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3 P’s of Legal Practice: Perfectionism, Procrastination & Paralysis

I was talking to a friend from law school about a big project she had undertaken and recently completed. As she described the multiyear project that she worked on in fits and starts, she repeatedly used the word “slacker” when referring to herself and some of the paralysis she experienced while working (unpaid, in her spare time) on this mammoth and ultimately award-winning project. This woman is anything but a slacker. Regular readers of this column should have alarm bells going off that here we have a real-world, overly-zealous inner critic example.

I have never met a true slacker. I guess we don’t run in similar circles. I’m sure they exist. But I’m going to hazard a guess that true slackers don’t become lawyers. Let’s take as a baseline premise that no one reading this article is a slacker. Even, or especially, those who regularly struggle with procrastination and paralysis are not slackers. Something else is going on.

Let’s first make clear that when discussing procrastination, I am not referring to the inertia and apathy that are part and parcel to depression. When depressed, we are so completely sapped of energy, that absolutely everything feels like it takes too much energy. The normal daily tasks of living become overwhelming and feel impossible. Important behind the scenes and administrative tasks (like billing clients or filing fee apps) fall by the wayside as we use what little energy we have to show up in court or otherwise maintain the last vestiges of a business-as-usual-everything-is-just-fine appearance. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about projects and tasks that continue to get pushed aside when we are otherwise happy, content, functioning normally, and fully engaged with our lives.

Procrastination can be caused by all kinds of things. Maybe the task we need to complete is quite unpleasant. So, we put it off, not wanting to deal with it. Maybe we agreed to do something, not necessarily unpleasant, but that when the time comes to deliver, we realize we really don’t want to do it. What both these examples have in common is what psychologists Timothy Pychyl and Fuschia Sirois discovered – namely that procrastination isn’t about avoiding work; it’s about avoiding negative emotions. Feelings like anxiety, angst, confusion, or boredom can trigger procrastination.

The reasons for procrastination can be as individual as the readers of this column. But the focus of this column is going to be a phenomenon that we see regularly for many lawyers and judges. When we resist starting and completing tasks, the culprit behind our inertia is usually perfectionism, and the negative feelings associated with it, showing up in some form.

Perfectionism has many faces. It is not just the uber-controlling, detail-oriented person who has difficulty delegating tasks because everything must be “just so.” I certainly have been guilty of that. But that kind of perfectionism is not what usually stymies us. When we start to procrastinate and avoid digging into something we know needs our attention, perfectionism may be taking another, subtler form.

Sometimes we worry about disappointing a person on the receiving end of the project. Going further, maybe we have been on the receiving end of criticism and dread another encounter. Maybe we are anxious that the finished product won’t be as good as it needs to be, so we feel nervous about getting started at all. There can be a host of underlying fears: fear of doing it wrong, fear of getting fired, fear of losing a client, fear of disappointing someone, fear of criticism, fear of being revealed as the fraud we secretly believe we are… The list can go on. Any inner critic alarm bells going off?

Maybe it’s a large-scale, multi-phase project, and we know how to do some of the tasks but have no idea how to accomplish others, so we don’t even accomplish what we can. I’m thinking here of a logistically-challenging gardening project in my own steep-sloped backyard that I have been actively putting off for at least six months. Google and YouTube installation videos help to some degree. Unfortunately, they don’t quell the nagging anxiety that I’m going to do something wrong or miss some inherently important step leading me to have to redo everything, expensively and exhaustingly. I become so overwhelmed by the magnitude of my vision for the whole project, that I fail to do the simple preliminary steps that move the ball forward. Steps that, when taken individually, are totally manageable.

This is perfectionism at work. Perfectionism is often what leads to procrastination, and in worst-case scenarios, outright paralysis. None of us cares to examine our inner critic or address our perfectionism until we hit the paralysis phase. That gets our attention: when we think we’re slackers or others accuse us of such. If you can address the perfectionism, you’ll likely avoid the chain reaction that follows it. But we often have to start in the paralysis phase and work our way back up the chain.

There are coaches and psychologists who specialize in this kind of work. There are proven strategies that help us move past the procrastination blocks created by perfectionism.

Do one small thing. The next time you find yourself resisting getting started on something, take one action, no matter how small. By starting with small steps, you most likely will avoid the overwhelm that can come from thinking about the project in total. In fact, try this as a strategy: have the first small step be listing all the small steps needed to complete the project. Then start with those, assuming they can be completed in no particular order. If your project consists of big tasks/major steps, try to break those down into smaller steps and list those. Then pick one to start with. Accomplishing small steps is motivating. Small steps may remind you that you can actually walk.

Count everything you do toward your goal, not just the major steps. If you have a brief to write, your first step might be sitting down at the computer. This may sound stupid or obvious, but you can’t start the brief until you’re physically in front of your computer. Procrastination will keep you from this simple move, finding every excuse possible to avoid it. If we don’t start taking small steps, we may become paralyzed with dread, leaving us even less time to accomplish a given task. This is a good place to practice self-compassion.[1] When you sit down at your computer, even though your inner critic thinks this suggestion is ridiculous, give yourself a little pat on the back mentally and tell yourself you are starting with small steps.

Keep going. Once you have conquered the first baby step, push yourself to the next. In our example above, your next small step might be creating a file for your brief and naming it. Don’t stop—keep the momentum going. Look at your list of small steps. Pick the smallest and do it now. Then check it off the list. Pick another small step and do it. Just do them, even if you have to do them badly at first. Don’t think about the end result or who will be reading it (for now… you will get a chance to revise and polish later).

Find a way to measure and track your progress. Let’s use an example of someone who wants to downsize. They currently live in a 2500 sq ft house plus a 2-car garage (currently used for additional storage space, not for cars).  It’s overwhelming. So, using the small steps approach, they might take it one closet at a time, one dresser/bookshelf/cabinet at a time, or maybe just one drawer/shelf at a time.  Creating a one small pile for the trash, one small pile to donate, and one even smaller pile to save, makes it “quantifiable” or measurable.

Acknowledge the point of diminishing returns. This helps put in perspective our bang-to-buck ratio of energy expenditure to product/results output. Simply put, if you are doing your very best then you are already operating at optimal/peak efficiency. You can’t get any better (more efficient) because you are working at 100% efficiency already. If you work more, you’re only going to get a diminished return on that energy investment. There is a resistant part of our minds that still thinks we can somehow do it better. But doing so always involves more time/energy, without any significant change in results for the task (no bang for even more buck). Whereas, if we spend more time and energy on the task, other things begin to suffer both personally and professionally.

I vividly recall a scene in Better Call Saul, where Kim, a lawyer, is obsessively fixated on whether to use a semicolon or not. When I first watched it, I laughed out loud and thought, they must have a real lawyer consulting on this show. I had hoped to find a video clip to link here, but instead found references to “Kim Wexler, the grammar-obsessed lady lawyer,” and a subreddit discussion thread. It is so funny to see non-lawyers theorize about the meaning of that scene as something to do with her character arc and/or a major plot development. Nah. One writer more astutely observes, “Pretty sure it was nothing more than her wanting it to be perfect to the point of obsessive.” Another, “As a lawyer, the scene rung extremely true.” And, “It’s just obsessiveness brought on by the high expectations she knows [her law firm] has…. It’s perfectionism turned to anxiety.” It is a distilled illustration of the point of diminishing returns, and the obsessive, anxiety-laden mindset that can begin to take hold and catch us unaware.

Focus on the process rather than the goal. Another process-oriented strategy is to focus more on the process of reaching your goal rather than focusing on just the goal itself. This may seem redundant to the earlier suggestions of breaking something into smaller steps and measuring progress. The key difference is the focus. It is not so much about smaller goals and checking things off a list. See if you can put your whole attention and focus on the process itself. And hopefully you can find ways to enjoy that process while you are at it.

Let’s say you are training for your first 5K. There is a huge difference between checking off so many training runs versus meeting with friends to do those training runs and grabbing lunch afterwards. Lawyers are allowed to enjoy our jobs after all. We need to find ways to enjoy the process. This suggestion is especially important in certain law practices where the end goal can be years in the making.

Be prepared for (and deal with) emotional discomfort. As Adam Grant notes in this NY Times article, “If you want to procrastinate less, you don’t have to increase your work ethic or improve your time management. You can instead focus on changing your habits around emotion management.” A first step is simply acknowledging to ourselves what is happening inside of us emotionally. Approach yourself with non-judgmental curiosity. A second step is seeking out a therapist or trusted friend to talk about it. It does not have to be a hand-wringing session of deep conversation. Think more along the lines of, “So get this….” While writing this article, I called my sister, and we had a good laugh (her especially) over me dishing out all this great advice that I needed to heed for my backyard gardening project. There is so much value in being able to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves so seriously, at least not all the time.

Part of the journey toward recovering from perfectionism is assimilating what is good enough and dealing with the internal emotional discomfort that arises. Because it will arise. That ol’ inner critic ain’t going gentle into that good night. The inner critic is a tricky thing, kind of like Whack-a-Mole. Oddly, it is avoidance of discomfort fueled by the inner critic that drives our perfectionism in the first place. Yet the very same inner critic voice or feeling can stop us dead in our tracks and prevent us from doing the very task it is haranguing us to do. Good times.

So, what constitutes good enough? As counter-intuitive as this may seem, many lawyers have to unlearn giving everything our best 110%. Think of an anvil and how much energy it takes to lift one. Now imagine using that same amount of energy to lift a piece of paper. Unnecessary. Very low bang-to-buck ratio. Imagine doing everything with that level of intensity. That’s the energetic equivalent of the perfectionistic giving everything 110%. Instead, most of us need to learn how to give everything our best 80%. Ironically, research shows perfectionism actually produces poorer work product. Why? Criticism that serves no constructive purpose, whether from our boss or our own inner critic, slows us down and interferes with our thinking process. We have some great examples of this in our latest Mindful Moment podcast and article. Research shows that the number one barrier to self-compassion is fear of being complacent and losing your edge. And all the research shows that’s not true. It’s just the opposite.[2]

The perfectionism-procrastination-paralysis dance is a common plight for the lawyers and judges we work with, so fear not if something rang true for you in this article. You are not alone. Hopefully, some of the strategies offered up will move the ball for you, or at least give you a framework for making sense of what is happening. If you’d like to explore resources for help with procrastination or perfectionism (or both), feel free to give us a call.

There is a real distinction between doing your best and trying to be perfect. High achievement and perfectionism may sometimes be correlated, but they are two different things. There are plenty of high achievers who are not perfectionists and who do not try to be perfect. And all perfectionism is not created equal. Tune in next quarter when we delve a little deeper into perfectionism on steroids: maladaptive perfectionism.

[1] Our latest Mindful Moment podcast episode and article with Laura Mahr is all about self-compassion.

[2] Another great NY Times article discussing this research.

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