Procrastination and the Allure of Tomorrow

Procrastination has few advocates but many followers. It has been the subject of philosophical wisdom, comedic humor, academic study, psychological research, and therapeutic advice for centuries. It is part of the human condition, though it affects some considerably more than others. The legal profession, with its deadlines, obligations, and responsibilities, can be quicksand for those most vulnerable to putting off today that which can be delayed until tomorrow.

The inevitable questions about procrastination have always been much the same: 1) what exactly is it, 2) why do we do it, and, perhaps most importantly, 3) how do we avoid or overcome it?

The What Question

To understand procrastination, it is helpful to understand what it is not. Procrastination in the legal profession is not:

  • Strategic delay: Deliberately delaying a decision or action because the issue appears likely to resolve itself and thus make further action or decision-making unnecessary (e.g., holding off preparing discovery, a brief, or jury instructions in reasonable anticipation the case will resolve).
  • Intentional delay: Deliberately delaying a decision or action because the consequences are uncertain and/or potentially problematic without first obtaining additional information (e.g., delay in accepting a settlement offer or taking on a new client until more information is made available).
  • Necessary delay: Deliberately delaying a decision or action because work load and/or time constraints necessarily require attending first to other matters that are more urgent (e.g., delay caused by an upcoming court appearance or significant client meeting).
  • Accidental delay: Delay caused by miscalculating the amount of time needed to finish a project (e.g., belatedly realizing a legal issue to be briefed is more complex than first thought) or genuinely forgetting to act on an intended goal (e.g., not remembering to timely file discovery requests or send a settlement demand letter). This type of delay may be professionally problematic for a lawyer, but it is not procrastination.

Procrastination in the legal profession (i.e., of the kind that chronically interferes with one’s professional responsibilities) occurs when a lawyer:

  • Recognizes the need to achieve a particular goal (e.g., getting a brief or discovery filed on time),
  • Has the time and opportunity to achieve the goal (e.g., 60 days to file a brief),
  • Knows that delay will harm the prospect of achieving the goal, and
  • Nevertheless, intentionally delays taking the action necessary to successfully achieve the goal (e.g., the lawyer does not complete a brief or discovery requests or waits until the last minute to undertake the project).

In short, procrastination is intentionally postponing necessary action, fully knowing that delay will probably impede one’s ability to accomplish a necessary task or, at least, impair the ability to produce a quality work product. It is acting against one’s own best interests and likely the best interests of the lawyer’s clients. It tends to affect both one’s personal and professional life.

While there are no known empirical studies of procrastination within the legal profession, statistics about the general population suggest:

  • Almost everyone (95%) reports procrastinating sometimes, and
  • Nearly 50% of Americans self-identify as chronic procrastinators.

The Why Question

The further away in time a task needs to be completed, the more inclined people are to delay attending to it, particularly when it is unpleasant or stress-producing. To some extent, this is human nature. When the behavior repeatedly occurs and risks significant adverse personal and professional consequences, it amounts to chronic procrastination. In the legal profession, an example of serious procrastination is seen when lawyers unreasonably delay for months or years the filing of a lawsuit. Fear, anxiety, uncertainty, or any number of other emotional responses may cause the lawyer to defer filing until the imminent expiration of the statute of limitations compels a last-minute scramble to get the matter filed.

Procrastination is not a time-management problem. Keeping meticulous to-do lists and time schedules are typically not the solution. Most researchers today consider that mood, emotions, and emotional regulation issues are causally at the heart of chronic procrastination. People generally learn from their mistakes and make changes so as not to repeat them (e.g., filing discovery late can have consequences). The chronic procrastinator, however, constantly repeats the very behavior that experience has taught will likely be harmful and self-defeating. Moreover, studies have found that procrastinators often carry with them anxiety, shame, and guilt about their decision to delay. Why then do they continue to procrastinate?

When faced with the decision to undertake an unpleasant task today, the chronic procrastinator seeks to avoid the negative emotions associated with it and instead opts to delay action until tomorrow. The fear, uncertainty, insecurity, anxiety, embarrassment, or other emotion associated with the task is put off to a later time, with the hope that the emotional angst it produces will be more easily coped with in the future. Delaying action thus functions as a form of emotional self-regulation, despite the procrastinator’s conscious or unconscious knowledge that in doing so the task being delayed will itself likely now be prejudiced.

The How Question

Behavioral scientists and psychologists have for years sought to identify techniques helpful to those struggling with chronic procrastination. Many of their research-based recommendations, often simple in application, have proved valuable in helping many to successfully mitigate the challenges of procrastination. Their recommendations include:

  • Introspection: Seek to honestly identify the reason(s) for the procrastination; if change is to be made, some candid self-understanding is a necessary starting point.
  • Awareness: Recognize that, at its core, serious procrastination is often about emotions – feeling good in the short term by delaying decisions or actions that may be unpleasant.
  • Social interaction: Many lawyers and others challenged by chronic procrastination are isolated in their struggle. They often feel embarrassed, anxious, and/or depressed by their delaying behavior. Talking openly with a spouse/partner or a trusted friend or colleague about their challenges is very therapeutic and a valuable first step in making needed changes.
  • Small steps: When faced with a disagreeable or daunting task, studies have demonstrated that breaking the project up into smaller pieces and completing them piecemeal is often a very effective practice toward ultimate task completion (e.g., opening a blank Word document is the first step in drafting a brief). Success in the small steps psychologically encourages confidence and forward momentum.
  • Social support: Making a verbal commitment to another person about steps (even small steps) intended to be taken on a project reinforces that commitment and the likelihood of success.
  • Setting aside time: Commit to yourself (and someone else, if possible) to do a defined portion of a delayed task at a defined time; set aside an hour or two (repeating, if necessary) to work solely on that item, and only that item. Some caveats:
    • Mornings tend to be best because people’s energy levels generally are greatest at that time;
    • Energy levels are strongly influenced by how rested and well-nourished one is; when energy levels are low, one’s physiological ability to stay on task and motivated is also low;
    • Make distractions less likely: take no calls, turn off your cell phone, close your door, clear your desk, and stay off your computer (except as needed for the task at hand).
  • Monitoring: Research clearly shows that monitoring progress helps assure success. It creates a visible record of effort and reinforces the positive behavior.
  • Setting deadlines: Procrastinators who set meaningful deadlines for themselves are much more likely to achieve task completion. This is especially true if the deadline date and time are written.
  • Rewards: The procrastinator who is rewarded for task completion (again, even for small steps) is more likely to be successful; regularly rewarding oneself for progress made psychologically reinforces the positive behavior.
  • Be realistic: (1) Many procrastinators tell themselves they work best and are most effective when they are under last-minute time pressure. Studies show that the work-product of the procrastinator is typically inferior to that of the non-procrastinator. (2) Plan a realistic amount of time for the task. Studies show that people are reasonably accurate in estimating how long it will take others to perform a task, but notoriously optimistic in making such estimates for themselves.
  • Counseling and therapy: As noted above, chronic procrastination is often about emotions. Counselors can help address the underlying issues and help you change your behavior.

The Oregon Attorney Assistance Program offers counseling assistance and referral resources for all Oregon lawyers, judges, and law students. If you are interested in a procrastination workshop, contact the OAAP.

Douglas S. Querin, JD, LPC, CADC I

OAAP Attorney Counselor