Work + Growth

Take These Steps to Stop Procrastinating

  • Everyone procrastinates, but lawyers tend to struggle with it a bit more than those in other professions
  • Procrastination is tied to the various anxieties we feel about our ability to complete assignments
  • To nip procrastination in the bud, it’s key to acknowledge the anxiety and counteract it by methods such as practicing mindfulness and breaking tasks down into smaller steps

Here’s an open secret: Lawyers are notorious for their struggles with procrastination.

Now, of course, everyone procrastinates, no matter what they do for a living. But with a lawyer’s packed schedule consisting of tight deadlines as well as sudden issues that pop up throughout the day and need to be immediately dealt with, procrastination can be especially seductive while having possibly disastrous consequences.

Why We Procrastinate

Have you ever taken the time to think about why you’re avoiding certain work? Sure, some things are boring or tedious, but there are scores of boring, tedious things we need to do to get through life, and we simply buckle down and do most of them. Procrastination isn’t simply the act of putting something off until later, but necessarily includes an element of counterproductivity.

We generally procrastinate because we feel anxiety about the work we’re expected to accomplish. You may feel anxious because you’re worried that you don’t know how to properly complete the assignment or that you don’t have enough time to fit it into your already packed schedule. Chances are you haven’t put a lot of thought into why you keep putting your work off or what emotions you’re feeling when you do it. You simply procrastinate until your anxiety transfers from your concerns about doing the work to panic about the now-looming deadline—and then you have no choice but to rush and throw something together that would have been of higher quality had you simply tackled it sooner.

You Can Change the Script in Your Head

You are not doomed to repeat the anxiety-procrastination-panic cycle. The first step is to be mindful—focus on your thoughts and feelings. You need to identify exactly how you’re feeling and understand why you’re feeling anxious or otherwise negatively about beginning a particular task. Ask yourself what you’re so worried about. (“I don’t know” isn’t an acceptable answer, so really think about it and be honest with yourself.) Are you nervous that you have little experience doing what you’ve been asked to do, or that you will begin and not be able to finish?

The last time you found yourself avoiding a task, what else were you feeling? Did you feel anxious, scared, intimidated?

Once you admit the source of your anxiety, you can change how you respond to it. Instead of telling yourself that you don’t know how to do something, remind yourself that you learn how to do new things all the time. Instead of stressing over how much you have to do in so little time, make a plan that breaks the job down into steps, and start with the easiest or least time-consuming one first. Practice this approach whenever you’re faced with a difficult assignment and feel anxiety sneaking up on you, tempting you to push the work aside and leave it until the very last minute. Confronting your anxiety and countering it with rationality and concrete steps will eventually become your automatic response.

Effective Ways to Combat Procrastination

There are several proven, simple ways to counteract our tendency to procrastinate:

  • Practice mindfulness. Remember how you’re supposed to take the time to figure out and focus on your anxieties attached to the work you’re supposed to complete? That’s part of practicing mindfulness. Note how you feel, both physically and emotionally, and note why you feel that way. Be present and aware. Take a few slow, deep breaths before you tackle your assignment.
  • Segment time-consuming tasks into discrete, shorter ones. Large tasks that seem like they’re going to take forever are common stressors. Break them down into several smaller steps, and work on each step one at a time. Take a short break—get coffee, get up and stretch, or eat a snack—after each step is complete.
  • Avoid multitasking. Multitasking often results in a few things being sloppily done. Commit to giving your full attention to one thing at a time.
  • Limit distractions—use them as rewards instead. Don’t tempt yourself by having Facebook or your favorite cat-video YouTube channel open on your laptop. If you can limit distractions for long enough stretches to get each step of your assignment done, go ahead and reward yourself with them. Finish writing a brief, then feel free to watch videos of adorable babies hugging puppies for a few minutes.
  • Listen to your favorite music. Music energizes us, puts us in a better mood, and helps us get into the rhythm of an activity. The right playlist can help you focus and make work feel more pleasant.

Develop a Personal Anti-Procrastination Strategy

What works for your colleague may not work for you. Develop your own anti-procrastination ritual that you can regularly follow to keep yourself on track. Commit to it until you develop that automatic response we mentioned before. You cannot rid yourself of all anxieties and negative thoughts, but you can use strategies to refocus on positive moves you can make to get more done and ultimately get more satisfaction from your workday.

What's Next

Try our suggestions for recognizing and combating the anxiety and negative thoughts that contribute to procrastination. If you think of other methods that might work for you, add them to your personal anti-procrastination strategy. Try this strategy for the next two weeks and note the difference.