Fear, fatigue and failure: How to beat procrastination

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[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

Raise your hand if procrastination has a hold of you. You may be reading this right now because you are procrastinating. Honestly, this is being written at the particular moment that I am also procrasti-working. Doing a less-urgent task makes me feel more confident in it and know that it will bring me more immediate joy.

Mara's Dog on Laptop

Making my dog pose for pictures always brings me immediate joy and writing a memo/ starting an outline/ reading for contracts sometimes feels like a slog.

I find that I procrastinate for three main reasons: fear, fatigue, and failure to plan. (“F”- alliteration here to prevent future failure?) This is especially true with large assignments like the open memo, even though of course I know that putting it off will make me miserable and ultimately result in a much worse memo. Sometimes I get paralyzed by the inevitable failure I see in my future. This fear is only exacerbated by the fact that I often don’t know where to start. So I look at the blinking cursor and start to panic about how much work it will take to turn that blinking cursor into a 20-page memo on libel. Then, not only am I exhausted from all of the other classwork and life work, but I am tired from having spent the last 20 minutes panicking.

So how do we kick the three Fs in the face? Here are some tips:

1. Break it down

First Draft PlanMake an overly detailed to-do list. You may not know at that exact moment everything you need to do to have a completed memo (or outline or exam sheet), but you likely know what the next big step you need to take is. Write down and put in order every little piece of that next big step that you can think of.

I use Notion for everything in my life. If it ever ceased to exist, I might also cease to exist. In Notion, I compile a list of everything that I know for sure needs to be done on a project and evidenced-based predictions of how much time it will take. Then I schedule when that task should be accomplished.

Focus on one section at a time, one small task at a time – until you finish that section. If you know what the next big step is, go ahead and map it out. Rinse. Repeat.

Forest AppTiming this process is recommended. I always think I work faster than I do, and it gets me in a lot of trouble. I have been using the Forest app since my master’s program and LOVE it. It helps to look at each category and see if particular kinds of tasks take more or less time than I anticipated.

In April 2018, I spent 5079 minutes working on my thesis. In each little time block, I put in exactly what I had accomplished (i.e. how many pages I read or wrote) so that I could see if there were areas I was spending less time or areas where I was working slower than average.

2. Set specific goals

You can’t write the whole thing at once, though you may be tempted to. And your brain will get tired of writing libel analysis after a few straight hours. Cal Newport – my favorite productivity guru and MIT professor – recommends big chunks of uninterrupted deep work, and from my experience outside of law school, I agree.

The catch for me is that I must have a big enough goal that I am not an hour in and then having to go back to the planning board (which interrupts focus and kills my motivation), but can’t be so big that I end my time with the paralysis described above. Since I know how long tasks generally take me, though, I can usually predict fairly accurately what my plan for a deep work session needs to look like.

3. Get feedback often

We, law students, tend to be perfectionists and have trouble bringing unfinished products to professors for feedback. Please hear me, though. YOU NEED FEEDBACK EARLY AND OFTEN! If you write an entire section wrong or have the criteria for unforeseeable consequences wrong, you are going to expend so much more energy and time going back and correcting that later.

4. Ok, perhaps the most crucial piece of advice I can give: Set arbitrary deadlines

The reality of law school is that you are going to be afraid of failure and you are going to be exhausted. So what do I do? I trick my brain into thinking the deadline is MUCH earlier than it actually is so that if all of my other preventative measures fall through (which they sometimes do), I still am not up a creek without a paddle.

I use the Countdown app to mark the assignments as due a full week ahead of their actual due dates. This way all I have to do is swipe to the control center on my phone and I know exactly how many days I have left to work on things.


Hopefully some of these tips and tools can help when you’re battling procrastination. Good luck!

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