Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

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Q: I find myself putting off boring tasks until the last minute – and then things get really stressful. Any suggestions for getting over procrastination?

A: To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, “You can have results or excuses, but not both.” Granted, our topic is not weightlifting, but the maxim still rings true. Procrastination can be self-destructive – but we all know that. And while some are more proficient at procrastinating than others, it is a common problem.

In a recent program on time management for lawyers, I asked people to raise their hands if they procrastinated. The group was honest: Every single person in the room raised a hand.

Growing up, I had a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Later, later, later . . . .” to proclaim to the world that I was highly adept at delay. By the time I began to practice law, procrastination had become perilous. In Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks I include a list of 12 Personas to Avoid as a new lawyer. “The Procrastinator” is high on the list.

Here are some tips to help you curb the allure of delay:

  1. Identify the Underlying Issue. People often procrastinate because they find tasks to be boring or unpleasant – or they worry about the outcome. Stopping to examine the reasons that you are putting off a particular task can help you focus on ways to get started. For example, if you are dreading turning in a brief because you are worried you will receive negative feedback, question your assumptions. Then turn your focus to how you can meet the expectations.
  1. Make the task easier – or harder. Lawyers often put off tedious tasks, such as entering and releasing time. Of course, with delay, many tasks become even more tedious and time consuming. You may be able to make tedious tasks more stimulating by making them harder. For example, challenge yourself to do a tedious task thoroughly and completely in as little time as possible. How quickly can you enter and release your time from the day before? And for tasks that seem overwhelming and difficult, try breaking the task down into smaller and smaller tasks – until you have identified a few specific steps you can take that are absurdly simple. And those steps may even include delegating to others.
  1. Eat the Frog. Try to get into the habit of starting your day with an unpleasant task – first thing – at the same time every day. Quoting Mark Twain, “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.” If you get in the habit of starting your day with an unpleasant task, you can usually look forward to having the day get better. Rewarding yourself after you eat your frog will help reinforce the habit.
  2. Start a timer. Overcoming procrastination is usually about starting. It’s often easier to continue to work on a project than it is to start. Ruminating can cause you to catastrophize. And once you start, you may find that a project is not as awful as you expected. It may be easier to dive in if you commit to starting and working for a short period of time. Set a timer for 12 or 15 minutes. Start working, and then give yourself permission to stop when the time is up. If you do stop, you may need to set another timer, but at least you will have made some progress.
  1. Make a conscious choice. Having more time makes people more likely to procrastinate. Without a looming deadline, the consequences of delay may seem minimal. Focusing on the consequences of never doing the task may provide focus and motivation. Reframe your choice as either doing a task immediately – or never doing it and accepting the consequences. Lawyers who make the latter choice usually end up in front of their bar association disciplinary boards. If this approach does not help you dive into a task, take another tact, because you can’t tell the bar association that I told you to blow off your work.
  1. Explore other resources. Procrastination is a common problem. There are many resources that may help. Two books that I recommend include: The Now Habit and The Procrastination Equation. And Productivity Challenge Timer is an app that takes a lighthearted approach to overcoming procrastination, dishing out rankings such as “Recovering Slacker.”

            I would love to hear your tips on overcoming procrastination. Send them to me here.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.


Erin Caitlin Callahan

Thank you for all these fabulous tips. I just bought the Now Habit and downloaded the Productivity Challenge Timer. I can’t wait to try the app out Monday.

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