I’ve talked before about how to develop a study schedule. This is one of my favorite (and simultaneously most frustrating) tasks here at the Bar Exam Toolbox. I love looking at the time that our students make available to me and providing checklists for how to optimize their study time. But even the best schedule is useless if the student doesn’t follow it. Obviously, this happens to everyone, but sometimes when people fall behind on their study schedules, they get too overwhelmed to realize that they can make things work.
Problem: Overestimating Available Time
I think that one of the biggest reasons that students fall behind has to do with time/energy estimates. They overestimate how much time they have to study, especially if they are planning to study before and after a full-time job. Someone who works a 50-hour work week and plans to study for 30 hours per week probably isn’t being realistic about their energy levels and sleep requirements.
Solution? If this is your problem, recognize it early and reevaluate. Don’t schedule your full bar study period all at once. Start with a week or two, and then assess. How many hours were you actually able to study? Were there times that were good for some tasks but not others? Once you know more about what you can actually manage, do more of your schedule so that it fits your life more appropriately. And prioritize. Especially make sure that you’re making time for practice, even if you don’t want to.
Problem: Underestimating Tasks
People also underestimate how much time things will take. They only leave themselves a few minutes to self-evaluate an essay, or they think they can do a full outline in two hours.
Solution? Grab a timer and figure out how long it takes you to do certain basic tasks. Then work on your priorities. Make sure you’re fitting in practice, even if it means (as discussed below) that your outlines aren’t perfect. Figure out how much time you need to self-evaluate your work properly, and leave time for it.
Problem: Not Sticking to Time Limits
This is related to the previous problem. Many people fall behind because they don’t want to leave a task “unfinished” so they refuse to practice Civil Procedure until their outline is absolutely perfect. Which means that a three-hour outlining window can stretch to eight or more hours, leaving no time for their scheduled practice.
Solution? Get your timer back out and make it loud. If you give yourself three hours to outline, take no more than three hours to outline before you move on to the next task. Not done with your outline? That’s OK. Outlines don’t need to be perfect, and they don’t need to be complete, especially at the beginning. Essay not complete? That’s OK. You can spend time figuring out what you should have said in your self-evaluation, and you’ll have a more realistic picture of what you can address in the allotted time so that you know where you need to improve.
Problem: Waiting for “Perfection”
This is really what not sticking to time limits tends to be about. People don’t want to move on from their outlines until it’s complete. They don’t want to stop writing an essay or PT until it’s perfect. But you don’t get to use your outlines on the exam, you won’t have unlimited time on the exam, and the bar examiners aren’t looking for perfection anyway.
Solution? This is where our discussions of mindfulness can come in handy. Try to remind yourself to focus on learning and improvement, not perfection. Also focus on your priorities. Consider something like the free Smart Bar Prep frequency analysis to make sure that the first things you outline are the most frequently-tested subjects. Then, when you give yourself additional outlining time with the same subject, you can fill in some of the less “important” topics. A tool like our Brainy Bar Bank would also help you select essays that cover the topics you’ve outlined so that you can practice without having covered everything. Then use your self-evaluation time to figure out where you have knowledge gaps and maybe even fill in your outline a little more.
So, you’ve decided to study for the bar exam. You have your materials, your schedule, and your study space. But there’s a closet in the guest room that needs to be cleaned out. It’s been packed with stuff for months (or years), but, really, that needs to be addressed today. And oh! I wonder if anyone has posted any cute pictures in the past five minutes? The bar exam is months away. I don’t really need to worry about it yet, right? And suddenly, it’s five in the afternoon. Your kitchen is sparkling, you’re very informed about current events, and you might have an open document with the heading “Contracts Outline” in a carefully-selected font.
Solution? We’ve talked about procrastination and time management a lot. This is another place where mindfulness can help you out. Also, a well-defined schedule that includes regular breaks can make a big difference. Find a study buddy (even if they’re studying for a different exam) so that you can keep each other on task, or go to a library to remove you from home-based temptations. And don’t underestimate a reward system. Focus for the whole morning and then treat yourself to a favorite thirty-minute show (no binge-watching!) during lunch. Complete all of your studying for the day and treat yourself to an evening out with a friend. Figure out the rewards and intervals that will keep you motivated. If all else fails, stop to think about why you’re doing this and use that to refocus on your goal.
So, What Do I Do If I’m Already Behind?
First, be honest with yourself about how far behind you are. If you’re a week behind, see if you can eliminate one or two practice assignments, reduce some outlining time, and make a major push to catch up and get back to your optimal schedule – then use that experience to remind yourself to stick to it. If you’re several months behind, you need a new game plan. Figure out how much time you actually have. Then, prioritize. Focus on heavily-tested law for your outlining, and make sure you’re doing regular, timed practice and review. If you’re really close to the exam, focus on memorizing heavily-tested law and still LOTS of timed practice.
Staying on track while studying for the bar exam can be really hard even for the best of students. But it’s so important to find your motivation so that you can learn the information and skills you will need to pass. And falling behind isn’t the end of the world. We’ve all been there. What matters most is what you do after you fall behind. Try not to focus on lost time. Take a deep breath and focus instead on what you can do to get yourself back on track.