Lawyers Journal

When procrastination jeopardizes your career

This column offers mental-health and wellness-
related information to the Massachusetts legal
community. Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers bases the
column on questions frequently asked by its clients
and help-line callers. The information is general in
nature and not meant for treatment.
Q:A client has just filed a complaint about me
with the BBO. I can't blame her, because I allowed
aspects of her case slide until it was too late to get her
a fair result. To be honest, I'm beginning to recognize a
life-long pattern of procrastination and avoidance that
has all too often jeopardized my career and created
personal problems (i.e., missing IRS deadlines,
alienating friends, etc.). I don't really understand why I
behave this way, and my fervent intention to change
has proved futile.
A:Our experience at LCL indicates that this is a
very common problem among lawyers, especially
those in solo practice who answer only to themselves.
It also seems to come up more in certain kinds of
cases, e.g., litigation or probate, less so in criminal
work, which imposes its own deadlines.
Procrastination and avoidance produce a strong and
immediate, albeit, short term reinforcement: reduction
in pressure and anxiety. But this inclination is usually
outweighed by factors such as enthusiasm and the
anticipated gratification of accomplishment, making an
impact or just getting the job done. A healthy fear of
foreseeable consequences is also a motivator. How
many people would finish preparing their income tax
returns if they had no fear of the consequences?
Your avoidance could stem from a number of causes.
(The crucial factors probably vary from one person to
another.) Here is an incomplete list of possibilities:
•  Attention Deficit Disorder: There
may be difficulties with sequencing, focusing, and
prioritizing that are inherent in how your brain is "wired."
•  Depression: The low energy,
motivation, concentration, pleasure, etc. of depression
can set the stage for neglecting important tasks and,
when severe, even basic hygiene.
•  Personality features: Low self-
confidence, exaggerated anxieties about failure, or fear
of making a mistake can all trigger avoidance. Another
example is the person with "passive-aggressive"
features, who (without realizing it) uses lateness or
inaction as an indirect means of expressing anger.
In his book, "Do It Now," Dr. William Knaus identifies a
variety of "procrastination styles," such as fantasizing
rather than acting, or "drifting" with only vague goals
and plans. (This and other relevant books are available
in LCL's library.) Aside from treating underlying
conditions such as those listed above, a procrastinator
breaks out of such patterns, typically, by scheduling
and essentially forcing new behaviors.
Changing such behavior is not easy and often benefits
from collaboration with someone else, for example, a
therapist/counselor, personal coach or, when
appropriate, an attorney-monitor. LCL can help you
better evaluate your problem and can provide you with
resources to deal with it.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association