Your Brain, Law School, and Law Practice:  The Paradox of Procrastination

To Do:  Anything But … (Fill in the Blank)

You know you have a deadline but you dawdle.  After all, you have estimated that it will take you an hour or a day for that project.  So no need to do it now, when the deadline is further away than an hour or a day.  You might even tell friends that you work better when the adrenaline is rushing.  Time pressure, according to the story you spin, improves your productivity.  Maybe you make yourself feeling better by engaging in pre-crastination, the art of doing non-essential tasks early (laundry or email) to soothe your worry about the essential ones you are ignoring (studying for a Trusts final or preparing a brief).  Or possibly your brain is a bit more insightful and you know procrastination is a bad habit, but you cannot break it. 

Why You Want to Avoid Procrastination

For the law student trying to master a vast body of skills and knowledge, procrastination can rob you of the opportunity to learn.  Waiting until the last minute to study, you miss the chance to understand what you don’t know (the illusion of knowledge) until it is too late.  Cramming, as previously discussed, is not the best way to acquire the necessary long term knowledge you need as a lawyer.  Sometimes you may even use procrastination to rationalize bad results – “Well, I would have done better if I had started (studying or writing the paper) earlier.”  It might be better to self-handicap than actually confront the possibility of trying and not succeeding at the project of learning, which – under the best of circumstances – involves a fair amount of failure.    

For the practicing lawyer, the law operates on deadlines – for filing complaints, responses to motions, or meeting with clients about drafting a will or a new corporation.  These projects require time.  For example, good writing requires re-writing, but getting the first draft may be all you can manage when you have waited too long to start the project.  Learning how to tame the procrastination beast early is an essential attribute of the successful lawyer.  More important, chronic procrastinators subject themselves to more stress, leading to poorer outcomes on the assigned tasks as well as to their health generally. 

What a Deal - Less Stress Now, Much More Stress Later

Procrastination is more than poor time management.  It is an emotional response to a task that perpetuates a cycle of guilt and anxiety.  If we were perfectly adaptive, we would be able to learn from our mistakes (“gosh, I wish I started that project last week because it need more time for editing”) and start earlier the next time to get a better result.  More likely, we wait until the last minute again for the same reason we did the first time – it triggered anxiety to start the project and we succumb to putting off the unpleasantness.

Researchers think it is this emotional response that prevents us from adapting our behavior when we are next confronted with an unpleasant task.  Procrastinators tend to want to feel better in the moment and avoid facing the emotional anxiety of confronting the problem and feeling better in the future.  If we procrastinate, we think we will be able to handle that anxiety better at a later date.  Unfortunately, we wake up on the day of the deadline with essentially the same circumstances but much less time. 

We continually find our prediction of the easier future dashed, but avoiding the emotional pain in the present moment becomes the prime directive.  The more difficult the task, the more your avoidance response kicks into high gear.  More avoidance and guilt sets in, complicating the emotional picture.  The paradox is that you would feel much better if you jumped into the unpleasant task.  But, as I told you at the beginning of this series, the brain is not always logical.  You have to manage it for better performance. 

Do Something Now

So enough of diagnosis and on to prescriptions for managing the condition.  Here are six suggestions:

1. Understand.  You have already started on the path by learning more about the issue.  Recognize that procrastinating is not a good habit, especially for lawyers.  You might tell someone you operate best under the pressure of a deadline, but the deadline actually forces you to finally face the task.  While producing a sub-optimal work product, you have subjected yourself to inordinate stress.  Lose-lose.  Recognizing the issue allows you to be proactive in improving the situation rather than ignoring it or rationalizing it away.

2. Confront.  To borrow from Sheryl Sandberg, “lean in” and deal.  Confront the emotions and realize that procrastination is a short term fix for your anxiety.  Recognize that this is one of those times that your brain is sabotaging you, prolonging the agony.

3. Re-frame your perspective.  Change your brain’s perspective and focus on framing the long term benefits.  Change “I have to study for this stupid torts class” to “I want to be able to pass the bar” or “I want to be able to handle a personal injury case well for my future clients.”  Find some meaning that is more personal than the arbitrary completion of a task. 

4. Set interim deadlines.  As part of the re-framing process, cut your task into more manageable bites.  Getting up with “mastering constitutional law” on your “to do” list is a prescription for procrastination.  Start with breaking it down to reading the cases, outlining the material, and doing a practice problem on separate days.  The Pomodoro (Italian for tomato) technique is an excellent tool for breaking work into intervals of 25 minutes, with short breaks.  (Take advantage of free apps that make using this method easy.)  The value of a Pomodoro is that you are better able to emotionally confront 25 minutes of a task.  Once you begin the task, you generally find the fear and anxiety were worse than the actual task, enabling you to overcome the source of your procrastination. 

5. Connect something good with something bad.  Maybe you cannot re-frame your mind into thinking writing that paper will make either you or the world better.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has done research on “reward substitution” and found it helpful for harnessing self-control.  Pick out an enjoyable activity and pair it with something you would normally avoid.  You begin to associate the short term reward (watching a movie) with the activity that is perhaps unpleasant (writing the introduction for your paper) but going to give you a long-term reward.  Watch this entertaining clip of Professor Ariely explaining how it worked for him in difficult circumstances. 

6. Beware of the planning fallacy.  Research indicates that are inaccurate in predicting how long a task will task, leading us to put too optimistic a spin on it.  So double or triple your time estimates to take account of this problem and start even earlier. 

No need to wait – pick out something you have been avoiding and try the techniques.   

Marybeth Herald is a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego and author of Your Brain and Law School (2014.)


Julie Cummings

I like the way you provided six suggestions for managing procrastination. I thought your suggestions were particularly helpful in that they provided some fun links to further illustrate your points. Great blog!


Procrastination is one of my major character flaws! I signed up for a 2 year program hoping I wouldn’t have time to procrastinate but I still do. Time management is really rough because I keep having emergencies pop up. Do you have any suggestions to budget emergency time?


Here is a site that deals with time management strategies -

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