At orientation on the first day of law school, I remember an important-looking man standing at the front of the room and telling people that law school was stressful, so maybe it “wasn’t a great time to stop smoking…if you’re a smoker.” That was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the stupidest advice I’ve ever heard. It’s literally always the right time to stop smoking cigarettes. The guy speaking at my orientation had a point, though: He believed that we each have a limited bucket of discipline, and that we ought to spend it wisely.
In my house we call this “will power bandwidth,” but in the world of psychological research this idea is called “ego depletion.” This is a theory that we each have a limited reserve of self-control, and that using that self-control or discipline for one task (say, for example, dieting) will impact our ability to remain disciplined on some other task.
(I should note that this is just a theory, and the science keeps going back and forth on whether this is a real phenomenon, with current science leaning towards yes. But, I mean, come on! Clearly this is a real thing.)
And it’s something to keep in mind when studying for the bar.
Studying for the bar requires a whole lot of patience, dedication, and willpower. Be realistic about the demands you are about to put on yourself and about your own limits.
Prioritize Obligations Early
Long before bar exam prep starts, you ought to identify the obligations you have in your life and prioritize them. The bar exam puts pressure on every aspect of your life, and some things are bound to slip through the cracks—when that happens, you want to know that you are still on top of all the important things.
So, before studying for the bar exam, one ought to honestly consider and prioritize one’s obligations. Before beginning your bar exam study, be sure to do the following:
- Talk with family and colleagues about expectations.
- Build in time for exercise and activity.
- Build in time for mental health breaks, including socializing and sleep.
Each of these obligations—family, friends, work, health, sleep, socializing—will tug at you and challenge your ability to stay on task. And, each time you say no to these obligations, it will deplete your willpower reserve. Manage expectations early to avoid this.
Make the Bar Exam Your Number One Priority
You’ve identified your priorities, you’ve talked to your family and friends about what to expect, and now it’s time to make the bar exam your number one priority—only for a brief time, not forever.
When studying for the bar exam, you must stay disciplined—you need a good study schedule, and you need to stick to it. Bar exam prep is not the time to lie to yourself about your own limits; be honest with yourself about yourself. While it’s always the right time to quit smoking cigarettes, it might not be the best time to train for a marathon, to convert to a new religion, to get married or divorced, or to train to climb Mt. Everest.
Unless you are an absolute machine, at some point you are going to sit down for an all day study session and think, “Oh, man! I’d rather be outside!” or “Ah, shucks, wouldn’t it be nice to go out dancing?” There are literally millions of things to do on Earth that are more fun than studying for the bar, and you’re going to have to overcome the obstacles of all this possibility. It takes a lot of willpower to dedicate yourself to bar study to the exclusion of all the fun things you could be doing.
If you suffer from procrastination, like I do so, so, so, so badly, then consider mindfulness practice. Mindfulness practice maybe won’t increase your willpower reserve, but it can help develop the tools you need to deploy the willpower you have.
And, believe me, the only thing that can power you through another long afternoon of essay practice better than chemicals is a positive mindset.
Practice Mood Intervention
When psychologists talk about ego depletion, they also talk about overcoming it with “mood intervention.” That means doing something that you enjoy that helps to build back that willpower reservoir. It means you have to treat yourself!
When studying for the bar exam, or taking on any huge undertaking, really, build a reward system for yourself so that your hard work and willpower does not go unrewarded. When I studied for the bar exam, for example, I gave myself one afternoon off for every two full days I studied—but, if I didn’t study during those two days, then I wouldn’t get time off.
For you it might be an afternoon off, a bowl of ice cream, a trip to the gym, or a half hour break to read inspirational quotes. I don’t know what gets you going. But whatever that is, build it into your study schedule as a reward. Don’t forget who you are, and don’t lose yourself in the bar exam.