Why Procrastinating Doesn’t Make Law School Applicants Happy (and Why It Doesn’t Stop): Part Two, Minimizing Procrastination

In yesterday’s post, I talked about a terrific summary of behavioral economics literature on procrastination by James Surowiecki, and its application to law school applicants.  I identified a few interrelated issues: that putting off studying for the LSAT and preparing law school applications isn’t just a matter of will power but frequently involves fear of failure and unrealistic assessments of how long the necessary work will take (including the likelihood that applicants’ time will be waylaid by other demands).  At the core is often a conflict among the procrastinator’s many wills, so a key part of reducing the tendency to procrastinate is to strengthen the will that actually wants to get the work done.

Worth re-emphasizing:  what you do now to minimize procrastination will pay dividends later.  A friend told me that his first two years as a lawyer were extremely frustrating, because he had to learn how to avoid having non-urgent matters become urgent simply because he’d dallied too much when he had the time.  He’d rather have spent his time with the law rather than time management but hadn’t appreciated the importance of managing his schedule, so had to do it on the fly.

How can you craft a process  for preparing your LSAT study program and law school application that will lead to the best results for your LSAT score and law school applications?

One solution is not to stop and start.  This is especially true for LSAT preparation.  It’s another aspect of the “Goldilocks problem” of the right amount of preparation time.  Many people study for the LSAT for a long period of time but inconsistently.  That means that they never achieve the necessary momentum to get their highest LSAT score on exam day.  In addition, good practice materials are a scarce resource, and shouldn’t be used up except in a disciplined push to actually take the LSAT.  Even in preparing law school applications, it’s important to follow a consistent, disciplined plan.

Second, the “weaker” will needs to be reinforced.  Surowiecki reports on a fascinating study in which a majority of college students, when given the choice between turning in 3 papers at defined points during the term and turning them all in at the end of the term, chose (contrary to what classical economics would predict) to turn their papers in at the spaced intervals, even though failure to do so would produce a failing grade on the paper.  They recognized that they needed to be accountable, to have their weaker will strengthened by an “external will.”

That’s linked to a third method to avoid procrastination, which is to break down a large task into small, easily completed and specifically defined tasks.  That’s actually important even within the LSAT—in each type of question, it’s crucial to break down your analysis and steps into bite-size pieces.  That’s part of making the LSAT manageable, so that when exam day comes, you know exactly what the next step is—automatically—at all times.  Similarly, in developing your application, you just can’t do it all at once, so a vital initial step is to develop a clear plan for when you’re doing what.  The plan will almost surely be adjusted periodically but you need a toehold starting-point that’s part of an overall strategy.

Be realistic about the amount of time each task will take you to complete.  That’s hard for someone who hasn’t applied to law school before, but a rule of thumb is that everything will take about twice the amount of time you think it will.

Fourth, you need to build in realistic insurance time, that is, you need to account for interruptions and delays you are likely to encounter, and add in some extra time for unanticipated—but almost inevitable—delays.  This is especially important in developing your law school application, the scheduling of which depends on parties not under your control—for example, professors and colleagues writing your reference letters.  And you need to have enough time to reconfigure your application package, not only to account for unexpected obstacles but also simply to make the refinements necessary to turn a decent application into a terrific one.

One thing that makes all this easier is that good work tends to build a momentum of its own; when once you’ve started, it’s easier to keep going, particularly if you have developed a task list whose items you can check off as they’re completed.

To summarize: to minimize procrastination, have a clear start date that you’ve determined taking into account your other obligations and building in enough extra time to account for the unexpected, follow a daily schedule of limited tasks that you can realistically complete on the day you’ve scheduled them and have an external source of accountability to help ensure that you’ll follow that schedule.

If you have an able advisor, he or she should be doing a lot of this work.  Other than teaching the content of the LSAT and working with my clients to develop the content of their law school application (let’s call those content tasks), I spend a lot of time making sure that my clients and I have and stick to clear plans for completing the necessary work.  That’s why Advise-In doesn’t do classroom-teaching for a fee and also why I don’t charge by the hour—both impede good long-term planning that will get my clients where they want to be.  Content tasks aren’t enough to ensure success—you need a good process to make it work so that you can shine on LSAT day and in your application.

So, I develop a daily program for LSAT preparation and a clear schedule of application tasks to be completed, each customized for every client’s schedule.  The tasks are clearly defined and consequently easier to complete and monitor.  The client and I preview schedules extensively in order to anticipate what is foreseeable—religious observance, an anticipated busy time at work or in classes, etc.—so that we can determine the best time to take the LSAT, avoiding conflicts with my clients’ other commitments or having the LSAT interfere with assembling the remainder of their law school applications.  I’ve been helping pre-law students a long time, and can anticipate most issues.  But there will always be adjustments we’ll have to make along the way, and good planning gives us the freedom to make them.

Having a clear plan developed with an advisor helps reinforce the weaker will.  It’s like turning in papers at intervals over the term.  There’s an external source of accountability that helps with meeting deadlines.

If you don’t have an advisor who will make this effort with you and on your behalf, you’ll need to find ways to mimic the effect.  That’s not easy but it is possible.  Classroom programs can’t really do that job, however, since there are too many people for a teacher to monitor and just going to class feels like enough of an accomplishment.  Per-hour advisors actually increase the incentives to procrastinate since in addition to all the other short-term reasons to delay, completing and discussing a task actually costs immediate money, namely the per-hour fee.

The best mimic—if you don’t have a will of steel—is to find a person (generally not someone who is just a friend) who knows the detailed, bite-sized schedule you’ve worked out and has a mechanism to enforce it (e.g., if you’re more than one or two days behind, you buy dinner or do something else that will increase your cost of falling behind).

Finally, there’s the fear of “failure,” by which I just mean not doing as well as you’d hoped.  “Failure” is not the best word.  The first thing to say about that is that if you avoid procrastination, you’ll be in a better position to get your best LSAT score and assemble your strongest application package.  Realistic confidence will feed itself.  That’s the rational response but may not help if you’re in the grip of fear that you might not be as “smart” as you thought you were.

Two points: the LSAT and law school applications aren’t testing your “intelligence,” whatever that means.  The LSAT is testing your ability to think in a certain way; you’ll have your best success if you think the way it thinks.  For some people, the LSAT’s style of thought is natural; for others, it’s a developed skill.  I got a perfect score on the LSAT and the first key to getting that was recognizing that the LSAT was asking me think in a way that is not instinctive for me.  For those clients for whom the LSAT’s way of thinking is a little mysterious, we adjust their instinctive ways of thinking and approaching problems to the “LSAT way.”  Beyond a certain base level, that has less to do with intelligence than technique.

That recognition helps you get an approach of “relaxed intensity.”  The LSAT and law school applications are games with rules, and your task is to play that game as well as you can, to get the highest LSAT score you can (not that someone else could) and maximize your law school alternatives, so that you can gain admission to the school that fits you best.  There’s no referendum on your personal worth, or your intelligence, there are just realistic assessments of where you’re likely to stand and working to get you there and maybe a little bit beyond.  Your intensity will come from your preparation.  It’s best to relax about the bigger picture—on occasion, it’s ok to think about it, and your advisors should have it constantly in mind.  Generally, though, your focus should be on just doing your job in a timely way; if you do the little things right, the big picture will usually take care of itself.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on October 13, 2010.

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