It happens to the best of us. Files may be piling up on the desk, but a game of solitaire or a quick Internet search for the best-dressed celebrities at the Emmy Awards gets in the way. Procrastination: We all do it. But “it is definitely more dangerous for a lawyer to procrastinate,” noted Ellen Freedman, law practice management coordinator for the Pennsylvania Bar Association and president of Freedman Consulting in Montgomery County, Pa.
Lawyers procrastinating — by failing to respond to clients or missing deadlines — is one of the biggest sources of disciplinary complaints, “as well as sources for malpractice exposure,” she said. Procrastination can’t be eliminated, but it can be managed, she added. “There are a few psychological games you can play with yourself to get past the procrastination point.” Try these tips to stay on task.
1. Hi, I’m a lawyer and I procrastinate.
“It sounds silly, but the first step is recognizing that you are procrastinating or have a tendency under certain circumstances to put things off,” Freedman explained. “Admitting is half the battle.” Once the admission is made, identify triggers — maybe a certain type of motion requires monotonous, time-consuming research or an unfamiliar task presents uncertainties. Knowing that procrastination is on the horizon, lawyers can then turn to the anti-stalling tactics.
2. Fashion a starting point.
Legal work is extraordinarily complex and requires huge amounts of concentration, often without a clear starting point or ending point, Freedman said. Facing a task that will take four to six uninterrupted hours, lawyers may put it off knowing they don’t have that much time.
Trick yourself by starting with some administrative details that actually becomes the starting point for the project. “Invest 10 minutes and break the task down into three, four or five smaller steps, however you want,” she suggested – and then put it away. “Psychologically, when you go back to the task in a day or two, you aren’t starting, you are continuing,” Freedman said. “Continuing is always easier than starting.”
3. Create urgency — or pass it off.
Boredom can be the root of procrastination, said Shawn McNalis, senior practice advisor at Florida-based Atticus and co-author of Time Management for Attorneys. To avoid the snooze factor, try one of two routes. First, delegate tasks that can be performed by other team members, particularly lower-level tasks that try your patience. For the items that can’t be delegated, create a sense of urgency with automatic deadlines for every task. “If you leave the timeline for completion open-ended, it breeds procrastination,” McNalis cautioned.
4. Break it down.
Breaking down a task into discrete projects makes it more manageable to complete. “It’s a lot easier to find one or two hours at a time than to set aside all six necessary to complete the task,” Freedman said. “Broken down into more manageable steps, it’s easier to get the task done in a realistic time frame.”
5. Good lawyer!
Here’s your treat. Tie a reward to the completion of each of the smaller chunks of the task, McNalis advised. “Make a game of it,” she suggested. “The rewards don’t have to be big, just large enough to motivate you into action.” The treat can be as simple as a run to Starbucks or a chat with a colleague but the quick break can help rejuvenate your attention span when you return to work, McNalis said.
A version of this column originally appeared in Virginia Lawyers Weekly , sister publication to The Daily Record.