Learning Curve

The Zen of Overcoming Procrastination

Chad Noreuil

Clinical Professor of Law
Arizona State University College of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2020

Citation: Chad Noreuil, The Zen of Overcoming Procrastination, The Learning Curve (Winter/Spring 2020)


Whether you are in law school or teaching law school, there are always roadblocks that can keep us from being as efficient as we want. More and more, I find myself in office hours “teaching” how to overcome procrastination. This article is not just for the procrastinators out there, but for everyone who wants to be more effective at getting things done—while also minimizing your stress levels. Here are some tips you can share with your students (or yourself) to overcome procrastination.

Of course, as with any Zen, you want to begin with the right mindset. Thus, it’s important to first focus on your internal dialogue—the specific words you tell yourself about the assignment/project matters. The words you choose create different emotional states within the body and the brain. For example, it’s critical to remind yourself that you don’t have to do this, you get to do this. Don’t tell yourself that you are spending a lot of time on the project; tell yourself that you are investing time. During the editing process, remind yourself that you are not re-doing or correcting your work, you are improving your work. Consider how the following two sentences make you feel:

“I have to spend a lot of time correcting my memo.”
“I get to invest time to improve my memo.”
The words you choose to speak to yourself can go a long way to energizing you or depleting you, so choose wisely. If you are in law school, you don’t have to do anything; you get to do everything.

Second, keep your mind right by focusing on the process rather than the outcome. When you focus on the outcome, you lose sight of the steps it takes to achieve it. Moreover, focusing on the end result instills a fixed mindset, which only inhibits the process. And, of course, you will be more present (and thus more effective), when you focus on the process, resulting in far less stress.

So let’s talk about the process. Whatever you do—start! Start immediately, even if it’s just one small step. Psychologically, knowing that you have already started something is far better than the thought of not having started at all. Even putting your name on a paper and writing out just one sentence can be emotionally beneficial. Too many of us think that we have to have everything “right” before we start, but this isn’t true. It’s the process that helps us get it “right.” Accordingly, always remember that you don’t have to get it right when you get started, but you need to get started to get it right.

Once you have begun, keep this mantra in mind: Do a little a lot. It’s far more effective to work on something incrementally or in stages rather than sitting for hours upon hours trying to get it done. Doing a little a lot gives you more focus when you are working on your project, and it also gives you several chances to revisit your work from a fresh perspective. It also gets you into a routine that can break the cycle of procrastination, as procrastinators are notorious for doing things at the last minute in a large chunk of time.

Of course, if you want a true Zen mindset, then you are open to connecting with the universe around you—so use that to your advantage and make yourself accountable. Studies show that when you have to answer to another person you are far more likely to get things done in a timely manner. In fact, one study found that if you have a specific person you are held accountable to on a specific timeline, it increased a person’s chances of completing the task by 95%3. So tell someone what you intend to get done and in what time frame. You can also have cross-accountability with a classmate or co/worker (or even a family member) to keep each other in check. Innately, we don’t want to let our friends or family members down, so you can see why the accountability can really work. For best results on a bigger project, such as an open memo, make the accountability incremental (such as, I will be halfway done in three days).

A few final thoughts: If you find yourself procrastinating, don’t beat yourself up. Research shows that the more you can forgive yourself for procrastinating, the more likely you are to actually stop procrastinating and take action. If you’re feeling guilty about not having started earlier, you are living in the past, which doesn’t help anyone—so let that go! Take a deep breath, be present, and make a decision to get started.

And one last tip: get a walk-up song. For those not familiar with baseball, every player has a “walk up” song when they approach the batter’s box. This is a song they have chosen that gets them motivated before hitting. If you had to choose a walk-up song, what would it be? Make the song yours and make sure it’s one that gets you inspired. Music has been shown to energize the body, and you’re more likely to get into your work/project when you feel good. Additionally, if you play your song every time you start to get to work, you will have a trigger to create a habit, which will go a long way to re-wiring your brain for action instead of procrastination.
So . . . what are you waiting for?

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