Negative productivity myths have been around for a long time. Unfortunately, those well-meaning folks who share these myths don’t even realize that instead of helping, they’re pushing people towards health problems like burnout.
How about this one, from Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, published in the 1730’s:
“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
If that were true for everyone, there would be a lot more healthy, wealthy grandpas running around.
All joking aside, the legal industry is rife with so-called “productivity gurus” who charge a lot of money to provide legal professionals with tips on how to be more efficient in the workplace.
Notwithstanding all this “great advice,” attorney burnout is at an all-time high.
Maybe it’s time to debunk some of these productivity myths and get back to the business of simply practicing law in the way that works best for each of us individually. Sure, you can be more productive, but you don’t have to drive yourself crazy in the process.
Here are the top productivity myths we’ll be avoiding in 2023:
Productivity myth #1: Everything belongs on a to-do list
Some people are list people.
I get it.
They’re going to create endless to-do lists regardless of what the rest of us say or do, and it works for them.
But there’s a corollary to that: many of us are not list people. And the truth is, to-do lists can actually be counterproductive for a lot of us.
This may be especially true if you don’t create effective lists. For example, a pages-long list of the things you need to get done will not only be time-consuming to create, but will probably produce more anxiety than productivity.
Legal professionals always have a never-ending list of really important things that must be accomplished quickly. What you don’t have is the time to write all of those things down every day.
If you must make a list, try limiting it to the five things you absolutely must get done today.
Prioritize the things within that short list and cross items off as you get them done. That way, you’ll be able to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day instead of overwhelming dread as you look at all the things you didn’t get done.
The productivity secret here is prioritization. You don’t need a comprehensive to-do list to choose and focus on the right priorities.
Productivity myth #2: Long hours equal great productivity
Law firms are famous for requiring long, arduous hours.
These days, most legal professionals have some kind of billable-hour minimum that they must reach each year in order to be considered for bonuses or promotions.
In theory, that’s not a problem. Billable hours pay the bills, so it’s logical to base bonuses off of a metric that directly relates to profits.
However, in practice, that push for more billable hours can lead to some unhealthy habits.
The David Enrich book Servants of the Damned talks about some big-firm lawyers who bill 4,000 hours per year, which he describes as being the equivalent of billing 11 hours a day, every day, all year long.
That kind of work may yield lucrative financial rewards, but lawyers who bill those hours are probably not the models of productivity they’d like you to think they are.
In fact, a Stanford University study found that a person’s hourly productivity drops dramatically once they’ve worked 50 hours in any one week.
The study also showed that those who worked 70 hours a week had such a decline in productivity that they didn’t accomplish any more than those who stopped at 55 hours.
Instead of cramming in overtime hours, you’re much more likely to be productive if you’re selective about what you do with your working time.
Things like learning to bill more efficiently, outsourcing simple tasks, and using basic automations are more effective ways to increase your billable hours. Plus, they’re healthier for you because you can bill more hours without working more hours.
Productivity myth #3: You should do what other productive people do
Books that tell us how other people achieve productivity are really popular.
For example, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and The Four-Hour Work Week seem to be perennial bestsellers.
Ask yourself this, though: are other people’s productivity routines really the best tools for you?
Some people have tested this idea by adopting another’s productivity tool for a period of time just to test it out. One writer, for example, took on Steve Jobs’s habit of wearing the same clothes every day to reduce decision fatigue. He found that it did nothing for him.
While that may be a trite example, the lesson is this: certain habits work for certain people and don’t work for others.
If you want to read what other famous business people and lawyers do to be effective in their own lives, by all means do it. But don’t feel discouraged if all of their idiosyncrasies don’t work for you.
You aren’t a failure if “eating the frog” doesn’t change much for you or if that popular project management software causes more headaches than it’s worth. Productivity is personal.
Don’t worry about the supposed rules of your chosen productivity system.
Instead of doubling down on a method that’s not working for you, admit that it’s not a fit and try something else. It’s okay to modify a popular system, switch strategies, or start fresh with your own ideas.
Productivity myth #4: You’ll be more productive if you work from the office
If there was one undeniable blessing that stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the recognition that businesses don’t necessarily suffer when employees work remotely.
In fact, employees may actually increase productivity when working from home.
Nonetheless, many law firms have been actively trying to get their legal professionals back into the office. Younger lawyers are stringently resisting these efforts.
Only you know for certain whether your productivity is hindered or enhanced by being in the office.
Either way, it’s worth taking the time to do a valid self-assessment in this regard.
Collect some data — comparing your working hours to your billable hours can tell you a lot — and then communicate with your firm about how you work and where you are most productive.
Remember, however, that some firms are measuring productivity stats. If your productivity stats show that you’re completing less work in the same amount of time, your firm is unlikely to approve your request. Understand what your firm tracks and what those data points mean.
Productivity myth #5: There’s an app for that
If you want to increase your productivity in the workplace, there are a million apps out there that claim to help in this regard.
Maybe that’s part of the problem — wading through and testing a million different apps takes a lot of time. In fact, lots of these apps may actually be harming productivity in the workplace.
The apps themselves demand your attention. You’ll spend time learning how to use each one. Then, your daily tasks will be spread among several apps that you have to visit just to determine what you’ve accomplished.
By the time you get through all of this, you’ve lost precious hours that you could have used working.
Once you fall into the app-trap, it’s hard to get out. Your firm might rely on some apps for communication or other business functions, and you can’t easily transition away.
Choose your productivity tools wisely and make sure you’re using the features in your existing software. Look for integrated solutions instead of working in multiple systems, and only make the move to a new system if there’s a substantial time savings to gain.
At the end of the day, productivity is a highly personal goal.
You’ve got to find the things that work for you and stick with them. Don’t be overly-dependent on what works for others, but do give thought to what works for you.
It’s well worth your time and effort to explore ways to increase your productivity at work. Just remember this: productivity is all about completing more of your top priorities while spending less time and effort.
If you’re working too hard for your productivity gains, then you’re missing the point.