Procrastination impacts all people. Procrastination is “the lack or absence of self-regulated performance and the behavioral tendency to postpone what is necessary to reach a goal.” Angela Hsin Chun Chu & Jin Nam Choi, Rethinking Procrastination: Positive Effects on “Active” Procrastination Behavior on Attitudes and Performance, 145 J. Soc. Psych. 245, 245 (2005). There are two types of procrastinators: passive procrastinators and active procrastinators. Passive procrastinators “are procrastinators in the traditional sense.” In other words, they are “paralyzed by their indecisions to act and fail to complete tasks on time.” On the other hand, active procrastinators are considered a “positive type of procrastinator.” Active procrastinators “prefer to work under pressure” and “make deliberate decisions to procrastinate.”
If you identify with either procrastination type, this article provides a brief overview of why we procrastinate, followed by some tricks to keep you motivated to stay on top of your work as well as some positive news for procrastinators.
Understanding Why We Procrastinate
To overcome procrastination, it is helpful to understand the factors that might cause procrastination. While many of us may be reluctant to admit it, one factor that contributes to procrastination is an inability to prioritize projects and decide what needs our attention first. As attorneys, we are constantly faced with coinciding deadlines, which can lead to the dreaded feeling of not knowing where to begin. We may unnecessarily delay starting anything rather than taking on something.
How to Overcome Procrastination
The first step to overcoming procrastination caused by indecisiveness is acknowledging that we simply cannot do everything at once that we need to do, despite the pressure to “multitask in a fast-paced environment”—which all job postings would have us believe is necessary for success. Good attorneys recognize that it is virtually impossible to give our attention to two client matters at the same time. Great attorneys realize that it is almost unethical to do so.
To help overcome the urge to put off tasks, write out when each project is due, giving yourself firm time limits for each project. Be sure to be realistic when setting these limits, keeping in mind how long certain tasks will take to complete. Do your best to get each task done within that time frame.
The following are three tips on how to effectively prioritize:
- First, no matter how busy you are at the time, try to peek at every new task, big or small, that comes down the pipeline. Tag the email as “unread,” make a list, calendar a date, jot a note, etc., to set yourself up for success. As mentioned above, all too often we underestimate the time required to complete what we initially expect to be routine undertakings. Don’t allow yourself to get caught off guard with a due date.
- Second, consult prior work product at the outset. The “asks” that come, more often than not, have been “answered” before. Instead of spinning your wheels, ask colleagues what they have done before. This allows you to more effectively allocate time.
- Third, set “soft deadlines” or interim reminders. Having a sense of purpose is linked with effective time management. Id. at 247. Even if you are not able to meet every soft deadline, they will keep your radar active as deadlines approach—and hopefully save you a panic attack or two.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
There are some less commonly considered short-term benefits induced by procrastination. Id. at 246. Procrastinators tend to have “less stress” with “better physical health when deadlines are far off.” Moreover, their quality of work is not necessarily affected. Id. In fact, people tend to “work better and faster or generate more creative ideas under time pressure.” Id.
While procrastination is not all bad, there are ways to reduce stress flowing from procrastination habits. If you’re able to understand why you procrastinate, you may be able to implement some of these tricks. In particular, to effectively prioritize, take a quick look at new assignments and consult prior work product while incorporating soft deadlines to keep assignments on your radar.
At the end of the day, we are trying to serve clients effectively and efficiently. Look at every new assignment as a way to advocate for your client and provide your client with the best possible outcome. Use this sense of purpose to fight off procrastination habits.
Virginia Flynn is a partner Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP in Charlotte, North Carolina. Stefanie Cerrone, Nicole ElMurr, and Joshua Howell are associates at Troutman Pepper in New York City, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Richmond, Virginia, respectively.