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Law School Productivity unsolicited advice

5 steps to productivity

September 26, 2009
People at a cafe by Tim Gouw via Unplash

Is it that time of year? During the past week, I have received a disturbing number of angsty emails and direct messages from 1Ls along the line of “oh my god I’m drowning.”

Obviously my advice to “calm down, breathe, and just do” is falling on deaf ears so I’m going to give the panic crew an assignment, due by the end of next week: 5 steps to productivity.

1. Ditch the laptop.

Typically you do not need a computer to complete your reading assignments. Write the page numbers down on a piece of paper and leave the laptop in your locker. This way you can focus on Torts and Contracts, and not the fug blog, which is only mildly related to the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

2. Ditch the briefing.

Some students cannot comprehend the material without awkwardly outlining the procedural posture of a case…which is fine. Judge free zone. Really.

But unless you are one of those people, you should consider book briefing.

Also cut the elaborate highlighting system. You’re a law student, not Rainbow Brite. It is much quicker to just write “BEST-INTERESTS ANALYSIS” or “PROCEDURAL POSTURE” in caps the margin than to color every-other sentence.

3. Make health non-negotiable.

Get eight hours of sleep, every day, or you will get swine flu. I promise.

I treat sleep like a non-negotiable appointment with a very unforgiving boss and schedule accordingly.

The same goes for food and exercise. If I sit around and eat crappy food, then I am less effective, and more prone to get cranky, become morbidly obese, and contract swine flu.

4. Monitor your time.

I use Windows Calendar to schedule my week.2

Like most people, I have reoccurring appointments scheduled for my classes, work, sleep, and buffer times.

What is equally important to scheduling your time is to record how you actually spent your time. I use a dark purple color to indicate “wasted time” and then write exactly what I “did” during those unproductive hours.

When I don’t get enough sleep, I can guarantee that my evening will be covered with the purple “crap time” designation. The blotches on my calendar alert me to the trend and help me correct course and avoid a self-reinforcing1 unproductive cycle.

5. Be conscious of what you are doing.

Do not try to convince yourself that you are working when you are not. Take your breaks, and then focus.

And don’t let characterizations fool you: a distraction is anything that halts your progress on what your are working on. For example, it took a long time for me to realize that news is entertainment, and just as much of a distraction. It was somehow unacceptable to spent 30 minutes on Bitter Lawyer or gossip blogs, but okay to spend two hours reading Gretawire or CNN.

I eventually realized that a suicide bombing in Afghanistan is about as relevant to me as Rihanna’s new dress and my professors do not care whether I am unprepared because I was reading a blawg, ABA News, or Above The Law.

These five steps should improve things. If you still feel stuck after a week or two, then you can email/dm me again and I’ll either try to help or refer you to wiser students.

More advice on No.634 is here.


1 Not getting enough sleep because I didn’t get my reading done, not getting the reading done because I’m tired…
2 Windows Calendar is similar to iCal and Outlook.

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  • Reply
    Mobs
    September 26, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Nice post, Dennis. Here is what I’m doing this semester which has improved my studying a thousand-fold.

    1. Better than book-briefing, mini-brief on a small notepad. Include ONLY the following: (a) What the movant (whether plaintiff, government, whatever) is trying to accomplish, (b) The legal basis for the motion, (c) the result, and (d) Distinguishing Facts. Even for a case like Roe v Wade, I was able to get everything I need for an outline thusly:

    “Pet. successfully challenges state PROHIBITION (not restriction) on abortion on privacy grounds (14Am Due Process Cl). Court holds that state may balance compelling interests of unborn with those of women’s private health decisions. Threshold between them is the viability of the fetus, determined by a rigid trimester system. Rhenquist Dissent: Health transactions are not a privacy right to balance against fetus.”

    On an abortion question, these are the only things that will matter in an answer where Roe might be controlling.

    2. Ditch the laptop in class to avoid transcribing and gchatting. 1-2 pages of notes per class, and only note things that will help to distinguish fact patterns from assigned cases. Maybe a policy point or two to spice up an exam answer with.

    3. Outline weekly. Yes. Weekly. It’s a good weekly review, and it saves time at the end of the semester for going through old exams, sample questions, and study guides. The SINGULAR goal for 1Ls should be to analyze fact patterns and distinguish them from cases. Outlines should not list black-letter hornbook law. They should be a list of ways that litigants have tried to base legal challenges against one another, how they were resolved, and what facts were important for those resolutions.

    4. Buy a commercial outline. Yeah, I said it. They aren’t a substitute for reading and going to class. They are used to help memorize black-letter law, which is essential on time-pressed exams. Emmanuels are the most popular and give the most information. Gilbert’s has useful flow charts. Don’t be afraid of spending money – if you consider how much you can be making in three years from a .3% higher GPA, it is very worth it.

    Where did I get these suggestions? Well, a total moron from our section is at the very top of the class because he took an expensive course before law school (LEEWS – google it). I saw him advertising the course by dropping pamphlets in the subplaza. I was able to find pirated copies of all the course materials online, and these were the big tips that got someone a Four-Point. They totally make sense, too, because the goal for law school should be to learn to think like a lawyer. All that means is being able to recognize and distinguish fact patterns.

    • Jansen
      Reply
      Jansen
      September 26, 2009 at 7:04 pm

      Oh my. Good stuff!

      I still owe you those conlaw notes!

  • Reply
    karina
    September 26, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    these can apply to all students, actually! i dont know how much you keep up with my tweets but lately ive been whining left and right about poor grades on tests, feeling stressed with reading, etc. but i waste SO MUCH TIME. so i know its my fault. gotta make a change, make a change! and yeah. the laptop thing is KILLER. i often find myself sitting around “studying” at the library…on oh no they didn’t. or watching soccer matches…or reading http://www.dennis-jansen.com!

    • Jansen
      Reply
      Jansen
      September 28, 2009 at 12:04 am

      Do not let my site become a distraction! Haha, don’t blame the B on me!

  • Reply
    Laurie
    September 27, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    I ditched my laptop in class, started reviewing my notes weekly and second semester 2L my GPA jumped way up. Wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading all the other stuff about briefing and test taking 1L.

    • Jansen
      Reply
      Jansen
      September 28, 2009 at 12:05 am

      Yeah, a lot of the advice they (how-to books or professors) give us is… well, useless.

  • Reply
    office organizer
    September 28, 2009 at 9:58 am

    It’s awesome to hear someone else directly point out that sleep and nutrition are absolutely vital to our productivity.
    Dr. Hallowell, who is a top ADD psychiatrist, (on Oprah 5 times), and wrote an awesome book called, Crazy Busy, (check it out if you haven’t already, Jansen- you’d totally appreciate it). He gives an acronym to help us remember all the important personal elements of a productive experience. It is: EYES, with E for exercise, Y for yoga/mediation, E for eat and S for sleep… Keeping up with each of these “departments” will set us up for success!

  • Reply
    Law School Ninja
    September 28, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    But I love Rainbow Brite! 🙁

    • Jansen
      Reply
      Jansen
      September 28, 2009 at 8:51 pm

      She’s not going to help you on your exam.

  • Reply
    Get Back on the Rails | Fearfully Optimistic
    September 30, 2009 at 8:43 am

    […] me to keep blogging after I missed a whole week because work got insane. Saturday, Jansen posted five bits of advice on productivity. The problem is that around this time, 1Ls start to panic. Work is piling up and […]

  • Reply
    Staying organized in law school
    March 2, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    […] (See also 5 steps to productivity) […]

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