Procrastination – or the putting off of important tasks – is a problem which plagues many lawyers.  There is a well known quotation which says that “Procrastination is the thief of time.”  Given that lawyers charge by the hour, you would think we’d be less inclined to allow this to happen.

But to conquer procrastination, you have to recognise it which is not as easy as it sounds.  Putting certain things off could also be described as effective prioritisation.  So what’s the difference?

It’s quite common to put things off if we feel overwhelmed by a big job.  Drafting the long witness statement, reviewing the 100+ page contract, disclosure…   Not knowing where to start means you just avoid it altogether.  It’s a common symptom of stress and anxiety to delay a task we feel worried about.

Another common tactic is to allow minor interruptions to delay a more major task.  Returning a quick phone call will seem like an ideal way of avoiding reviewing several lever arch files of medical records.  Before you know it you’re caught up in a string of calls or answering emails and it’s lunchtime before you’ve even thought about beginning the most important job for the day.  You might kid yourself that you’re prioritizing, but what you’re actually undertaking is a form of displacement activity.

Wikipedia[i] says that “for a behavior to be classified as procrastination, it must be counterproductive, needless, and delaying” – three excellent reasons why lawyers shouldn’t engage in it!   Not only that, but in itself, procrastination results in further stress, guilt, and feelings of failure which in turn cause (yes you guessed it) more procrastination.  Like many stress related behaviours, it’s a vicious circle.

What’s important to realise is that procrastination means you work more hours than you need to, and you devote unnecessary time to any given assignment.  Effective prioritisation is quite the reverse.

To recognise procrastination, here are some common activities which should ring alarm bells with you next time you do them:

  • The “I’ll just…” syndrome.  Before you start a task: “I’ll just make myself a coffee”, or “I’ll just quickly send this email”.  Why not “just do” the task you’re delaying.  Give yourself extra motivation if you have to by allowing yourself a chocolate hob-nob with your coffee if you finish the task first, but once you’ve done this a few times you’ll realise that your coffee break is much more enjoyable if you’ve completed the task and can relax in the knowledge that you no longer need to do it.
  • “Groundhog Day” – writing the same tasks on a new to-do list on more than one occasion.  In other words, writing a new list instead of completing and crossing tasks off the old one.  Yes, by all means have one to-do list, that’s good time management, but spend the time you devote to writing additional unnecessary lists on completing the actual work.
  • Reading an instruction, letter, email, or diary note, several times without actually taking any action relating to it.  You might have been able to complete the task in the time you spent re-reading it.
  • “Time engaged – sorting file”.  Tidying your desk, “sorting out” a file, realigning post-its, looking for your highlighter pen, arranging your copies of the Gazette in date order, or any other similar activities will not get the job done (and they’re not billable!).

Finally, being a stressed lawyer is exhausting enough as it is, so next time you’re considering your to-do list remember that “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”  ~William James

This post has been written by Catrin Mills, founder of The Lawyer Coach.  The Lawyer Coach helps lawyers and other professionals to achieve more with their time. Catrin’s book on time management for lawyers was published in Spring 2010.

[i]Quoting Schraw, G., Wadkins, T., & Olafson, L. (2007). Doing the things we do: A grounded theory of academic procrastination [Electronic version]. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 99(1), 12-25.