Procrastinating was my biggest problem as an attorney. I never met a deadline I couldn’t miss; even the strictest litigation deadlines were no match for my dedication to putting things off. I lived in a constant state of worry, and although I managed to avoid getting into trouble, I always expected to be called out. I hated myself for it, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t bring myself to get the work done.
Over time, I realized that my problem wasn’t so much procrastination as it was self-esteem. I never felt confident as a lawyer. I spent my final year of law school studying overseas, and as a result, I missed a lot of opportunities to intern and take clinical courses. While law school is in many ways unrelated to the practice of law, I did inadvertently miss some good opportunities to gain experience and confidence.
After law school, I went straight to the “firm” I had worked at since college. There, I had no opportunity to find a mentor, or to advance. I worked for a stereotypical attorney who expected the largest amount of money for the least amount of work. Of course, everyone wants that to some degree. But as I became more capable with the law, he started taking on clients with cases I didn’t know how to handle. I was expected to do the work on my own, with few resources available. He never took the time to teach me what he knew, and he made it clear I wasn’t to ask for outside help.
I muddled through as best I could. But in most areas of law, there is no guidebook, telling a clueless attorney exactly what to do and when to do it. When guidebooks were available, they were priced out of my reach and my employer’s willingness to pay. I researched and observed as much as possible, and I called friends and acquaintances for help far more than I felt comfortable.
With several exceptions, I never got used to flying blind. I’d panic before returning phone calls, knowing that I was about to reveal my lack of knowledge. Simple pleadings took hours as I desperately searched for forms. Court was a nightmare of startled comments from judges and mediators wondering how such a clueless lawyer ended up in front of them. I know a lot of it became exaggerated in my mind, because my clients and boss always gave me good feedback, but I was definitely not known for competence.
I am not so scared as a writer. There are technical aspects to all writing, and some forms of writing are beyond my skill level simply because I have no experience with them. But I am comfortable with the craft of writing, and with time, I know I can learn any style to at least a basic level. Right now there is plenty of work that suits my level of skill and interest. I may need to research a topic, but once I have the necessary information, I know exactly how to proceed.
I suppose I have some fears of rejection, but when it comes to writing, I am confident in my abilities. I fear edits because they are annoying, sometimes pointless, and sometimes embarrassing. But I don’t fear someone saying something negative, because I do know I can write. There may be an occasional spelling or grammatical error, especially in my own blog posts and comments, but I don’t doubt my skills. I have proven, over a lifetime of education, exams and accolades, that I know how to write well. With practice, study and training, I will become even better.
But, recently I noticed myself trying to procrastinate. And in analyzing it more, I see that once again, confidence is the culprit. Those old fears are coming back because I’m working again, and my mind somehow expects work to be miserable and scary. I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, but there’s a voice telling me that I don’t know what I’m doing. A voice tells me nobody will like my work, and I might as well not start, because I won’t know what to do.
Fortunately, I have enough experience and self-awareness to quiet that voice. I know I can write, and I know most of my clients will be happy with what I produce. If I start to panic, I only have to remind myself that my client is not expecting a dissertation or technical manual. My clients want work in the voice of me, the person they hired.
Once I remind myself of my capabilities, I find all inclination to procrastinate goes out the window. I have turned some assignments in on the due date simply because they took a long time, or the deadline was tight to begin with. But if I have free time, I find myself using it to get my work done. If I turn an article in a week early, the satisfaction of that is rewarding enough that I am motivated to keep working.
To me, there is no better feeling than being able to work with a deadline. No longer do I have that dread and shame hanging over my head. Instead, I’m in a career that suits my skills, and I believe in my abilities. I can quiet that voice of doubt because I do know what to do. Just sit down and write, that’s all there is to it.
Nobody is immune from procrastination, of course. This afternoon, I planned to finish editing a piece. But, it looked nice outside so I first went for a walk and then took a shower. Then, I sat down, finished my editing, and submitted the work. Ahead of deadline, again. It feels good.
What do you do to beat procrastination? And, what horrifying mistakes have I made in this post? Please let me know in the comments below.