by Kurt Aktug

Most of today’s trial attorneys have engaged in at least some level of self-education in the realm of psychology and what makes the human mind tick. In an effort to hone our skills at influencing juries, we’ve become more and more steeped in the science behind basic human needs and fears, how we make everyday decisions, conscious and unconscious, and how the concept of “fight or flight” factors into such decisions. The same attorneys are often working long hours, handling multiple cases, making ourselves available for clients, managing our firms, learning about marketing trends, and, of course, trying to live our at-home lives, all while trying to avoid mistakes, missed deadlines, and, ultimately, malpractice. In the midst of all of these obligations and duties, and although we sometimes fancy ourselves amateur psychologists when it comes to persuading juries, we tend to ignore, or fail to understand and effectively manage, the hard-wired psychological reasons behind some of our own shortcomings, one of these being, in some, the tendency to procrastinate.

Not all of us procrastinate, but those of us who do will understand, or at least should understand, why we can give in to this tendency. In understanding why we do it, we can be more successful in avoiding it, or at least mitigating it. According to many experts, the tendency to procrastinate, though rising to different levels in different people, resides in the same part of the brain that we often study when we’re learning how to influence juries—the part that helps us detect threats and avoid or eliminate them. This “fight or flight” part of the brain can identify certain tasks as things that induce a certain level of stress and are thus unenjoyable. The brain then comes up with ways to avoid doing these things. This is not laziness or poor time management, but the brain’s way of saying “Editing the Johnson discovery is boring, requires a certain level of concentration, and is not enjoyable, so we’re going to avoid doing it.” Our brains are protecting us, or at least they think they are. What our brains don’t understand, at least at this basic level, is that we’ve already gotten one extension, the discovery is due next week and we’ve got other plans this weekend. For these reasons, we struggle with ways to overcome the tendency to put things off.

Procrastination can also be exacerbated by being a perfectionist. Striving for perfection can lead to fear of even attempting a task due to concerns over making a mistake or getting it wrong. Lawyers are certainly not immune from this fear. To some extent, the fear of making mistakes is likely part of our psyche. But allowing that fear to paralyze us is counterproductive and can actually lead to the very outcome we are trying to avoid. It is far better, for our clients and for our ability to sleep at night, to complete the task in front of us and move on to the next one.

One of the time-tested, or at least often utilized, ways that we try to tamp down procrastination is by making task or to-do lists. We feel a great sense of accomplishment when we’re able to check items off a list and proclaim, “I finished that!” But the list itself is often daunting and can be a roadblock to making significant progress. One way to overcome this roadblock is to keep the list short. Make it realistic, prioritizing the important things, but keeping it short enough that it is actually achievable. Staring at a too-long list and feeling the stress level rise isn’t helpful. Stress can lead to procrastination, which leads to more stress, because deep down we know the ramifications of failing to complete the task. Stress also leads to all sorts of health problems. So, keeping the list realistic and achievable is important.

Distractions can also lead to procrastination. Tempting distractions include listservs, newsfeeds, and social media. Those managing offices know that social media can be a distraction for employees, but it can also be an issue for employers. If prone to getting pulled into that world, find ways to eliminate the potential distraction. Remove the apps from phones, tablets, laptops and desktops; make passwords longer and more complicated than they need to be; or set certain times of the day when it’s OK to decompress for a few minutes and see what your old college friends are up to. Eliminating, or at least minimizing, these distractions can also help us stay on task.

There are many theories about why we procrastinate. There are even more ideas about how to overcome such tendencies. One book that comes at the problem from both angles is “Procrastination, Health, and Well-Being” by Dr. Timothy Psychyl. If procrastination is an issue for you, or if you would simply like another look into the inner workings of the mind, the book is a useful addition to any to-do list.