Survive Law School: Stop Procrastinating

Low tideWe are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.

Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood – it ebbs.

We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence
New York City, April 4, 1967

The Fierce Urgency of Now

What else is there to say on the subject of procrastination? Let’s just grab a Post-it note and put the quote above on the bathroom mirror, no? Could you really wake up every day and read that while brushing your teeth, and not want to go out and get things done?

But I do have a few more observations on the matter, just in case the inspiration wears off.

Resting is not Procrastinating

First, it’s important to differentiate between procrastinating and resting. You can’t work all the time. You just can’t. If you try, your productivity will drop and you’ll get nothing done.

I noticed an interesting phenomenon in my law school class – a disproportionate number of the most successful students were Mormon. On one level, this isn’t that shocking, since they tended to have families to support and didn’t waste time drinking and hanging out in bars. However, and here’s the surprising part, they didn’t do any work at all on Sunday. Nothing, nada. No case reading, no exam review, nothing. Every single week, they took an entire day off, and their grades didn’t suffer. In fact, a reasonable observer could conclude the downtime helped their law school performance.

What does this mean for you? Commit to downtime, schedule it, and respect it. When you plan your week, experiment with making time off your highest priority, a non-negotiable. Using that lens, where is there a large chunk of time you could devote to rest and rejuvenation? At first this might seem heretical, but give it a try. I think you’ll find you’re more productive the other hours of the week, if you prioritize time off.

Even scheduled downtime can be squandered, however, if it’s used in a non-optimal manner. What activities consistently increase your sense of well being? This differs for everyone. Some people crave a long run, which I would only do if a bear was chasing me (and, even then, I’d probably get eaten pretty quickly). Do you feel rejuvenated after a visit to a museum, or at the end of a good movie, or when you meet a friend for dinner? Perhaps curling up with a new novel relaxes you. Maybe you need to burn off energy at a dance club.

Whatever it is, do what you genuinely like to do. “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.”

The Root Cause of Procrastination

This may be controversial, but I believe the root cause of procrastination is pretty simple:

You don’t actually want to do the thing you’re putting off.

People tend to resist this idea, because the thing you’re putting off is clearly important or you wouldn’t be worried about it. Because it’s important, and you place a high value on taking care of things that are important, it must be something you want to do, right? Wrong.

Tell the truth. When you’re in a big-time procrastination spiral, there’s some tiny part of your brain that’s saying: “Screw this. This is a total waste of time. I couldn’t care less if it ever gets finished. I’d rather bake a cake.” Frankly, in a lot of cases, that part is probably correct. Many of the “important” tasks we’re supposed to accomplish every day are fundamentally pointless, and, on some level, you know it.

Everything is Pointless, I Think I’ll Just Give Up

Maybe this sounds nihilistic, but I actually think it’s empowering. Once you accept that some of the things you need to do are pointless, you can just do them, rather than stressing out about how flipping important they are!

Say you have to cite check an article for your law journal. To everyone except the author of the article and the person above you who assigned you the work, this task is meaningless. Fine, maybe you could conjure up a hypothetical future reader, who might happen on this article at some point, and might want to find the exact passage in the exact reference in the exact footnote that you’re checking, but it’s unlikely.

In your heart of hearts, you know the odds of anyone ever relying on your work after this is published is low. So what?!? With this realization, you’re free. This task isn’t important, it’s just required.

Even if you don’t particularly want to do it, you may as well get started, just to get it over with.

And that’s one way you stop procrastinating.

Read On:

Get more time management strategies, and take back control of your life:

Return to Surviving Law School 101.

Have suggestions on how to stop procrastinating? Leave them in the comments!

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  1. The article describes me but doesn’t help me, if that makes any sense. I can manage time well when I want to. I just don’t feel motivated anymore. How do you give yourself the swift kick in the pants to just get the work done?

    • Ha! Yes, I know what you mean. 😉

      I have two suggestions, on totally opposite ends of the spectrum. One, just commit to getting started. Sometimes, I find that the anticipation of how horrible something’s going to be is actually much worse than the reality once I get going. (For example, I’d been putting off writing something for weeks, and finally committed to start it today, and it was actually fine and not that big of a deal.) So pick the easiest possible thing that puts you one step closer to done, and do it. Often you’ll gain momentum, and find it easier than you expect to keep going.

      Two, take a break and rest. Like, really rest. Veg out, read silly magazines, watch a funny movie, take a bath, cook, sleep, whatever works for you. (Although sleep is always a good option!) If you’re really burned out, it’s hard to motivate to do anything until you physically and mentally recover a bit. Obviously you can’t do this forever, but it’s worth trying as a temporary solution!


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