Ten Things: Ten Things You Can Do in Ten Minutes (a Productivity Hack for In-House Lawyers)

I had a great time at the global CLOC meeting a couple of weeks ago in Las Vegas.  It was an impressive event.  Huge thanks to the good folks at CLM leader SpotDraft for inviting me to speak on their panel and for making 50(!) copies of my new Showing the Value of the Legal Department book available for free.  I enjoyed the two book signings we did, and I especially enjoyed meeting so many of the CLOC attendees.  I can highly recommend SpotDraft, CLOC, and the global conference for all in-house lawyers.

One question I got a lot from people I met there was “How are you able to get so much done?”  And, as usual, when someone asks me a question, I ponder it and try to answer right away (e.g., being married to the awesome “Mrs. Ten Things” helps a lot when it comes to my getting things done).  I also let questions cook inside my brain for a bit because I know there is usually more to the answer I just gave.  Sure enough, I have been thinking about it a lot over the past two weeks.  And as I sit here on AA Flight 1626 at 30,000 feet, I settled on one skill in particular that I think is truly helpful to me in terms of being able to crank out blogs, books, work, or whatever the case may be; I am really good at making use of small increments of time.  For example, if I have ten minutes before my next work call or meeting starts, I try to find something productive I can accomplish in those ten minutes, i.e., I don’t worry about the hours when there are minutes to be picked up!  As I look back on my time in-house (and now as CEO and Senior Counsel of Hilgers Graben), I see that there are lots of things that I consistently do in ten minutes that add up to a lot of progress (in Latin this is known as “getting shit done”).  Finding ways to productively use small windows of time can be incredibly valuable to you, the department, and the company.  This edition of “Ten Things” shares my list of top things in-house lawyers can get done in ten minutes:

1.  Clean out email/computer.  If I find myself with ten minutes, one valuable task is to open up my Outlook and start cleaning.  This can be just sorting my inbox by name or subject and deleting old emails or moving them to folders if necessary.  But it can also mean getting space back on my laptop, including by going to my “Deleted” emails and sorting by size, and then permanently deleting everything 1MB or more (or just deleting anything “unread”).  Sometimes I just pick an email folder at random and clean up as much as I can in ten minutes.  Another favorite is to unsubscribe to emails.  In ten minutes, you can stop a lot of emails you don’t need from coming into your inbox.  And it feels awesome!  I will also go into my recycle folder or other desktop folder and clean out the junk.  In addition to getting space back on your laptop, it can help you comply with the company’s record retention policy.  Simply put – you can get rid of a lot of useless megabytes in ten minutes.  For more, see my “Ten Things” post on slaying the email Jabberwocky.

2.  Send recognition emails.  When I am not deleting or unsubscribing to emails, I do like to send them.  One of my favorite (and most impactful) things to do is send emails recognizing birthdays or anniversaries, along with significant accomplishments and life events.  Everyone appreciates a little recognition.  Sending thank you emails to people in the company or on my team who really have helped with something is fun too (and copying their managers builds a double dose of goodwill).  You can, in fact, create a lot of goodwill in ten minutes by just saying “Happy Birthday!” or “thank you for your help” or “Congratulations on your daughter’s graduation.”

3.  Create a checklist.  If you have been a longtime reader of the blog or my books, you know I am a big believer in checklists.  They are incredible productivity tools, and yet so simple to create.  You will be amazed at what kind of checklist you can create in ten minutes. If the checklist is complicated, you can also start to create it in ten-minute chunks and build it out over the course of several days or weeks.  I like to start my checklists as an email to myself because it’s so easy to save drafts and easy to pull them back up online or offline (and easy to add the “[ ]” symbol – a mandatory checklist requirement!).  All you need to do is think of a task that you perform regularly (or want to perform more systematically) and start to write out the steps you need to take to ensure you have completed the task properly.  It likely will not be perfect, but you can add, subtract, and edit it over time – whenever you have ten minutes.  You can even – like me – have a checklist of things you can do in ten minutes.  Yes, I am that big of a nerd.

4.  Review outside counsel invoices.  Not one of my all-time favorite tasks, but one that needs to get done.  In the good old days, I kept a stack of paper invoices handy and would take them with me to meetings so if the meeting got delayed or I had some time to kill, I could dig in on reviewing them.  When we got an e-billing system, it was easier to review the electronic versions, but I kept the process of using small increments of time to work my way through them.  If one was particularly challenging, I skipped it and moved on to an easy one (just like I did with math problems on those standardized tests).  My goal was to get as many reviewed and completed in my ten-minute window.

5.  Clean your work area.  If you are sitting at your desk right now, take a look around.  Odds are pretty high that you have stuff strewn about or piled up in no order.  My desk looks like an F-5 tornado hit it.  I have papers, notes, books, pens, vials of some substance, Diet Coke cans, office supplies, chargers, cords, photographs, postcards, and… well, you get the picture.  It’s a mess!  Pigpen would be envious. Ten minutes is the perfect amount of time to straighten things out, put things away, and toss things that I do not need – like all of those articles I have been “going to read” since January.  It’s June, Sterling.  If you haven’t read it by now, does it really matter?  Nope.  Into the recycle bin you go! Be sure to empty the wastebasket, sort your cords, put away books, etc.  No matter if you are at home, at the office, in your car, or wherever, ten minutes of cleanup can lead to a fresh start.  The added benefit of a fresh start is that you will actually feel better if you are not staring at two weeks’ worth of accumulated junk (don’t believe me? Check out this article in the Harvard Business Review).  Toss it.  You’ll like it!

6.  Rethink your calendar.    I have written about “escaping meeting hell.”  One way to make a break to freedom is to regularly clean out your calendar of all of those meetings you never should have accepted in the first place.  In just ten minutes, you can take a hard look at what is on your calendar for the next two weeks and make some important decisions about each meeting, i.e., whether you will decline it, go ahead and attend it, send someone in your place, or send a note to the organizer asking for the agenda and why they need you at the meeting.  You may find they don’t really need you (they wanted someone from the legal department to attend “just in case”) and that is one less meeting you must attend – a huge return on your ten minutes invested.  Just because you’re invited to a meeting, doesn’t mean you have to accept.  Likewise, if you are the organizer of meetings, determine which is your most important upcoming meeting and make sure you have the agenda settled.  Ten minutes is usually all you need to set things out to help ensure an efficient use of everyone’s time.  If you have lunch meetings or dinner meetings, decide if you really want to spend your time that way. You are likely the “client” or the “customer” and if you don’t want to attend or want to change the day, all you need to do is say so.  It’s a glorious feeling to take back control of your day and week!

7.  Think strategically.  A while back, I wrote about how to be a strategic in-house lawyer.  One thing you must do is find think to think about things strategically (I even include a checklist to help the process).  Keep a list of things you’d like to ponder.  If you find yourself with ten minutes, clear your mind of clutter and pick something on your list to mull over.  Use your checklist to walk through the key issues and decide whether you need more time to think about it or if there is an action you should take to advance the ball.  Either way, the more you exercise your strategic thinking skills, the easier and more naturally it will come to you.  And, eventually, you’ll start hitting on things that are truly valuable to the department or the business.

8.  Hone a skill on YouTube.  I know I often sound like a shill for YouTube,[1] but I do believe that it has a lot of very valuable content for in-house lawyers.  There’s a lot of crap on it too but let’s not quibble.  In ten minutes, you can likely find and watch a video that will help you hone a skill, like creating tables in Excel, tips to using Word or Outlook better, how to read a balance sheet, or the basics of critical thinking.  It’s all there and, generally, free of cost.  Even if you have a video that is longer than ten minutes, you can watch part of it and come back to it when you have another window.  Along the left hand side of the YouTube home page, you can find buttons for videos you have liked, subscribe to, saved to watch later, and so on.  Use this to create your own library of short videos to watch when you have a window.  The great thing about YouTube is you can watch the videos anywhere and on any device – making it the perfect ten-minute learning tool.

9.  Create your to-do list of three.  I have a love/hate relationship with to-do lists.  I recognize they have value, i.e., a list of tasks you need to do but they can be a huge time-suck if you spend a lot of time updating them.  If keeping up your to-do list is the number one task on your to-do list you are doing it wrong.  The solution for me was to go with a to-do list of three things.  I start every day thinking about the top three things I need to accomplish.  Sure, there are lots of things that are important, but you cannot do everything.  Seriously, you can’t.  So, what I do is try to figure out the three most important things I can focus on for the day.  Will other things come up?  Sure.  But, if I can keep the majority of my attention on my “Top Three” I am going to get important things done or at least make good progress on them.  It takes me about ten minutes to put it together if I am doing it correctly.  So, next ten-minute window, work on your Top Three To-Do list!

10.  Other.  I am looking at my notes for this blog (which I jotted down during a ten-minute window the other day) and realize I have way too many items.  So, I can pick one and round out my top ten, or I can cheat and just list a bunch of them.  Yep, I am going with cheating (and I will skip the logic debate around whether it can be cheating if it’s my blog and I set the rules – screw you, Socrates).  Here are some “other” work-related things you can do in ten minutes:

  • Send updates to your internal clients on their matters – even if the update is “nothing new.”  They will love you for it.
  • Read one article you have been saving (here are five browser extensions that allow you to save links to read later).
  • Write ten minutes worth of something (memo, PowerPoint, book, blog, LinkedIn post, etc.).  Whatever you can get done (or as much as you can get done) in ten minutes.
  • Add to your list of accomplishments or list of goals, i.e., take ten minutes to update your accomplishments for the year and/or your progress against goals or KPIs.  You can do this for yourself, your team, or the department.  You’ll thank yourself at review time.
  • Update your resume/bio.  You never know…
  • Send a “hello” email to someone you haven’t caught up with recently.  I keep a list of people I regularly reach out to – especially important over the past two years and the havoc wrought on relationships by Covid.
  • Properly adjust the ergonomics of your workspace – chair, monitor, lighting, keyboard, etc.  Work on your posture.  Your neck and back will thank you.
  • Update your work passwords/ensure two-factor authentication is turned on.
  • Stretch.  Trust me.  We all can use ten minutes of stretching every day.
  • Go on LinkedIn and reply to messages, post an article, update your profile, or read posts and articles (you will find something worthwhile!)
  • Go outside and get some air or see how many steps you can get in ten minutes.
  • Check-in on your family.  Definitely do this one.
  • Write your own list of things you can get done in ten minutes so you’re always ready.
  • Nothing.  Yeah, sometimes what you really need is to do nothing and catch your breath, clear your head, and just find a little peace.  I find this one the hardest

Okay, I could go on and come up with more, but this is literally everything I wrote down the other day so I will quit while I am ahead.  Or kind of ahead.

*****

For me, the secret to productivity is not to “waste” time.  Time is precious, fleeting, and limited but there are almost always times throughout the day when you will have little chunks available to you.  Seize the moment and be ready to use those windows to get something useful done (or started).  As you get better at learning the value of making small progress you will find that you are getting more done during the workday and that you are much more likely to have time to yourself and with your family at night and on the weekends.  You can serve both masters if you master time.

That sounded way cooler in my head.

Sterling Miller

May 31, 2022

My fifth book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department: More Than Just a Cost Center is available now, including as an eBook!  As the ABA says, “Buy this book or we’re sending in the goons!”  The ABA is serious about this so just buy a copy of the book and save a visit from the ABA goon squad.  You can buy it HERE.

Cover of Value Book

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 now at the ABA website (including as e-books).

I have published two other books: The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, webinars/CLEs, coaching, training, and consulting.

Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and on LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

“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, or ideas for a post, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net, or if you would like a CLE for your in-house legal team on this or any topic in the blog, contact me at smiller@hilgersgraben.com

[1] Seriously.  YouTube, if you’re reading this, how about some cash for all the plugs?  I know you can afford it.

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