Everyone is capable of working like a fiend when the need arises. Unfortunately, most people only manage to unleash the hulking study-beast the night before an essay is due. For weeks, even months before the assessment is due, people are often held back by procrastination. You may even be procrastinating right now. There is no silver bullet for procrastination. At a certain point, it just comes down to really wanting to improve. Nevertheless, there are a few strategies that can help you to keep it at bay.
Long-Term Procrastination Strategies
- Just start. The hardest step in an assessment is the first. Write 100 words about your thoughts on the topic, read and summarise an article, find the relevant section in your reading guide and work through it. Try writing a Zero Draft. Do anything so long as it means that the next time you work on the assessment, you aren’t staring at a blank page.
For some guidance on where to start, see Beginning an Assessment.
- Set yourself proper goals. You receive an essay question. You write the due date in your calendar. You borrow every book that you can find on the subject. You get the question tattooed on the inside of your eyelids. You sharpen every pencil in your house. You write out key words on post it notes and stick them around your house. You buy a slab of Red Bull. But you still haven’t started the essay.
You need to begin with an idea of what you will need to have completed by the time you assessment is due. For a 2000 word essay, that will mean developing an interesting thesis, planning a good essay structure, reading about 25-40 sources and of course writing 2000 words. Now you have some numbers (and some clear secondary goals) to work with. Break those goals up, and your closer to having some good goals to achieve – you might set yourself a goal of reading 5 sources in a day, or writing 500 words. The key thing is that you will know, every day, how close you are to achieving your end goal of completing the assessment. If you are preparing for an exam, the same principles apply – only your goals will be more along the lines of “read 5 cases” or “prepare notes on Topic 1”. This is explored in more detail in the ‘Beginning an Assessment’ post.
- Tell someone what you are planning on doing. This can be an effective way to ensure that you stay accountable. Make sure it is someone who will hold you to your commitments. The danger of this strategy is that it can make you feel like you have done some work on your assessment and achieved something, when you are actually no closer to achieving your goals.
Daily Procrastination Strategies
- Plan your day appropriately. Some people prefer to do the job that they least want to do first. This way they have achieved something at the very beginning of your day, and can move on to more important things. Other people do something simple and enjoyable to start their day, in order to build momentum. They are then able to move on to more challenging work. Think about how you work best.
- Think about where and when you will work. Most people work best at certain times (due in part to their individual circadian rhythm) and in certain places. This is because the brain develops associations with certain places with certain mental states (bed = sleep, kitchen = hunger, library = study, etc.). Your body also requires breaks throughout the day. Consider where and when you are most effective, and how long you are capable of working for, and try to work your schedule around this.
- Keep a procrastination pad. At some point, you will find yourself scrolling through Facebook when you are supposed to be studying. Chances are you won’t even know how you got there. It happens to the best of us. The hard part now is closing it off. This is where a procrastination pad comes in. The trick is to write down exactly what you want to do so that you don’t forget it. Then you can shut down every browser and program that isn’t related to your study, and come back to them in your break. You can even get technological and save everything at the click of a button – there are several apps (see below) that allow you to save exactly what you are doing so that you can pick it up later.
- Figure out why you are procrastinating. There are a many reasons to procrastinate as there are lists on Buzzfeed. If you know why you are avoiding getting started, you can do something to resolve that issue. There are many books and articles on the subject (see below), and psychologist Piers Steele has developed an experimental tool to help students determine what is preventing them from getting started.
- Make plans outside of law school. This probably sounds counterintuitive, however it is important to have something to do outside of study. Treat seeing friends or doing something that you enjoy as a reward for successful study, rather than a distraction that you feel guilty about later. This will require you to set aside times for studying and times for what I like to call ‘not studying’. Don’t forget that it is important, both mentally and physically, to do something other than study.
There are a number of technological tools for reducing procrastination.
Saving articles – If you see something that you want to read later, it is a simple matter of saving it and reading it during your break. The following all have pros and cons:
Creating reminders – If you constantly think of other things that you have to do while you are trying to study, it can be helpful to have a place to write these down as you think of them. In addition to a procrastination pad, you could try the following:
- Pier Steele, author of the Procrastination Equation, has developed an excellent tool to assist you with setting achievable goals and increasing your commitment to them.
- The Centre for Clinical Interventions has put together a fantastic group of modules designed to combat procrastination, available here.
- Michael Hunter Schwartz has written a fantastic book on studying law, which includes a range of tips to help reduce procrastination. See especially the time management tips from p 51.
- There are a number of great resources on the Assessment and Study Skills pages of this website.