Leaders and organization: a little help for incremental improvement

Mike Holley

First Assistant District Attorney in Montgomery County

It will take you about 12 minutes to read this article. If you do take that time, I am confident I can give you the 12 minutes back, several times over. Please understand: This is not an article that will transform your life or practice—but it is one that is likely to give you at least one good idea as to how to be better organized or how to help those you lead to be better organized.
    Without further ado, here are some thoughts and suggestions interspersed with a few “Flat A** Rules” (FARs), which I hope will be a help to you.1

Effective v. efficient
Let’s start here: It doesn’t make sense how well we do a task if the task doesn’t really matter. It’s the difference between getting in the car, hitting the road, and making good time—but going the wrong direction. If we say we want to be efficient (that we do things quickly with minimum wasted effort and maximum output), we first want to be sure we’re effective (that the task we’ve chosen really makes a difference).
    Obvious, I know.
    But is it? Is it really obvious?
    The heart of being organized is reflection and planning, and reflection and planning take time. Moreover, I don’t have time for that, you might say. But, yes, friend, you do. What’s more, you and I don’t have the time not to reflect and plan. Which leads us to our first FAR.

FAR No. 1: We evaluate what we are doing regularly and honestly.
Let’s break that down a little.
1. What: We evaluate how our task aligns with the goals of our organization or our life. Does this task really make a difference? Does it make sense to continue to do this particular task? Does this help me to reach a worthy objective? Of two possible tasks, which is the more important? Using “so” statements can help answer these questions:
I check this list every Friday so I don’t miss a 90-day deadline for an indictment.
I take the time to exercise three times a week so I’ll have more energy during the day.
I work these extra intake shifts so I can send my kid to college.
    The “what” matters. It really matters. Frankly, it matters much more than the “how.” It’s the location of the city we think we are headed to. It’s the design of the house we really want to build, not just what results from random hammering and nailing boards together. It’s the very essence of organization; that “what” matters! It’s much better to do something poorly that truly makes a difference than to do something brilliantly that serves no real point. And so we consider and contemplate the “what.”
2. Regularly: Here, we intentionally and habitually schedule time to consider what matters and why. We plan to do it, we do it, then we do it again. It’s not a one-time event, but a systematic pattern of behavior—a habit as important as any other. It is an event on our calendar, a task that is preeminent over every other task.
3. Honestly: Here we are completely candid with ourselves. And why not be? It’s just us now, and who are we really trying to impress? Self-deception is only self-defeating. We don’t overestimate our abilities, time, or resources. We are candid about our progress, as painful as that might be. We set goals that are obtainable, and we assess our strengths. We adjust as necessary.
    So … easy, right? We think about what really needs to be done, and then we do it—no problem.
    But of course, then comes along The Resistance.
    In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield (author of, among other works, the excellent Gates of Fire) describes his concept of a universal force he calls The Resistance. The Resistance is “an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”2
    Fanciful, right? Perhaps a little abstract? But don’t you feel and experience the reality of The Resistance? Of course you do—every day. If all we had to do was follow FAR No. 1, we’d be fine—we’d figure out what we need to do, and then we’d do it. But, alas, The Resistance rears up, and it takes many forms: procrastination, distraction, inefficient systems, lack of resources, self-doubt, interruptions, emergencies, set-backs—all of it. We recognize our enemy so we can defeat it. We accept that it’s going to be there, engaging us all the way. We don’t give in, but we also don’t ignore it. And this leads us to our second FAR.

FAR No. 2: We accept the reality of The Resistance, but we don’t surrender to it.
I make this point because I know that many of us have attempted to be better organized, met with more failure than success, and decided that the game is not worth the candle. And that would be a mistake. Instead, let’s acknowledge The Resistance and press forward anyway. After all, we are fighters by profession.
    The Resistance has many unfriendly and powerful offensive units at its disposal, but none are on the ascendency quite like “distraction.” You, me, and everyone we know are all assaulted by the intense forces of distraction. That phone in your pocket or purse? Yeah, that one. Designed by a vast coalition of geniuses with access to unlimited resources to wrest our attention away and direct it where they, not we, want it to go. And they are succeeding at rate that alarms and astonishes even them.3 Those notifications on our phones? Designed to give us a small shot of dopamine over and over, like pulling the lever on a slot machine. These small payouts of information here and there keep us addicted. The multiple browser tabs full of stories we skim and then, mid-sentence sometimes, click a link to jump to something else? Yes, not helping us to focus, think, and retain.
    This constructed world of distraction is now a main effort of The Resistance, and it’s getting worse, not better. Much of the damage comes when we believe we can “switchtask.” (I’m using author Dave Crenshaw’s language to parse “multitasking” into two categories. “Background tasking” is fine, even helpful. This is jogging on a treadmill while listening to an audio book or paying bills while running the washing machine. Switchtasking, on the other hand, is moving from one task, such as writing a report, to another—checking emails—and back to the original task.) Switchtasking is, not to overstate the matter, pure wretched evil from the seventh circle of Hell.4
    You and I constantly try to switchtask. And it doesn’t work: Recent estimates are that you can lose up to 40 percent of your productivity from switchtasking.5 It fact, it’s worse than just not working. It’s changing our brains, and not for the better. It’s causing us to lose our ability to focus, to see tasks through to the end. It’s affecting both our short- and long-term memory. It absolutely destroys our attempts at organization. And even the tasks we think we are doing well? Well, we aren’t. It slows our speed and decreases the quality of our work. Very importantly, switchtasking increases stress, which is particularly dangerous in a profession where stress is the one thing we have far too much of. The truth is we aren’t made to switchtask. We are made to be serial mono-taskers. Which is our third FAR.

FAR No. 3: We commit to serial mono-tasking.
The serial mono-tasker operates on a different plane. She turns off the bells and whistles for notifications on her desktop and phone. She uses those devices—they don’t use her. She schedules her day in blocks of time—blocks to execute a specific task, blocks to review professional reading, blocks to plan the next day, and blocks to check social media. She understands unexpected things may come up, but she adjusts her course rather than simply allowing the winds of the day to send her randomly across the sea. She does one thing, finishes or advances it significantly, then moves to the next task. She is a serial mono-tasker.
    Becoming a serial mono-tasker is difficult. The more we commit to the approach, however, the more it becomes a habit, and when it comes to organization, habit rules the world. Most of what we do we do from habit, by ritual, and through rhythms of life. It stands to reason, then, that becoming an organized person is largely about creating those habits, rituals, or rhythms that align with what is effective and what makes us efficient, a truth that leads us to our next FAR.

FAR No. 4: We will consistently review and adjust our habits to improve our own organization.
For example, if the first thing we do when we get to work is to read through emails and begin responding, we will find ourselves starting the day working from someone else’s agenda. We review that habit, determine to quickly check for “emergency” emails, then put off further review until perhaps the second hour of work. As another example, if we find that reading our phone in bed interferes with a good night’s sleep, we determine that our surfing and social media browsing will end 30 minutes before lights out. Those habits, obviously, are highly individualized, but they are potentially very important.
    Other positive habits to consider adopting include the following:
1. Plan the next day. No matter what else we do, we resolve to have a plan for the next day. We know our plan might not work as drafted, but we also know that if we don’t plan our day, we will either waste time thinking about what to do next, or someone else will set our agenda. When morning arrives, we are ready to execute, not ponder or start on the wrong task.6
2. Identify the Most Important Thing(s) (MIT). Our most important thing may be one task or three, but the MIT is that task we will strive to accomplish at all costs. We’ll identify the MIT, and, very importantly, we’ll put it in writing somewhere where we can constantly return to it and refocus.
3. Schedule for brain dumps. We will make a habit of pushing all those “have to do” tasks and “good ideas” to some written form, a “brain dump,” so we don’t have to keep all the open loops in our head. Instead, we use our minds to solve problems and do creative work rather than struggling to keep a mental list of all that must be done.
4. Crack the procrastination wall. When we run into the great barrier of procrastination, we ask, “What is the very next action?” The more specific the answer, the better. Then we take that next action and ask the question again: What comes next? The idea is to keep moving and stay focused. We do not let The Resistance (ultimately) prevent us from progress.
5. Keep a not-to-do list. We keep a list of those bad habits we are trying to break. For example, “Do not leave email open all day” or “Do not check social media except at designated times.”7
6. Process information. We habitually process information through the following question: Is it trash, reference, or actionable? If it’s trash, we discard it immediately. If it’s reference, we store the information in a way we can retrieve it easily; if we cannot do so, we discard it. If it’s actionable, we ask whether we can finish it within two minutes. If so, we do it now. If not, we ask whether it can be delegated to someone else. If it can be delegated, we select a person, assign the task, and add to our “monitor” list. If it cannot be delegated, we ask three last questions: 1) When must the task be completed? 2) What is the “very next action?” and 3) When will I next work on the task? We then calendar appropriately.8
    Although habits are critical in improving organization, the right tools can also make all the difference. What is the right tool? This brings us to our fifth FAR.
 
FAR No. 5: The best tool for organization is the one that works for us individually.
If there are 1,000 ways to accomplish tasks, there are 1,001 tools for doing so. That said, there are three main types of tool that are essential: storage bins, time trackers, and list trackers.
Storage bins. We are awash in information: case files, code books, CLE materials, emails, etc. For this information to be of benefit, we need bins to keep all these materials separated, protected, and accessible. Here are three tips when it comes to storage of information:
    1) Retrieval is everything. If we can’t easily retrieve information, we should go ahead and throw it away. Otherwise we are just hiding the Ark of the Covenant in a government warehouse or throwing the needle into a stack of other needles. So, if we use a physical filing cabinet, we label stuff in a way we can retrieve it. If we keep stuff in digital form (increasingly preferred and needed), we can search by subject. (I use Evernote for this—a very helpful system for keeping information including web links, business cards, etc. I highly recommend it this product, but there are many other good options.)9
    2) In-box discipline. We do not use in-boxes for storage—not voicemail, email, or physical inboxes. We funnel all of that information to a place where we can process it and then put in on a calendar, on a list, or in a filing cabinet, real or virtual.
    3) Customize your shed. Our main storage system is our physical office. It’s a myth that a clean office represents an organized person. We can have a visibly cluttered office and still be very organized (although there may be a separate issue of its professional appearance). The point is to have a system that works for us, and then we maintain that system. We will know the system needs tinkering if we spend excessive time looking for information we know we have or, worse, we lose something.
Time managers. A calendar of some sort is the roadmap for our organizational journey. Without it, we are lost. While there is much to be said for old-school paper calendars, digital calendars like those by Microsoft’s Outlook or Google Calendar have great capabilities that cannot be easily replicated.10 Here are three tips for calendars:
    1) Use calendars proactively. Most of the time we use our calendar to react. Someone sets up a meeting for us, schedules a docket or a trial, or otherwise places an event in our future, and we dutifully calendar it. That’s needed, of course, but we can proactively block out time for what we think needs to be done. There is some magic in this—a two-hour block on your calendar for “watch the Smith interview” is much more likely to result in success than simply placing the same item on a list of things to do.
    2) Build in margin. As we block out our calendar, we build in margin. So, if we think the interview with a victim’s family will take an hour, we block out an hour and a half. If it takes 15 minutes to get to the sheriff’s office, we give ourselves 30. That seems counter-productive, but the reality is that things generally will take longer than we anticipate—the family arrives late, you get interrupted by an urgent call, there’s a wreck on the highway, etc., so whatever we seek to do, we build in margin.
    3) Review the calendar. It sounds odd, but we calendar reviews of our calendar, and we do it at least weekly. This is like digging a trench but stepping out occasionally to make sure we are still on line. Placing the review (daily, weekly, monthly) on our calendar (and then doing it) is needed, or else we’ll find ourselves not where we want to be or surprised by events.
Task managers. For most of us, organization focuses on the “to do list.” And maybe that’s fair, although we should also see that the to-do list is just one cog in the greater machine. That said, some type of task manager is essential. Here are three tips for task managers:
    1) Make it yours. There are many forms and versions of the to-do list. My friend and colleague, Tyler Dunman, uses a legal pad with a date and the things he will accomplish that day. It sits right by his computer, and he lines through each item as it’s accomplished. This approach is low-tech and simple, yet Tyler is one of the most effective and efficient people I have ever met. For my part, I prefer an electronic version of the list, and I use the app ToDoist which, if you take a little time to watch the tutorials, can be very helpful. Whether we use old-school pen and paper or a fancy app, the key is that it has to work for us, not someone else.
    2) The Rule of Threes. We pick the one to three things every day that we really want to accomplish, and we put those things on the list. This is very important because we can fool ourselves into thinking we are making progress when we cross out a number of smaller, less important tasks when the tasks that really matter go untouched. (We do not use our daily to-do list as a long set of every item we hope to accomplish.)
    3) Plan for unexpected tasks. Very often, we accomplish a list of things in a day’s work, but those things come from someone else’s to-do list. That may be OK. Life happens, and for those of us who are leaders, very often our most important task is to be available to others. Let’s not be discouraged, then, when we don’t get to do everything on our list. It does not necessarily reflect a failure on our part. It’s better to assume this “task” is on your list every day.

Final thoughts
Organization is as hard as it is important, particularly for those of us not naturally wired that way. Fortunately, we are used to doing hard things, and we lead men and women who take challenges in stride. My hope is that this article has provided you with a tip or two that will help you and your people succeed in those challenges.

Endnotes

1   FARs is an old military term that I hope still has some value.

2  Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Black Irish Entertainment, LLC. 2002.

3  “Our Minds Can Be Hijacked: The Tech Insiders Who Fear a Smartphone Dystopia.” The Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia.

4  For a vivid example of the effects of switchtasking, search for “The Myth of Multitasking Test” on YouTube. You’ll find a five-minute video by Dave Crenshaw that includes a quick test you can perform to see the great disadvantage of switchtasking. I recommend you take the time to do so and perhaps share it with your people.

5  Winschenk, Susan. “The True Cost of Multi-Tasking.” Psychology Today at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201209/the-true-cost-multi-tasking.

6  For more on this topic, see Jason Selk, Tom Bartow, and Matthew Rudy, Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain Your Mind to Optimize Performance at Work and in Life. Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2015.

7  Challies, Tim. Do More Better. Minneapolis. Cruciform Press, 2015. (This is an excellent resource that pulls together a number of other works, including Getting Things Done by David Allen, a seminal book on productivity. Challies has a religious bent that may put off some readers, but the writing is mercifully concise and full of excellent counsel.)

8  Allen, David, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York: Viking, 2001.

9  I particularly appreciate Evernote for keeping CLE materials. For example, I heard Ryan Calvert, an ADA in Brazos County, do an excellent presentation on cross-examination some years ago at a TDCAA event. I can easily pull up Ryan’s PowerPoint and my notes from that presentation in Evernote. Without Evernote, I’m sure I would have lost that information long ago.

10  16 Little-Known Google Calendar Features That Can Make You More Productive, https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/google-calendar-tips.