Overcoming procrastination

by Nancy Payeur, MSW, RSW, Regional Director, Interlock

Procrastinate 1. to put off taking action until a future time; be dilatory 2. To defer or postpone. From pro (forward) and crastinus (pertaining to the morrow).
— Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary

Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.
— William James

When I spoke to several lawyers recently about procrastination, all agreed they know of others for whom it is a real problem and — no surprise — even see the tendency in themselves. Clearly, it’s normal for most people to procrastinate some of the time and about some tasks — making income tax filings on time and meeting RRSP deadlines are common examples.

The seriousness of the problem and the impact it has on career and professional success vary substantially. While lawyers are not alone in their struggles to get work done on time, law is a time-sensitive profession and includes many deadlines outside of an individual lawyer’s control. Therefore, most lawyers do not have the luxury, if it can be called that, of a procrastination habit.

Work struggles that may be related to procrastination include consistently missing deadlines, not returning client calls and repeatedly delaying court matters. These behaviors often provide the first red flags of difficulties, although the underlying causes are diverse.

Several lawyers have spoken to me of overwhelming workloads and the sense of immobilization or inability to act that can be experienced by even the most productive and efficient lawyers from time to time. This sense of panic or feeling out of control can happen most often during times of unusually high work demands, for example during long and complex trials, when a person realizes the volume of work and tight time lines in the weeks ahead. Whether lawyers are in private practice or not, chronic procrastination can present a serious barrier to success in the legal profession and in life.

These practical tips may help you in avoiding procrastination:

1. Face the problem. It is very easy to avoid doing this, particularly when under stress. Often we delude ourselves with the illusion of work. You know the signs. Browsing the net, sending and reading e-mails, filling time with non-essential administrative tasks … anything to avoid working on that problematic file.

2. Recognize your weak spots. One of the reasons for procrastination is that we don’t do what we’re not good at. If you don’t like handling issues on the phone or have difficulties with certain clients, for example, you may find you will delay in dealing with those issues or those clients. Once you recognize this, dealing with the solution becomes easier. You may need to tackle the problem directly yourself or, in some cases, you may find colleagues more suited to the task than you and with whom you can exchange work.

3. Trick yourself into starting. If you’ve been avoiding a particular task, start by telling yourself you will just work on the file for 15 minutes. At the end of that time, see if you can continue. Before putting it away, jot down a few notes on next steps or ideas for follow-up and place them in the file. This will help you transition back into the work more readily the next time.

4. Set your priorities daily — and act on them. One experienced Crown Counsel described her process as follows:

I review everything that’s on my desk. Then I do a couple of things. I make a list of everything that has to be done. Then I number them in order of importance and urgency. I ask myself: what must be done today? What can wait? Once I decide what the top two items for the day are, I set about working on them. At the end of the day, if I have accomplished only those two items, I’m happy. Once I’m able to start crossing things off my list I feel calmer and more in control. I also physically organize and number my files in order of priority, which helps me focus and reinforces those top items. I also review my list at the end of each day and decide what the next day’s top two priorities will be.

5. Break down complex tasks into smaller ones. Frequently, we put off starting because the overall job looks so daunting. Map out a detailed outline of all the separate tasks that need to be completed on a file, such as through comprehensive practice and project management checklists.

6. Set mini-deadlines. Use a technique called “back-timing,” described by Rita Emmett in her book The Procrastinator’s Handbook: Mastering the Art of Doing it Now.* Work backwards from your final deadline to set interim deadlines for each of the separate tasks. For example, if you are presenting a paper at an upcoming legal conference, set and record earlier deadlines prior to the presentation date, including dates for completion of research, first draft, review and feedback from colleagues, further drafts, final proofing by a trusted peer, final proofing and revisions by yourself and submission of the paper.

7. Find rituals and routines that work for you. Identify and work within your personal rhythms. If you are most productive in the morning, use that time for challenging tasks and save routine administrative chores for the afternoon. Identify distractions and eliminate or contain them: close out of email, turn on your phone’s “do not disturb,” shut the door and let uninvited visitors know you have a commitment. Repeat rituals that work for you: a favourite pen, getting coffee before you begin. In short, build in cues that remind you it’s time to begin. Use a timer and tell yourself you will give your entire concentration to your most onerous task for 60 minutes.

8. Get the help you need. Once you have faced the problem, identify your barriers and needed resources. Do you need someone who’s an expert at managing time to coach you? Administrative or paralegal support? Help getting your office organized, de-cluttered of distractions? Or, do you need to consult with a colleague who has expertise in a complex area of law relevant to your file?

9. Visualize. See yourself at the end of the day having been productive and focused. Think about the sense of satisfaction you will feel once you’ve completed a long-delayed task.

10. Reward and reinforce. Find a way to reward yourself when you’ve stuck to your goals for the day, if only to mentally remind yourself what you’ve accomplished. After long periods of a heavy workload, plan a weekend getaway or relaxing family activity as a way to reward yourself and reconnect with loved ones. Life should be more than just work.

Finally, consider seeking help from Interlock when your problems are becoming overwhelming. Interlock provides completely confidential and professional counselling to members of the Law Society of British Columbia. The service is sponsored by the Law Society and is a membership benefit for lawyers throughout the province.

To set up an appointment with a counsellor in your community, call 1-800- 663-9099 or 604 431-8200 in the Lower Mainland.

* Recommended reading

Rita Emmett, The Procrastinator’s Handbook: Mastering the Art of Doing It Now (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2000).