You always feel busy, but not necessarily productive. Here’s how to stop wasting your precious time and start increasing your output.

By Ozan Varol, Law Professor and Productivity Consultant

stop wasting timeBefore I started coaching overwhelmed, overworked lawyers on how to get their life back, I was a lawyer myself. To be more accurate, I was a overwhelmed, overworked zombie who had sacrificed all my hobbies and who thought of my life in six-minute billable increments. One phonecall/email/meeting/deposition after another, other people and never-ending tasks were hijacking my time. If you’re like most lawyers, work is coming at you faster than you can manage it – and if it isn’t, you must add searching for new clients to that infinite to-do list. You always feel busy, but you aren’t necessarily productive. You’re thinking too much, juggling too much, and doing too much of the wrong things. Here are five strategies effective lawyers use to increase productivity.

1. Stop Moving Your Pianos.

Frank Sinatra’s tour schedule brought a new definition to the term “crazy.” Yet he managed to maintain his sanity and put out work that stood the test of time. He had one simple trick: He didn’t move his own pianos. He focused on his one unique ability – singing. That’s it. Everything else, he left to others.

Could Frank have become truly great if he were moving his own pianos and hustling to sell his concert tickets? No. He focused on the essentials so he could bring out the best of himself.

What pianos are you moving in your life?
 What are you doing that you shouldn’t be doing? If a task can be done 80% as well by someone else, you should delegate it. Making dinner reservations, running errands, and figuring out how SEO works are not part of your unique skill set.

We have a tendency to blame other people or other things, but often, you’re the reason why things aren’t happening in your business or in your life. You are the bottleneck. The easiest way to remove the bottleneck and get out of your own way is to become an effective delegator.

2. Just Start.

Procrastination is the number-one problem for the lawyers that I work with.

The cure?  Just start.  Getting started on any major project is the hardest part. When you’re having trouble starting a brief, just open a Word document and jot down your thoughts for 5 minutes. Then close the document. You now have a lousy outline. And a lousy outline is much better than a completely blank page. The next time you go back to it, you won’t be intimidated staring at an empty document. You’ll be much more likely to pick up and keep going.

The best way to take away the power of procrastination is to begin.

3. Apply the 80-20 Rule.

Vilfredo Pareto was an economist who also enjoyed gardening.  He developed what’s now known as the 80-20 principle (or the Pareto principle) by observing that 20% of the peapods in his garden contained 80% of the peas that he was harvesting.

This principle eventually became a rule of thumb in different areas. If you look carefully at your life, you’ll notice that:

  1. 20% of your efforts produce 80% of the results;
  2. 20% of your clients produce 80% of your revenue; and
  3. 20% of your clients produce 80% of your headaches.

You can use the 80-20 rule to determine the matters that require most of your focus and the junk that should be cut out from your life.

4. Break Down Big Tasks Into Small Subcomponents.

Last year, I set out to write a 90,000-word book. Initially, progress was slow. I would make up excuses – like “I need to organize my sock drawer” – to avoid the big, intimidating “write book” task on my to-do list. I had one crappy paragraph to show for my first week of writing (and an impeccably clean sock drawer).

Many of my clients use email as their favorite tool of procrastination. Email is easy, quick, bite-sized, and you get the satisfaction and a burst of dopamine from crossing something off your to-do list. In contrast, other goals – like writing a major brief or drafting a contract – are big and intimidating. Your goal should be to break down these intimidating projects into small bite-sized pieces that look more like email.

After the first week of writing my book (and not getting anything done), I took a day and broke down the “write book” task on my to-do list into its smallest subcomponents.  By the time I was done, that intimidating “write book” goal became nearly 100 separate to-do items. As a result, it became so much easier to say, “I’m going to work on Subsection A of Section I of Chapter 1,” instead of saying, “I’m going to write my book.” When I was done with Subsection A, it was something I could check off my to-do list.

If you start small, you remove the resistance to starting, which is the hardest part. The goal of reaching out to 30 attorneys or financial professionals to network seems really daunting. But if you contact one professional to network every day, you will have contacted 30 of them by the end of the month.

As Seth Godin says, “A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.” Before you know it, the distance in front of you will be shorter than the distance behind you.

5. Say “No” More Often.

lawyer says "no"

A few years ago, I realized I had been saying “yes” too much. I was accepting all sorts of conference invitations, speaking engagements, marginally useful projects, and offers to “grab coffee,” “get lunch,” and “hop on a call.”

Think about it:  How many times have you committed to doing something 6 months from now only to regret it later?  Inevitably, the future you ends up hating the present you. Ego had a lot to do with the way my schedule looked. “They want me at this meeting or conference?  I must be important,” I thought. With my schedule jam-packed with events, I could humblebrag about how busy I was.

Then, I adopted this philosophy from writer and entrepreneur Derek Sivers:  “If it’s not a hell yeah, it’s a no.” We say yes to so much stuff that we let little mediocre things fill our lives. When the “hell yeah” thing comes along, we don’t have time to give it the attention that we should. Each “yes” comes with a huge opportunity cost.

Before you commit to anything, ask yourself, “If I say yes to this, what am I saying no to?” If you’re saying “yes” to a phone call or a meeting, you’re saying “no” to everything else you could be doing during that time. If you’re saying “yes” to checking your email four times in the span of an hour, you’re saying “no” to an hour of deep work on an important task.

Want To Increase Productivity? Here’s What To Do Next…

If you want to dig deeper into effectiveness strategies, check out my free e-book, Effective Lawyer: A Playbook for a Happier, Healthier, and More Effective You. You can download it at

Ozan Varol is a rocket-scientist-turned-law professor and the founder of Effective Lawyer. He has helped numerous overwhelmed lawyers regain control over their life.


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