The first month of law school felt daunting, yet inspiring. The incentive to perform well and desire to keep pace with my classmates helped sustain my initiative. As that motivation began to diminish slowly, once finals were over I entered a complete hibernation from my legal studies. While it’s necessary to step back and recharge over break, it’s not so easy to make the return to a new semester.
As we all know, in law school there is no “syllabus week.” Instead we jolt into full length classes and hundreds of pages of readings. If you’re also struggling with the stark transition from over-indulging in the latest HBO series (I recommend His Dark Materials) to your respective Wolters Kluwer, I’ve researched a number of techniques to reinvigorate motivation.
- Create Habits
I know I’m not the only one who tells myself I’m going to be productive and two hours later I’m still scrolling on my phone. Contrary to widespread belief, willpower is not the driving force for achieving long term goals. Instead, the key to staying disciplined is making tasks a habit. A habit is the formation of cognitive associations between context and action so that the task becomes an unconscious behavior. In my favorite podcast, Hidden Brain, psychologist and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits Wendy Wood explains how to make forming such habits easier. She says the key is to reduce “friction,” essentially removing as many obstacles as possible. This idea is also supported by the research of psychologists Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth (you may have seen her popular TED talk on perseverance):
“People who score high on self-control don’t achieve successes in life by exerting control… Instead, they know how to form habits that meet their goals.”Angela Duckworth
If you need to start waking up earlier, put your alarm on the other side of the room. If you get easily distracted by the internet, but your books are on Connected Casebook, try a blocklist app like Forest. These apps can keep you from going on unproductive sites for a specified timeframe (shoutout to my section-mates for that one). What has also worked for me is scheduling a consistent time for studying everyday. If I don’t keep a routine, nothing gets done. “Habit-stacking,” where you attached your desired habit to an old one, is also incredibly helpful. The amount of time it takes to create a habit of course varies with the type and complexity of the task, but eventually you’ll get there.
- Use a Reward System
That brings me to my next tip of starting a reward system, which is an important part of habit formation, but can also work for immediate endeavors. Several studies explain how rewards stimulate neurons to release dopamine such that you become biologically more inclined to the task or the cue. Yes, this is exactly like giving your dog a treat for following directions.
“Once stimulus-reward associations have been formed, they can remain potent for some time even after the reward has been devalued”
One interesting theory outlined in the same study mentions the attribution of the origins of human intelligence to an expansion of dopaminergic systems in human cognition.
Disclaimer: A few studies I read suggested that intrinsic rewards rather than extrinsic rewards are the true motivator for success, but this applies more when you can better connect your assignment to personal growth.
- Upgrade your Work Area
Ways to create a more productive workspace include increasing natural light, and decluttering.
I especially suggest getting a plant. I had an orchid at my desk for fall semester which I unfortunately killed. A few recommended replacements from my plant savvy friends were Peace Lily, Monstera, and Birds of Paradise. Plants can improve air quality by absorbing pollutants and act as a humidifier as they release moisture via transpiration. NASA designated the Peace Lily as one of the top houseplants for cleaning air. They can also reduce stress and boost your mood, which in turn results in higher productivity. A study conducted by Texas A&M University found that:
“employees’ idea generation, creative performance and problem solving skills improved substantially in environments that include flowers and plants.”
- Visualization and Optimism
While you may have heard of vision boards, the best technique is to visualize the process of reaching a goal rather than the end-goal. Although I consider myself a realist, studies suggest that it may be more beneficial to maintain an optimistic mindset:
“Optimistic learners are better able to deal with stressful situations and more likely to persist in the sometimes hard work required to progress academically, motivated by the belief that they can accomplish their learning goals.”Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains by Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers
- Start Small
This last tip, which I first found on Tiktok (ironically), suggests to start a timer after telling yourself you’ll get something done. Set the timer for 10-20 minutes. Committing to shorter increments makes it easier to get started, and sometimes that’s half the battle. You may surprise yourself by wanting to surpass that timeframe and keep working.
If you’re having a hard time getting back on track, you’re definitely not alone. I hope some of these tips are useful, and feel free to share what has worked for you in the comment section.
Fiona Maguire is a first-year law student at BC Law. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.