Lawyers Concerns: Procrastination habits have lawyer scrambling to meet deadlines

Issue September 2006

Q: I have been practicing law for nearly 10 years. I enjoy my career and have been successful, but I have a terrible habit of procrastinating, particularly with work deadlines. Many times I am able to meet my deadlines, but not without great anxiety, frustration and shame about my habit. And when I can't meet my deadlines, it inevitably affects others (those with and for whom I work) as well as myself. Despite my intentions to change these habits, history usually repeats itself, and I find myself scrambling at the last second. Do you have any advice?

A: While many of us tend to procrastinate in one area of life or another, when lawyers put off key tasks, there can be serious consequences for their clients, their colleagues and themselves. Naturally, the tendency to avoid tasks is greatest when we anticipate a certain amount of unpleasantness, as, for example, when we see the task at hand as beyond our current knowledge, or it is likely that our efforts will elicit negative reactions. Patterns of procrastination may also reflect fundamental beliefs about ourselves.

In her book It's About Time, Dr. Linda Sapadin gives labels to six procrastination patterns that convey the kinds of thinking/motivation involved: the perfectionist, the crisis-maker, the dreamer, the defier, the worrier and the overdoer. Along similar lines, Dr. William Knaus' book, Do It Now! Break the Procrastination Habit, addresses the need to identify thoughts that promote task-avoiding behaviors and replace automatic responses with conscious choice.

Putting off a task is rewarding on an immediate level (i.e., "I'll worry about that tomorrow" means an immediate decrease in pressure even if it makes for more pressure later on), so the behavior can easily be learned — but it can also be unlearned. There are many ways to tackle procrastination, and what works best for one person might not work for another. Try these approaches:

• Start with small steps. For example, in a writing task, one might initially settle for one poorly-worded paragraph or sentence, just to get some kind of process rolling. If you expect too much of yourself at one sitting, avoidance becomes very appealing.

• Impose a schedule on yourself. For example, "I will work on my most difficult cases every day from 11 a.m. to noon." If an hour produces too much discomfort, try a half-hour; over time, your "tolerance" will probably increase.

• Reward yourself for time spent on tasks that have not yet reached their "last minute." You might allow yourself some unstructured Internet time after spending time on a target activity.

• Limit avoidant behaviors to a certain schedule as well. For example, "I will only check my e-mail or surf the Web, etc., from 9 to 10 and 3 to 4."

• Involve someone else, like a colleague, spouse, therapist or coach. You might meet weekly to review your progress on the work that you tend to avoid. You are much more likely to sustain changes in your habitual behaviors if you have someone to "answer to" over an extended time. Certain kinds of professional coaches are particularly accustomed to this role.

At Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, we'd be glad to help you brainstorm on which strategies might best fit your own situation, and, if desired, to refer you to an appropriate professional.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from LCL. Visit LCL online at