How to Help Law Students Overcome Procrastination and Faulty Thinking

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By Dr. JoAnne Sweeny

 In English, the verb “procrastinate” comes from Latin, as many big English words do.   It combines the adverb “pro,” which implies a forward motion with the word “crastinus,” which means belonging to tomorrow.  As noted by Ann Enquist in her article Defeating the Writer’s Archenemy, researchers have indicated that between 65 and 90 percent of college-level students procrastinate to the extent that  it has negative effects on their academic performance.

Procrastination in the legal world is particularly problematic because so much of practicing law is following deadlines.  Whether it’s a memo for a partner or an important court filing, a document that is even one minute late can cost you.  At the very least, procrastination can annoy your client and foster a bad relationship with opposing counsel.  According to ABA Comments to Model Rule 1.3 on Diligence, “no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination.”

Of course, if your students are procrastinators, this information is hardly helpful.  What may be more helpful for law professors is to help their students figure out why they procrastinate to see if there is something they can do about it.  Even an entire class spent on helping students overcome their procrastination is time well-spent.

According to the authors of The Mind Gym: Give Me Time, procrastination isn’t about personality, it’s about thinking.  Someone who declares “I am a procrastinator” makes his or her behavior appear to be a personality trait that is as invariable as his or her height or which hand he or she writes with.  In fact, procrastination is a habit that is caused by faulty thinking or beliefs.  Once your students know what their faulty thinking is, they can attack those thoughts and improve their habits.

There are several different kinds of beliefs that can cause procrastination.  Try to help your students see which category or categories they fall into:

     1.     Perfection

Perfectionists believe that everything they do must be exactly right.  That can lead to being unable to finish a project.  Because the project isn’t “perfect,” and probably never can be, it will never be finished.

        2.   Certainty

The quest for certainty makes people unable to start a task.  Those who seek certainty are looking to make sure they know everything they need to know before they begin.  Otherwise, people may discover they are imposters who don’t know everything.  This kind of thinking means that they do nothing instead.

       3.   Assistance

Getting advice before starting a task may be a good thing but assistance procrastinators take this idea too far.  Many tasks do not require expert advice and some people use this desire to seek out an expert as a substitute for actually doing the work.

      4.     Immunity from Failure

This fear is probably the most common.  Fear of failure has stopped many people from taking on important projects or tasks.  Of course, if you ask any successful person, they will undoubtedly be able to list a long line of failures.  Mistakes are part of learning, eventually lead to success and should therefore not be feared.

     5.    Freedom

These types of procrastinators are also called “relaxed procrastinators.” A freedom procrastinator has been stuck with a task that they do not want to do so they put it off instead.  It can be seen as a kind of grownup sulking. 

       6.     The Right Environment

This kind of procrastinator demands that circumstances be just right before he or she works on a project.  A certain kind of light, a good chair, even the right mood can become requirements for working.  Unfortunately, the perfect environment, like the perfect project, is extremely rare.

       7.      Ease

Ease procrastinators resist tasks that are difficult or unpleasant.  An obvious example is losing weight – it can be very unpleasant so there is great temptation to put off the diet until after you’ve finished the holidays or the pizza party or that last éclair.

Once your students have identified their faulty beliefs, they can begin to undo them.  According to The Mind Gym, the most important step to making over your beliefs is to replace your rigid demands with softer alternatives.  Tell your students that when a faulty beliefs kick in, they should pay attention to what they are saying to themselves.  Tell them to look for words like “should” or “must” or “ought” and replace them with softer words like “I would prefer.”  A phrase like “I would prefer” is not only softer but has space for you to add “but…”  This “but…” thought gives you a get-out clause to minimize the demand for perfection, certainty, help, or whichever faulty belief your students favor.  For example, “it must be perfect,” can become “I would prefer it to be perfect but if it isn’t, that will be okay.”

Finally, if your students (or you) just need a quick fix in the moment, here are some great ideas:

  • Find the right level of challenge for a project.  Too easy and it becomes boring, too difficult and it becomes demoralizing.
  • Promise yourself rewards for when you finish a project.
  • On the flip side, punish yourself if you don’t finish something on time such as by writing a check to a charitable organization.
  • Double your estimate for how long a task will take so that you start earlier.
  • Do the hardest part first so the rest will be downhill.
  • Move around to change your mood and perspective.
  • Spend time with “doers” – just being around productive people can rub off on you.
  • Break up the task into smaller pieces.  This works particularly well for writing assignments.
  • Instead of demanding large chunks of uninterrupted time, try working for smaller time periods – 15 minutes or so.
  • If you have trouble getting started, work for even smaller pieces of time – make yourself work for five minutes and then decide if you want to keep going.

Procrastination can be a demoralizing (and expensive!) habit but it is breakable.  Law professors can help their students break the cycle of putting off work until the last minute by using these practical tips and creating class exercises to assist their students become aware of their faulty beliefs.  If law students can solve their procrastination problems, they can only benefit when they become attorneys and the stakes get even higher.