If your procrastination is intentional, you may find yourself better able to manage your to-do list and attack problems with increased energy and creativity.
By Jon Eric Stuebner, Family Lawyer
Family lawyers are constantly faced with an ever-growing to-do list, impending deadlines, and problems requiring a solution. Almost any family law attorney has likely either said, or heard a colleague say, “I work better under pressure” to justify putting off a work task with a set deadline. This is the essence of the common understanding of procrastination, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “to put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness.” While procrastination generally has a negative connotation, it turns out that certain types of procrastinating behaviors can be beneficial. All forms of procrastination involve some form of delay, but it is the how and why of that delay that will determine the impact on your work.
Whether or not procrastinating behaviors can be beneficial or harmful will often depend on whether the behavior is irrational or intentional. The American Heritage Dictionary definition sets forth the irrational or passive type of procrastination. If you consistently put off tasks because you simply don’t want to do them or because you are paralyzed by indecision, you are unlikely to reap any positive benefits from the delay. You will likely find yourself scrambling at the last minute, stressed, and unable to think beyond a single approach. However, if your procrastination is intentional or deliberate, you may find yourself better able to manage your to-do list and attack problems through a variety of approaches.
Positive Procrastination: Start Early
Whereas negative procrastination often stems from an inability to self-regulate, self-regulation is inherent in positive procrastination. Tasks will likely be accomplished at the same time regardless, but how you get there can be drastically different and result in vastly different outcomes. Despite the seeming contradiction, positive procrastinators start early. But starting early doesn’t mean finishing early – and starting early can mean only taking small steps towards completing the task. By taking even a small step or completing a small part of the overall project, you are putting that project in your brain’s working memory. Positive procrastinators put the project in their working memory and then let it simmer. For a family law attorney, this could take on a variety of forms. If you have a motion on your to-do list, start the caption and maybe add just the procedural history. If it’s a response, read the motion right away, but that may be it to start.
How many of us have had great ideas while driving, in the shower, or right before falling asleep? Our brains often work best when we aren’t forcing them to. By starting early on only a small piece of the project and then stopping, we allow our subconscious to process the task at hand. When it comes time to read the case law or start drafting the legal argument, you may find that you have already created a mental outline or come up with an approach that you hadn’t previously considered. By allowing some time to positively procrastinate, your brain is working out solutions without conscious effort.
The sense of urgency that comes from procrastinating can be a good thing. With urgency comes focus that might not otherwise be present. However, without taking a deliberate and intentional step to start early, when you sit down to start writing the day before the draft is due, you are more likely to feel your palms sweat, heartbeat increase, and mind go blank. Nevertheless, self-regulation is still integral to the process. You still have to give yourself enough time to actually complete the draft.
Detach from Your Work
Another aspect of positive procrastination is simply stepping away from your work. How this is done can vary, but often involves stepping away physically, emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually. Attorneys – and perhaps family law attorneys in particular – are notorious for taking their work home with them. Modern technology, most prominently the smartphone, has certainly made some aspects of the legal practice more convenient, but has also made it easier and more common for attorneys to feel chained to their work. This often leads to fatigue and decreased self-regulation, which then results in negative procrastination.
Positive procrastination involves detachment from one’s work. Everyone knows the mantra “all work and no play…,” but for attorneys, this is much easier said than done. Attorneys are regularly required to engage in highly complex mental processes and are faced with ever-increasing workloads. However, by slowing down and taking the time to psychologically detach from your work, you allow your brain and body the time they need to recover from the fatigue that inevitably comes from an attorney’s daily activities. Failing to do so can negatively impact health and work performance.
So, how is that accomplished? Attorneys can learn to detach in a number of ways. First, physical detachment is not enough. It’s not enough to just leave the office. As stated before, we now have access to our email on our phones and remote access to office files through the Internet. Research suggests that psychological detachment can result in less fatigue and greater self-regulation. Psychological detachment means the ability to cease attributing mental functions towards work-related activities. In other words, when you are at home or away from work you have time in which you are not working, worrying about work, or thinking about work. That is not to say that work cannot be done outside the office, but that it is important to have some time set aside for completely non-work-related activities.
Take a Break
Additionally, short breaks can provide a needed mental respite from a particularly complex task. Even when under the pressure of a deadline, getting up and walking away from your computer, getting a breath of fresh air, or taking a short walk can end up saving time because you will likely be more engaged upon your return. That time may likely be otherwise spent staring blankly at the screen desperately trying to put the next sentence to paper without success.
Many attorneys may already be employing positive procrastination techniques without realizing it. While there is some overlap with general abilities to prioritize work, utilizing positive procrastination may be beneficial to the practicing family lawyer, especially those who consistently find themselves behind the eight ball with deadlines or under constant fatigue. However, positive procrastination may not be for everyone. Every attorney has their own approach to their work. For those of you who never procrastinate, more power to you. For the rest of us, revel in the fact that not all procrastination is bad, and there just may be some truth to the statement that you work better under pressure.
- For more information see, Dan Defoe, “Work Context and [Lawyer] Procrastination: Psychological Processes and Factors Which Influence Self-Regulation Failure”, Psycholawlogy, August, 12, 2014.
Jon Eric Stuebner is an associate attorney at Gutterman Griffiths Family Law in Littleton, Colorado. His practice has focused on dissolution cases, allocation of parental rights, and post-decree disputes. www.ggfamilylaw.com
How to Be a Better Lawyer
Be still. Chill out. Breathe and don’t pole vault over mouse turds. You can be a hero – an honest, ethical, and enlightened lawyer – while still billing hour after hour.