want to help you, want to work for you, they will want to promote you, and they will want you working on their cool projects.
8. Financial. Small wins work on the financial side of things too as small amounts of money add up to large amounts of money over time. For example, the Finance team comes knocking on your door one day (never a good thing) and informs you that everyone, staff groups included, must reduce spending. Your target is $100,000.00. For most legal departments this is a good chunk of change. You may have a single $100,000 item you can just cut and be done with it. Typically, this means laying someone off – the absolute worst result in my opinion. Or, you can find small savings from multiple places that add up to $100,000. My preferred path. Can you find a less expensive law firm to do work you had earmarked for a pricier firm? Spending $250 per hour vs. $400 will really add up. Can you spend less on continuing legal education? Probably. So there is more cash in hand. You don’t need to wait on Finance to come knocking to leverage the power of small financial wins. If you plan out carefully, you may be able to pay for that new technology or offsite you have been talking about but never had the single large expenditure earmarked in your budget. Finance generally cares only that you came in at, or below, budget – how you get there is up to you. If so, rethink your priorities, amalgamate small savings and consider a more productive use for our budget. It is a matter of scouring all your financials and finding the small bits.
9. Harness your team. Hopefully, you are starting to buy into the above and seeing the power of little things. If you are a manager of people, imagine what a team can accomplish if everyone is following the same path. It is pretty staggering. Teaching your team to focus on the value generated by just getting something done vs. trying to solve the whole thing, of sprinting when time permits, of shedding unneeded meetings and emails, of finding handfuls of dollars vs. bags of money can be liberating for your team and get everyone rowing full speed ahead. Again, think small. You don’t need to convert your entire team today. Start with one. Then get another. And another. Before long it becomes contagious (in a good, no-mask-required way). People will start to share their ideas and small wins and how they are using these to get more done or solve difficult problems.
10. Resources. Almost all of the above was self-taught. I simply stumbled upon the power of little things by accident. There is now a growing body of research and a self-help industry devoted to the subject (and here I am dishing it out for free). But, if you want to go deeper into the topic than I can go in this blog, here are some additional resources you should check out (* = free):
- Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done – Laura Vanderkam.
- 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think – Laura Vanderkam.
- The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results – Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.
- The Power of Small Wins (Harvard Business Review) – Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.*
- How to Make Your Small Wins Work for You (Ted Talk) – Mehrnaz Bassiri.*
So, as Mr. Gump said, that’s all I have to say about that. The good news is that this is not difficult – to understand or adopt. It is mostly about recognizing the value and power of making small amounts of progress and maximizing small wins. There is no task, assignment, project, presentation, etc. that should strike you as insurmountable. It comes down to just getting started, taking advantage of whatever is most easily available (time, money, etc.), and using it to the fullest extent possible. Go ahead, push over a domino today. It will add up quickly to something really big.
February 26, 2021
Two of my books, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2, are on sale at the ABA website (including as e-books). As the ABA says, “All in-house lawyers better own these books!” Don’t make them come looking for you – buy the books!
“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only. It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers. If you have questions or comments, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 See Daniel Goleman’s great LinkedIn post on “Small Wins” for more: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-small-wins-matter-daniel-goleman/
 If you are not familiar with “sliders” they are a wholly American creation, i.e., the “mini” hamburger. You still end up eating an entire hamburger (and maybe then some) – just in little pieces over the course of the night. Thank you, TGI Friday’s!