Bar Exam Success Commandment 1: How to Gain a Superpower for the Bar Exam

Batman kicks ass! He’s also a classic embodiment of the idea that someone who can provide a unique benefit has a duty to offer it. A suffering pariah we can both relate to sometimes.

What? Are you one of those people who don’t care about animated characters because “they’re not real people”? Fortunately, superhero movies are all the rage nowadays, and I’m gonna use my favorite superhero as an exemplar regardless of what you think.

In conclusion, I think Batman is a pretty cool guy, especially with the current trend started by grimdark Nolan reboots. Is this post over? Everyone go home! Yeah right, like I’d ever fill your brain with nonsense (on purpose).

We’re pretty sure Batman hates the Joker, who always taunts Batman by causing chaos and even putting himself in harm’s way to see if he’d be rescued. So why doesn’t Batman just succumb to his temptations and commit the irreversible moral act? One life to save many. Here are some answers I like:

It always starts with one. That’s how justification works. But once you justify something once—you can do it again and again. It becomes easier. Right and wrong blur.
—Bruce Wayne

He refuses to become a murderer, because he knows that murdering the Joker leads to murdering all of them, making each killing easier than the last. And that casts him as the very thing that created him, as the thing he fights against, because at that point the only difference between Batman and the Joker would be that Batman thinks he’s able to justify his own murders.
—Mark Hughes, Quora

That is, Batman understands the dangers of a slippery slope and post hoc justification. Some even call his self-control a superpower.

Don’t you wish you could borrow this self-control superpower for bar success? Hold onto your tighties because I’ll show you a simple way to use it.

Wait, learn a superpower? Although we’d love to dress up in hockey masks and beat up the examiners who taunt us with their riddles, isn’t that a bit of a stretch?

 

How habits work

What we’re going to take away is the power of habit.

Just as Batman goes out each night without killing any villains, we must recognize that consistently doing something each day to study for the bar will have a powerful—even a compounding—effect.

Here are real-life examples that show the power of habits:

  • I have reflected upon 10 unique things I’m grateful for every week since 2015.
  • As an experiment, I’m taking a cold shower every day. The very act of being in the shower became the trigger for remembering to turn down the temp in the end.
  • My favorite: Habit evidence is more powerful in court than character evidence.

Can you think of examples from your own life where habits made things easier—or even automatic?

On the flip side, what happened when you stopped doing something just a couple times? How easy did it become to give in to temptation and eventually stop altogether?

Do you still follow your new year’s resolution?

Using sheer willpower may sound badass and sexy, but that’s a short-term tactic to be used as tinder to arouse action (not that kind of action). I’m (still) a little concerned about this person who emailed me:

I'm kinda worried about this person's bar prep

I appreciate that he or she is all fired up and has the right idea of daily practice, but I don’t want him or her burned out by his or her own energy (quadrupled with multiple exclamation marks!!!). Let’s develop habits to automate our flow of attention.

Why habits?

Research shows that the mere act of choosing depletes your limited willpower. It doesn’t matter if the decision is small or big. Former President Obama and other high-profile people wear the same suit every day for this reason. Even trying to resist cookies exerts your willpower and causes a person to give up earlier. Jeez, is “ego depletion” the new cancer? Everything causes it.

In other words, once you’re out of willpower, you lose your self-control and end up defaulting to irrational autopilot behaviors and thoughts such as “no one can stop me from binging on Suits now and catching up on studying tomorrow” When your willpower fails you, that kind of thought actually starts to make sense.

If you agree that studying for the bar requires mental energy and self-control, it behooves you to get to the point where you don’t even have to think about studying. The act of motivating yourself to study is a decision that makes a dent in your daily willpower reserve, especially if you’re adverse to studying. Constantly resisting study will constantly drain your willpower, leaving you with no mental energy to study anyway.

Instead, use habits to give momentum to your studies and dedicate more of your willpower to the active parts of studying rather than the activation energy required to study. It may not seem much, but small habits can accumulate to produce a compound effect. Improving daily for two months means improving 60 times.

At first, doing any new activity will take conscious decision and willpower (“Just do it”). That’s fine in the beginning.

Alternatively, you can implement an if-then process, where you say, for example, “If I’m done brushing my teeth, then I must sit down and open my book. If I’m in the shower, then I must turn the temp all the way down before I leave. If it’s Sunday (and/or my calendar alerts me), I must write a gratitude list of 10.”

One of my fav tricks: Even better is opening or leaving open that book the night before so you can jump back into your flow and not have to think about what to do the next day. We’re tempted to finish what was left unfinished. Change your environment, and you change your behavior.

Habituating may mean different things to you. For example (these are all if-then processes at their core):

  • Waking up and sitting on your desk immediately to get into study mode before distractions and life get in the way (brushing your teeth later because your enamel can wait). Your book has already been opened since last night and ready to go.
  • Scheduling a regimen ahead of time and following it. For example, a daily study plan where you designate X number of MBE questions to do. Or a monthly study plan that includes a practice PT every Tuesday. Or before you sign off for the day, making sure to plan the following day.
  • Doing X number of MBE questions when you get to a certain location (your desk, library, coffeeshop?) at a certain time (9 AM?).

At this point, you may or may not be ready to start actual studying. That’s OK. Just promise yourself that you’ll do something bar related every day, whether it’s researching supplements, organizing your old notes, or sure, doing some practice questions.

One subtle pothole to avoid is to not say, “I’m going to do X” or “I will do X.” Talking about it in terms of the future makes you think you already did X or you don’t have to do X right now.

Instead, do it now (or as soon as feasible). If not now, then when? We only do things we put conscious effort toward, until they become ingrained in us.

As the habit develops, studying becomes second nature, and you may even be excited to study. Even the illusion of progress motivates you. You won’t feel like sighing woefully in the morning, and instead, more of your mental energy can be allocated to learning. All this momentum and consistently putting in the work will ultimately improve the progression of your studies.

The scariest thing about hunters is that they never stop tracking and following their prey… until the prey gives up from exhaustion.

Accordingly, heed the First Commandment for bar exam success:

Form a habit of studying for the bar every day to reduce mental friction and create momentum.
Don’t break the chain. Go for the longest consecutive days!
“If you can just be consistent with what you do and demonstrate patience over even the most boring, monotonous details, you can master any discipline.”

No excuses

“But but but I’m tireddd today… It’s the holidays… It’s Saturday… I’m sleepy… It’s cloudy outside… I have to go have brunch with my friends… I’m depressed… My back hurts… My dog needs to be walked for the third time today… A word on the Internet triggered me, and I need to teach them a lesson…”

Save the mental gymnastics for when you’re actually an attorney.

Consider this: When’s the last time you said “Yeahhh I should [study / exercise / eat healthy food / be more generous / live, laugh, love (whatever the hell that means)]”?

Notice that when we say “should,” it’s code for “I can put this off indefinitely until an arbitrary time that aligns with my feelz.” Do we believe we’re actually going to do it? If so, when?

Even this article you’re reading… It’s easy to nod along and agree how we need to establish some useful habits. But then 10 minutes later we’re back to the same old habits of rotating through the same three social media apps!

Yes, it takes some conscious effort in the beginning to overcome the initial hump to change your habits and behavior. It’s understandable if you just don’t feel like studying on a given day. You’re tired, busy, or stressed.

What, is studying boring? Are you bored? Get used to boredom, and it might even become enjoyable.

Yes, it takes some conscious effort in the beginning to overcome the initial hump to change your habits and behavior. It’s understandable if you just don’t feel like studying on a given day. You’re tired, busy, or stressed.

But think of the long-term consequences of a slippery slope, where if you skip “just one day,” what’s stopping you from skipping “just this weekend” or skipping any given day? It’s risky. On the other hand, consistent habitual work adds up, and your future self will appreciate not having to repay the debt.

Here’s what you do if you feel like skipping a day because you don’t “feel like it”: As a bare minimum, answer and review two MBE questions, even on “cheat days.” As an added benefit, doing this may actually put you in a study mood and get you to do more. Motivation follows action! I’ll forgive you if you do at least that as a bare minimum. If you don’t do anything that day, count it as a loss and start over with the chain.


A reader told me that she wasn’t going to study that day because she was tired and didn’t feel like it. I suggested doing one MC question. Result: “It felt weird doing just one, so I did three. Three’s better than nothing.” And if you did three, you might as well see what else you could do: “I’m gonna [look at] a couple more questions.”

That’s momentum. Once you get over the activation energy, you create a bias for action. And action over time creates second-nature habits.

It’s not just about consuming information. The tricky part isn’t knowing what to do; it’s actually doing it. At some point, I’d like you to do and try things as if you were on the playground again. It’s going to be hard work, but you were going to put in the work anyway (right?)


You can even set stakes if you want to be extra sure you’ll do something you “should” do. We know rationally that the bar is a high-stakes exam. But as you settle into your study regimen with several whole weeks away from the bar, the emotional drive to put in consistent effort may become a mere simmer.

If you can’t make 10 minutes (and of course, you may have legitimate reasons), you need to take care of whatever is putting the bar on hold until it becomes an actual priority for you.

It doesn’t even have to be MBE questions; you can do whatever small unit of studying, like reading and understanding a model answer for an essay. Here are some study resources. Pick something. But answering a multiple-guess question seems to me the easiest morsel to chew on. (More on the MBE in the Second Commandment.)

(CAUTION: To be sure, this isn’t about doing a couple MBEs and calling it a day every time. This is an emergency measure that still counts as bare minimum studying, for times when you really want to take a day off.)

Start the habit as soon as you can to reap the most benefit; habits take time to build. There’s a reason why this is the First Commandment.

But if you let yourself go even once, slacking off will become easier to do and harder to resist. The villain of procrastination will grow in strength.

Risking six months of your life will become all too easy to justify.

“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”—Sigmund Freud


This is the first of a four-part series on what I think are fundamental study strategies for bar exam success, whether you’re a first timer or a repeater. They are fundamental in that they are important concepts that I focused on that made a difference in my second attempt, but you can tailor the concepts to your own needs.

Part 0: 3 Options If You Failed the Bar

Part 2: Time To Apologize to Math (and Improve Your MBE Score)

Comment below and tell me: How will you implement habits into your study?

Brian

PS. If you know somebody who you think would benefit from this article, could you forward it to that person today?

One thought on “Bar Exam Success Commandment 1: How to Gain a Superpower for the Bar Exam”

  1. You can solve this issue creatively in a number of different ways without having to fail the Bar to put off the inevitable—for example, decide before the Bar that you will give your yourself some time after you take and pass the Bar Exam before accepting a law job.

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