In the fall of 2013, I offered a webinar titled Conquer Procrastination! How to Manage Your Time to Build a Profitable Practice and a Rich Personal Life. It turned out to be one of my most popular offerings yet. I walked through the five root causes of procrastination and what you can do to counteract each of those causes. After all, no matter how good a solution may be, if it isn’t a solution for the problem you’re experiencing, it won’t help.
How comfortable are you with the business of practicing law? Law is a profession that must operate as a business, and failing to act accordingly will eventually sink a practice, whether solo or a large firm. Lawyers often come to me because they realize they don’t know how to market their services so that the right potential clients can find them. Small firm lawyers also struggle with how to charge clients (especially with today’s emphasis on alternative fees) and other backend business. These lawyers often acknowledge that they’ve known they needed to take on business development activity, for example, but that they’ve put it off until they have no choice.
Not surprising. When you don’t know how to start on a task, or when you don’t have any idea how to do the task, it’s easy to procrastinate.
When you procrastinate on figuring out how to do the task, white lies abound. Promises about starting are made and then broken. You guarantee that we’ll figure it out as soon as you finish this project, or the next, or the next. And the dreaded task gets put off while you check email, organize files, clean the office, and do other unnecessary prep work that substitutes for the real work.
Sometimes you’ll even start searching for information about what you don’t know, but the research becomes its own distraction: instead of seeking enough information to start and then learning as you do the work, you research it so thoroughly that you could write a manual. You become the conceptual expert, but because you’re just reading, not doing, you still don’t really know what to do.
And sometimes a task becomes overwhelming because you can’t see a finish line, and so it’s daunting even to start. If you can’t determine what will mark the end of the task or the project as a whole, it may seem to be too big and too overwhelming to begin. A few clients have come to me with great ideas for a book or a client training program, but without breaking down the implementation into small steps, they remain undone.
Lack of clarity about the finish line often comes into play when you confuse tasks, meaning discrete to-do activities, with projects, which are larger activities composed of multiple tasks. Writing an article that addresses an issue relevant to your practice area is a project; tasks include conceiving the idea, offering it to a journal or newsletter, outlining the substance of the article, doing any necessary research, actually writing the article, editing then, and so on. (This same confusion also explains why you may feel that you never make progress on your to-do list. If your list includes projects that will take more than a few hours, you will likely find that the project will linger for a few days before it’s completed, just because it takes that long to put in enough hours to hit completion.)
When you realize that you’re procrastinating because you don’t know how to start or you can’t predict when you’ll finish, here’s how to stop procrastinating and start moving:
- Determine specifically what you need to know to get started. Sometimes knowing the first step is enough to get into action; other times you’ll need to have a better understanding of the project as a whole before you can be comfortable beginning. Either way, knowing a specific first step is critical.
- Define the actionable steps. If you can’t see a finish line, you probably need to break a project into tasks. (For more on this, read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done as soon as you can.)
- Decide on the help you need. Lawyers are especially susceptible to “lone ranger syndrome,” but sometimes deciding to go it alone is a massive mistake. Yes, you’re smart enough to figure out whatever you need to figure out, but the cost in time, energy, and missed opportunities is often too high.
If you’re procrastinating due to a lack of knowledge about how to start a project or when it will end, identify what you need to know to get back into action. The sooner you admit that you don’t know something, the sooner you can solve the problem and get moving again.