Along about the second month of bar prep, most students start feeling pretty exhausted. You know the exam is looming in just a few short weeks, but you can’t seem to drag yourself to do the work you know you need to do. Procrastination: We all know the feeling: you might keep watching helplessly as a 10 minute coffee break turns into 45 minutes. Or maybe you tell yourself you will be at your desk ready to work at 9 am. . . but then you lounge around until 10 am or 11 am and finally decide to just make lunch, maybe go for a walk to clear your head, and then before you know it, it’s 2 pm and you’ve lost 5 good hours of study time.
When I start to see students fall into these patterns, there are a couple of questions I always ask them. First, when was the last time you took a break? Second, are you pushing yourself hard enough? Maybe even too hard? What’s going on with the stalling, is this self-sabotage, feeling overwhelmed, or are you just being lazy? Regardless of the reasons for the procrastination, here are some things you can do to keep yourself in check during these last few weeks of bar study:
(i). Create a Rewards System
Yesterday I had a bunch of work to do, but I was procrastinating. It’s just like with bar study – I know I have to get the tasks checked off my list, I know it’s important, and yet almost anything seems more interesting in the moment. So, I stalled: I swept the floor. I made lunch, I read the news. Then, I remembered the pan of cinnamon rolls my friend had baked for me the night before. I decided then and there that I wasn’t going to eat any of them until I finished all my work for the day. And it worked. I got everything on my list accomplished and then enjoyed one, maybe two (okay fine, it was three!) delicious treats.
I know diets and health experts always say not to give in to food rewards, but hey, this isn’t a diet, it’s bar study. We are big proponents of staying healthy while you study, so don’t go crazy here, but think of something that would actually motivate you. I know of people who will put an item in their Amazon cart online and then only buy it if they meet their goal. Or, maybe you have a phone call to a friend you are looking forward to returning or a quick outing that will be a nice prize. Sometimes, just the thought of finishing your studies one hour early and having a relaxing dinner can be enough. Whatever it is, do it.
(ii). Give Yourself Consequences
On the flipside, maybe negative motivation works better for you. I had one student who Venmo’s her study partner $5 every day that she was not at the library ready to work by 8 am. Great idea! Or, you could abstain from an evening out or any of the rewards mentioned above unless you get your work done. The trick is to set specific goals and specific consequences. And, don’t make the consequence something that will waste your time or stress you out.
If you need help coming up with ideas, there are even goal-setting platforms I’ve written about before, like this one set up by some behavioral economists from Yale. It uses these kinds of carrots and sticks to help people accomplish goals of any kind, such as writing three essays or completing 50 MBEs every day. Do you love or hate the idea of giving your hard-earned cash to a group whose ideals you don’t support? Well, then feel free to name an “anti-charity” as a punishment. There’s a whole list of organizations on both sides of the Liberal/Conservative divide.
(iii). Take Short, Scheduled Breaks
You should be taking a quick 10 minute break for every hour of work you do. Get up, stretch, do some planks or push-ups (maybe only if you’re at home, don’t be the guy who does these at Starbucks). In any case, get out of your head for a short breather before diving back into work.
If you want reminders to keep yourself accountable and force short breaks throughout the day, try the Pomodoro timer technique, which is similar to the “circles method” (something I actually used while practicing law). There are also several free productivity timer apps that can help you stay focused here.
(iv). Turn Your Brain Off at Night
A few weeks into bar study, students inevitably start feeling like the pressure and stress are catching up to them. This can manifest in a whole host of different ways, but what I see pretty regularly is this kind of scenario, which I will tell you right now is a recipe for disaster:
- Wake up early, study
- Take a short lunch break with flash cards on the side
- Work more until evening
- Take a quick dinner and mull the law over while listening to substantive law videos
- Do some MBEs online until pretty late into the evening
- Finally get so tired you watch an episode of something and then conk out
- Do the whole thing over again the next day
Why is this a bad idea? Well, first, your brain is getting basically zero breaks (not good for optimal cognitive performance). Second, you’re not leaving the house, which can throw off your circadian rhythms and make you less productive overall (and sleepy on exam days). Finally, keeping up with this kind of routine is exhausting and will eventually catch up with you.
Students that force this kind of daily schedule are usually the ones who end up procrastinating, stalling, or watching the same movie 20 times (yes, this has happened – like I said, at a certain point, almost anything feels more interesting than bar study).
So, what should you do instead? Even if you’re not a morning person, start your day early (you’ll have to on the real exam anyway). Take breaks. Finish your studying in the early evening with enough time to relax, chat with a friend, have a normal dinner without flash cards, maybe get in a work out of some kind, and go to bed without the latest essay or MBEs swirling around in your head. You’ll be more productive, get more restful sleep, and overall feel more balanced and productive throughout the day.
(v). Be Critical and Honest with Yourself
Honestly, truly, did you study your very hardest today? Everyone wants to pass this exam, but wanting and working are two different things. When I ask if you’re doing your best, I don’t mean are you running yourself into the ground every single day. I mean, are you doing the tasks that are uncomfortable—because those are the ones you need to be doing.
There’s definitely a wrong way to study for the bar exam. And, the problem is, it still feels like hard work (and still takes up a lot of time)! The people who study the “wrong” way still think they’re doing everything right most of the time. So ask yourself, are you doing what it takes to pass, or are you just going through the motions? If you’re not sure, check out this handy chart and see which side you fall on.
You’re the only person who really knows whether you’re spending your time effectively and efficiently or not. And, you’re the only person you have control over either passing or failing this exam. So get it together. There’s still time. You can do it!