It will come as no surprise to those that know me that my oldest, Grayson, taped off the spaces under the tree on Christmas Eve so that gifts from Santa would be properly organized. I absolutely don't know where he got the organizing thing from, but in any event I wanted to post on how I have recently tweaked the way I use a three common programs to organize my work, replacing one program I had been using for the past several years.
Since I opened SBPS' Marshall office (coming up on five years ago next month) one of my interests has been law office management, i.e. how do you organize your work so as to be as efficient as possible. I wrote an article on how to start a one-lawyer office for the Texas Bar Journal in July 2008, and more recently have been posting periodically on specific things of interest, from digital voice recorders, printers versus copiers, and desktop scanners to ruminations on briefcases and office chairs. If you work for a large firm that already has all this figured out, it may not be of much interest to you, but if you're in a smaller firm, or puttering around a renovated shoe store where you have the freedom to decide how you're going. Or OCD - whatever works.
I am officially at least two and half years behind posting on the subject (I have yet to note how I use this newfangled iPad thing, for example) but one of the nice things about the holidays is that if the dates fall right, as they do this year, you can take a breath and get some perspective on some of the things you're doing, and how you might do them better. So in this post, I wanted to talk about a change I've made this year in how I work.
Google Apps (Mail, Calendar & Contacts)
For that past four years, I've been a devoted Outlook user, as long time readers know from my prior post on the subject. There was nothing I liked better than fiddling with the calendar, tasks and e-mail settings to organize the way I worked more efficiently. The problem is that in a small office without an Exchange server, syncing the calendar and tasks and contacts across various computers was difficult, requiring third party applications that never seemed to work right. Eventually we just sync'ed the office calendar to Google so our staff could get to it on mobile devices. I could access my e-mails and other information on other devices, but I really couldn't work them, and it was as a practical matter impossible to see or work a task list anywhere but at my desktop (which is a laptop, so it was somewhat portable, but still...). As the daily load of e-mails increased, it got more and more difficult to work outside the office, and to catch up when I got back.
The program also suffered from undiagnosable glitches that eventually tranformed it into a positively Lovercraftian thing - an eldritch horror that consumed a couple of dozen gigs on my computer (seriously), took on average 45 minutes a day to load, and would not talk to anyone in the office but me, and it wasn't so sure I could be trusted either. Something had to be done, and our computer guy finally suggested that we just move the whole kit and kaboodle to Google Apps.
The move took one morning, and by the afternoon we all had clean, synced calendars, contacts and e-mails - all accessible from office machines, tablets, laptops, iPads - you name it. And for the last four months it's worked almost perfectly.
On our vacation last month I read up on the mail and calendar functions and tweaked how I organize them, putting into play some of things I took from reading Lifehacker: The Guide to Working Smarter, Faster and Better by Adam Pash and Gina Trapani, and reorganized the mail functions to make better use of folders.
The basic idea is to keep your e-mail in box pristine by filing everything into the proper box as it comes in. In my practice, I receive a large number of e-mails each day that need to be read, but don't require immediate action, and the book reinforced the importance of parsing out these emails immediately in order to focus on items that require action. Because I've learned that if I don't identify the important ones somehow, they fall back in with the others and may not be seen again for week (this scene from The Mummy II conveys pretty much how I see my in box much of the time. You really don't want anything important left down there). Part of the acute need for doing this came about as a result of starting to use Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate timekeeping entries, which works much better if you can group the dictation work, but I'll address that in a later post.
In any event, while I decline to have the program automatically file e-mails in the appropriate folders - I believe in putting a Mark 1 eyeball on everything when it comes in - I do shovel items that don't require immediate action into a separate folder as soon as I determine that's the case, and postpone work that folder to when the items requiring action permit it. Ideally, I can get the day's e-mails from that folder worked at the end of the day if I haven't already, but that's not always the case.
As far as calendars, Google permits adding multiple calendars, so we have color-coded calendars for the office, for the building (to account for visitors and when the office is rented to visiting trial teams), for individuals in the office (it's awkward when you show up for a coworker's massage by mistake - I'm just saying), for Cowboys games (the NFL provides Google calendars for this critical information), and for my sons' Scout troops, and my TripIt calendar for travel information. And all of this is accessible on mobile devices, although I do use a third party app called (appropriately) Calendars by Readdle. These calendars can be shown or filtered out depending on what you're looking for, and the color coding means that you can tell immediately what's important and what's not.
I don't pretend to know all of what the Google Apps environment can do, but I have found it to be far superior to what I was doing, very flexible, and scalable from a small office on up. Perhaps most importantly, it's reliable, and doesn't require a lot of my time to diagnose and fix problems. Yes, I spend a lot of time color coding events, but sadly, for me, that's entertainment.
Almost any productivity book recently will talk about Evernote as a good way to keep notes. I have been studying and reading about it for a couple of years now, but really had not used it for the office. It is another example of a program that's so powerful and so flexible that it takes a while to figure out how to use it - and to remember how you decided to use it each time you do use it.
For office note-taking, I had been either taking notes on my trusty Levenger pads and then scanning those in on the desktop scanner and saving them in a notes folder under the specific case (which is still how I handle notes from hearings or trials), or when at my desktop, taking notes in Microsoft's OneNote, which has a iPad app allowing you to access notes on that device. (There is a note taking function in Outlook but it's not very robust - essentially just an electronic Post-it).
But what I discovered on my recent trip is that there isn't an app (or at least I didn't have it) for the MacBook Air I use when travelling, so I found myself stuck on the other side of the planet without the drafts I had written before leaving the office - meaning I had to start from scratch on chair's columns for the Litigation Section's Advocate and News for the Bar publications as well as my upcoming chair's column in the Texas Bar Journal and an article on IP law development in 2012 that will also be in next month's bar journal.
The moral of that story is probably that lawyers shouldn't take vacations, but I decided to dig a little deeper and see how I could avoid the problem in the future. Lifehacker again suggested that I actually use Evernote for all my note taking, so I started keeping it open on my desktop, and began keeping notes for conference calls, items to be worked on, etc., all within a "Cases" tab. I have not yet figured out a good way to export the completed notes into pdf form for filing (I had that down pretty well in OneNote) but they're not going anywhere, and I can filter out the completed ones using a tag. So I've now abandoned OneNote and am using Evernote for all my office note taking - essentially replacing the old legal pad and most of my file (or project) folders. I can e-mail items to Evernote and they're included - something that most apps these days permit, and which is a great feature.
RTM (Remember the Milk)
One of the biggest problems with replacing Outlook was what to do about tasks. The underlying problem with Outlook really wasn't with how it handled tasks - I liked that fine. I tried several task programs that advertised functionality with Google Apps, but none had the ease of use but with sufficient flexibility that I needed. I really needed something for use on mobile devices, but which was also accessible from a desktop.
During my search I read rave reviews of RTM, but I couldn't believe that what looked like a grocery list program (with a silly name and icon) would be the best candidate. (It would be interesting to figure out why Evernote's elephant doesn't bother me, but RTM's cow does, but I don't have time for that right now). But, again, I had been through ye olde app store and tried everything else, and nothing worked - it was either too hard to access or enter task info, or it wasn't accessible on mobile devices without an Internet connection - which in event took too long to pull up in many cases.
I have been really, really impressed with RTM. The most important feature - ease of access to insert a task - has worked out great, with addition of a couple of Google-friendly gadgets, and I can work my task list on my phone, my iPad or my desktop no matter where I am. Actually the desktop applications are the most difficult interfaces - I actually tend to check things off, sort and edit lists on the iPad. I can organize tasks by work/personal, by date, by tag (maybe a case name or the bar group), by priority, and even by location. The latter means that with one click I can see what tasks are within a mile (you can set the radius) of my location, so, for example, I can scoop up all the Walmart or Lowes of office tasks while I'm in the right place. Most tasks can be done from any computer, so they don't have locations, but some require access to files or papers at the office, or at the house, or at the courthouse.
As with Evernote, I can e-mail task items to the program and they sit in an "in box" folder waiting for assignment and further details the next time I'm in the program. And as I mentioned, the Google apps for the program let you include it in your mail or calendar view so that tasks can be viewed and edited by date. It took a couple of weeks for me to figure out which Google apps to use to do this, but I think I have it figured out now.
For an old DayTimer groupie like me, one of the other cool feature is that the app allows you to view not just tasks to be done, but what you have done. Being able to see what I have actually done on a day is a little incentive to me to actually get things checked off my list, and this is the first program that actually provided such a list. And here's the cool part - it actually shows the items with strikethrough. And at bottom, that's what this is all about - helping me be more productive by prioritizing my time so I focus on what needs doing the most, and motivating me to be more efficient.
I'll be posting more in the coming days about some other tweaks I've started around the office, from cloud storage and dictation software to this darn iPad thing, but I wanted to get out these three programs that have at leats for me replaced what I used to use Outlook for.