The Productive Lawyer 01: Clear to Neutral


Lately, I’ve been noodling about how to become more productive. My law practice has become quite busy (with an honorable mention to my personal life). Unfortunately, this blog has been one of the casualties. Last year, blog posts were consistently published on a weekly basis. This year I have only published two posts to date … how embarrassing. But it may all be worthwhile because something good is going to come out of the unexpected hiatus: a new blog series called The Productive Lawyer.

It dawned on me that Trademark Well does not necessarily need to be confined to posts on trademark law. An essential part of being a trademark lawyer is managing yourself and your practice, learning to be efficient and productive. Finding a way to get things done consistently. Consistency day after day will get you there. Like most people, I succumb to workload paralysis, procrastination, and bad work habits. To accomplish the goals I’ve set for Trademark Well, my law practice, and myself personally, I am going to need all the tips and tricks that I can get my hands on. I’ll share the ones that are working for me in The Productive Lawyer blog post series.

Let the productivity begin with one of my favorite new productivity habits: Clear to Neutral.

Clear to Neutral

Clear to neutral is beautiful in its simplicity. The idea is to clear everything to allow you to focus on the one task in front of you. In that way, it dovetails nicely with the message behind one of my favorite productivity books, The One Thing.

The Basic Idea

I first came across the clear to neutral technique in one of Tom Frankly’s popular YouTube videos. I’ll let him explain it:

Intuitively, I think I’ve known about the clear to neutral technique. But I had never given it a name or known that it was a “thing” in the productivity world. Subconsciously, I recognize that I am more productive when I work with a clear desk.

Why It Works

Credit for the clear to neutral technique goes to the folks over at Asian Efficiency. According to Asian Efficiency, the reason the clear to neutral technique works is because it eliminates friction.

Friction is anything that provides resistance to getting started on your task at hand. A frequent example used to illustrate this is a dirty kitchen. A dirty kitchen and sink full of dishes is going to sap all your desire, excitement, and willpower to cook a meal.

Just like a dirty kitchen impedes cooking a meal, a dirty or disorganized workspace impedes a legal task. If you have a long list (and sublists) of legal tasks that need to be tackled, workload paralysis can kick in. A messy desk feeds into that paralysis. A cleared, clean workspace unfreezes you. It gives you the white space to pick a single task and work on it to completion. A messy desk feels like each pile of papers and strewn client file is clamoring for your attention as you work, like you’ve let a toddler into your office and she’s tugging at your shirttail as you work. A cleared, clean workspace is tug-free.

Clear to Neutral Has Innumerable Applications

I love the idea of “work clean” and mise-en-place. In case you’re not familiar with the reference, mise-en-place is French culinary phrase that means “putting in place” or “everything in its place.” In his book Work Clean, Dan Charnas explains that the concept of working clean (or clearing to neutral) has a wide array of applications (while noting that us lawyers have yet to learn how to work clean).
I think many people look at the idea of mise en place as just being something where you prep your carrots and celery and have it off to the side—and not something that has wider applications?

Oh my God, it’s so elegant, this system. It’s not just about organizing space, it’s actually about how you relate to space, how you relate to time, how you relate to motions within that space, how you relate to managing resources, how you relate to managing people, how you relate to managing your personal energies, all of that. For whatever ironic reason, those spiritual wisdoms have fallen to the chefs. It sounds bizarre, but the fact of the matter is the reason that chefs have done it and lawyers have not, or that chefs have done it and medical doctors have not, is that the chef has a particular set of restraints and circumstances that make it impossible for him to succeed without doing this kind of planning of time, space, motion, resources and people.

Similarly, in another one of his videos, Tom Frankly explains how he applies the clear to neutral technique to his browser on his computer. Among other things, he clears to neutral by closing all unnecessary tabs, which may each relate to a separate and different task than the one he’s about to work on.
Right now, my application of the clear to neutral technique is limited to my workspace. I am being very intentional about completely clearing off my desk after each and every discrete task. And it is absolutely true that it helps eliminate some of the friction associated with getting started on your next task.

The Last Word

The clear to neutral technique is an incredibly powerful productivity habit. It can profoundly change your life. Unfortunately, it deceptively simple. By that, I mean it seems a lot easier to implement and maintain than it actually is.

You will struggle with it. Especially on those hair on fire days. When you have one thing after another, back to back to back. You think there’s no time to clear to neutral. I’ll clear to neutral later. And with that, you’ve failed to clear to neutral when you need it most.

The funny thing is it happens on slow days too. You have a small, simple legal task. You complete it. It’s so small that you don’t feel like you need to clear to neutral. It’s just a letter-sized manila folder with a few papers in it. And you leave it on your desk and move on to your next task. Again, you’ve failed to clear to neutral.

But with intention, you’ll master the clear to neutral habit, destroy friction, and be more productive than ever.


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About the Author

Bruno Tarabichi