Mark Powers & Shawn McNalis

Poor production habits can have an indirect effect on how motivated an attorney is to develop new clients. Here’s how it happens: attorneys who have a lot of work piled up on their desks develop a kind of tunnel vision.

They become so overwhelmed by their present workload that they lose the motivation to go out and look for more clients, despite the fact that there may be no new matters in their pipeline. They may worry about this, but become too overwhelmed by the present crush of work to do anything about it.

Whether this is caused by the reality-shrinking effects of stress, or an inability to look beyond the present — it’s an all-too-common reaction to having a full plate. And this generates the rollercoaster-like marketing efforts that so many attorneys engage in: marketing furiously during the lean times and not at all once new business comes in.

When we dig into the work habits of these clients to help them free up time to market more consistently (the stated goal of many people we work with), we’ll discover some flaws in the way they work. Many attorneys, for example, block time every day for production but, when the time comes, they avoid picking up the file or reviewing the documents as they had planned. Instead, they procrastinate. We all do it to a certain extent, but some are worse than others.

Whether out of boredom, lack of clarity, or the inability to control interruptions, they fritter away the time focusing on less important tasks and avoid the main assignment. Consequently, the work piles up on their desk and interferes with any urge they have to market for more work, creating a vicious downward spiral. The rationale sounds like this: if I can’t do the work I’ve got, why would I go out and develop more?

Only the fear of missing an important deadline is strong enough to overcome their habit of procrastination. So they live an existence filled with near misses and find themselves dependant on the adrenaline spikes this produces to propel them through the tasks they otherwise avoid.

If you find yourself identifying with this way of operating, there are several ways to overcome this behavior: first, create an automatic deadline for every matter you take on. If you leave the timeline for completion open- ended it breeds procrastination.

One of the most effective ways of creating an automatic deadline is to personally schedule the next appointment with your client before they leave your office. To do this you must have a grasp of how much other work is in your inventory plus an idea of how long each type of matter should take on a routine basis. Add on a little time for unforeseen contingencies which may arise, and you have your deadline. The more you make these kinds of estimates, the better you will become.

This gives you a built-in deadline to help you manage yourself.

The second key to overcoming procrastination is to avoid boredom by delegating as much as you can and not hold on to lower level tasks that should be done by team members. Stretch your comfort zone to accomplish this. Active minds become bored and resistant when forced to do too many lower level tasks.

The third key involves enticing yourself to jump into the work you are resisting. To do this, start by breaking the matter down into smaller chunks. Commit to completing one chunk and then reward yourself for the effort. Make a game of it: the rewards don’t have to be big, just large enough to motivate you into action.

Talking to a colleague on the phone, searching the internet for stock quotes or stepping out for a quick cup of coffee — all of these activities are quick rewards to help build your production muscle. Work on part of a matter, complete it, and get a cup of coffee. Then set your next goal. It sounds lame, but when your work habits have deteriorated, and/or your attention span has become extremely short, this is how you manage your way back into being productive.

Recently, for example, an attorney came to us determined to sabotage his habit of procrastination. After some discussion about the reward theory, he committed to the following plan: he would put off lunch until he completed all of his production goals for the morning. If he did the work, he ate at his normal time. If he didn’t, he put off lunch until he finished. His secretary had instructions not to put calls through during his two-hour production time and she made after-lunch phone appointments for the clients who needed to speak to him quickly. That took care of the external interruptions. It was a tough-minded approach and forced him to notice every thing that threatened to take him off track. Mostly what he noticed was his own susceptibility to being distracted, but he persisted with the plan and dramatically improved his work habits.

Just be sure to match the size of the task you’re resisting to the reward. Some of our clients give themselves Friday afternoon off (or all day Saturday), for example, if they complete certain large to-dos on their list by noon Friday.

Rewards reinforce your desire to attack things you would otherwise avoid by creating a little bit of urgency, without being right up against an actual deadline. Combine this self-management habit with setting up automatic deadlines and delegating lower level tasks so you don’t become burned out. If you can’t find the time to market yourself, and your poor production habits keep you in a constant state of being overwhelmed with work, try these techniques to overcome your habit of procrastination. It’s a winning formula.

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