I’ve been where you are. In a way, I’m still there.
Your hair feels gross, the fridge is empty, and you’ve been scraping together whatever free time you can. Words in front of you are jumbling together into a blurry mess, passing by like a dream and also slipping away like one.
Bar prep steeps you in this undercurrent of anxiety because there’s so much to study with so little time and you’re feeling the pressure from the exam getting closer and closer. The worst combination.
But it’s not just time. Time isn’t your scapegoat. “Life is short” is propaganda by people who wasted their time.
“Yeah, maybe when I have more time. I’m going to feel motivated someday. Everything happens for a reason.” Oh, okay.
We like to tell people we “don’t have time” or that “time is the most valuable resource” or that “life is short” (even though we love to procrastinate).
You ALSO need ENERGY and ATTENTION. You need CLARITY so you can be productive. Even if you had the “motivation,” it doesn’t mean jack unless you do something with it.
Here are 6 ways to take back your time and energy while studying for the bar exam (even if you’re working full time):
3 rules if you don’t have TIME to study
RULE 1. Make time. There’s actually enough time. We just choose to squander it.
You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want.
Your sleeves are constantly getting tugged by things that cry for your attention.
Setting aside things like juicy memes and tweets and social media updates, you get overwhelmed by wanting to watch lectures, memorize everything, make flashcards, and still do the practice questions. Busy work. Wasted downtime guilt. Things you’ll forget. Paths of least resistance.
And that’s just the studying part. You might also have to attend to work, family, errands, your own needs, etc.
That’s all fine if you got the time. Bar prep programs may assume you have 8-10 hours a day, but what if you’re working full time and only have 4 hours? Or if you don’t want to waste time on low-value activities? Or if you have family obligations? Or if you have a life elsewhere?
Then you have to choose your activities more wisely.
In terms of bar prep, that could mean:
- Getting rid of any lectures you don’t need, especially if you’ve watched them and taken notes before (instantly saving hours a day right there). Note that I said “any,” not “all”
- Not memorizing all day so that you “feel ready” before you attempt problems (get embarrassed instead)
- Learning by using and applying. Yes, spend some time getting to know the rules and issues, but you won’t know how to apply them on the exam unless you try to use them now and get fucked up by your own sense of stupidity
Feeling dumb is a good thing! You become aware of what you don’t know, and it’s a gauge that indicates there’s something to learn. If you’re not cringing at your past self, you’re not growing.
Another way is to give yourself time limits for the day, or even on each task. Work expands to fill the time you give it. If you go over the time you set, then finish up and move on so you don’t create more backlog.
It comes down to concentrating. Mental work is hard work, but it’s important work. Sitting in front of books is easy.
If you’re working, another possible workaround is to study at work: lunch time, whenever you find pockets of time, or even when you’re supposed to be working. Instead of pulling out your phone, pull out some flashcards or outlines.
There are browser plugins and software that will help you see how much time you’re actually spending on distracting websites, social media, etc.
That said, increasing your “efficiency” (squandering less time) is difficult because, YES, there are many other things that are more interesting than the bar exam. Plus, when we’re tired, we succumb to those distractions more easily.
So what do you do?
RULE 2. Be conscious about distractions.
Your job is to prepare adequately for the bar exam.
You don’t need to spend every day watching your favorite show. You have time for an hour-long Netflix break but not for bar prep? (I know, unfair comparison because it takes way more mental effort for bar prep.)
If you need to unwind with dinner and 20 minutes of TV after a full day of studying, go ahead.
But if you’re wondering where your time is going or why you’re not getting things done, consider whether too much of your time is being spent elsewhere. You may think a half hour or an hour won’t hurt, but it may not last just an hour once you start.
The more engaging your diversion, the more it’s going to occupy your mind even after you’re done, kill your momentum, and tire you out even more. Pick a mild or mindless activity if you can. Media is designed to engage as much of your attention as possible.
If you want to relax/rest/recover, lie down. Don’t use your brain. Sure, check your phone for a bit. Just be aware that one simple act of turning on your phone or TV can cascade into a black hole of time suck (“just one more” syndrome).
Your time is worthless without your input. Human attention is the scarcest resource in the world. Protect it.
If someone wanted to pay you $50,000 for a big three-month project, are you going to get distracted or make sure you get it right? That’s what bar prep is. Every half year you delay entrance to the bar could mean losing out on income toward student loans, a house, wedding, your dreams, etc.
What, you “need balance”?
I’m not saying “no fun allowed.” But also remember: Bar prep takes first priority, not last, assuming you want to pass. Be conscious about where your attention and focus go.
Julius Caesar burned his own boats to instill total commitment in his soldiers.
The more you distance yourself from distractions, the less you think about them over time. I promise you’ll get used to it.
RULE 3. Limit or delegate obligations.
Not everyone is privileged enough to be able to give full attention to bar prep.
If you want to reclaim your time, offload things to other people so you can focus. Studying for the bar is an obligation to yourself. Perhaps it’s your top priority, even.
Do you have to take care of family, kids, dogs, groceries, laundry, etc.? Set aside a fixed amount of time to address these other obligations (like you might with a job).
But they can also be distractions. Maybe you welcome these distractions and can provide relief. Maybe not.
For the ones you don’t want, are you able to ask someone else to handle them? Sometimes you have friends or family or significant others who can help. Make it up to them later.
Sometimes you’ll have to hire someone. Or buy some useful study tools. You can actually buy back your time this way.
No friends? No money? AND no time?
I don’t know. Get your life together first. And check RULE 1 again.
Okay, so you found some time. That’s cool but only half the story.
We’re bottlenecked not just by time. At least as important is your level of energy, because without energy, you can’t do anything with your time.
This is especially true if you’re working and studying at the same time, which can seem like a catch-22. How do you manage your energy?
3 rules if you don’t have ENERGY to study
RULE 4. Sleep is the #1 cure-all. It’s also the #1 predictor of your energy and focus for tomorrow.
Fundamental but overlooked. Most of us spend about one-third of our lives sleeping, yet sleep is often the first thing we neglect.
There’s only a very small percentage of the population that can operate on fewer than 6 hours of sleep a day. Don’t count on being part of that small group.
It may be tempting to force an extra hour of study tonight. But losing even that much sleep is going ruin the rest of tomorrow (if not tomorrow, some other day) and cause you to end up losing more time and focus overall.
Set a bedtime and try to stick to it. I aim for 7.5 hours a day. Anything above 9 hours is probably overkill and possibly detrimental.
Sleep heals your mental and physical fatigue. Sleep rebuilds your body and blood. Sleep even makes up for lack of food. No hour of sleep is wasted if you need it.
It’s part of your preparation—your physical health, as well as mental and emotional. Sleep is so important that there’s a lesson on it in Mental Engines.
Working while studying? I understand the exhaustion after work. You just want to crash and relax, not study.
In that case, one way to get studying done is to use your energy on yourself first, not your employer. For example, you could study at least partly before going into work, when your mind is fresher. Or you could slow down on the job so you can focus on your ultimate dream of passing the bar.
How do you get up earlier? Go to sleep earlier.
RULE 5. Get CLEAR on what you need to do.
Productivity, excitement, and confidence come from clarity. If you know exactly what the next step is, you’ll find yourself looking forward to it. As you take each step, you’ll find yourself that much more focused.
RULE 6. Momentum. Just do it.
Sometimes you just gotta deal with it. The more you do it, the more you get used to it.
Don’t gloss over: The more you do it, the more you get used to it.
I just came back from work at 7 PM after a phone interview with a patent examiner, a 1.1-hour phone call, a 1.7-hour meeting, and leaving two voicemails. Talking drains me. My arm hurts. I ate dinner. Now I’m writing this. My girlfriend called me over a crackly connection. I’m back to writing this. I’m editing it the day after (and also years after to keep it fresh).
What about you? This is your duty of zealous advocacy to yourself. When you’re too tired for diversions is when you finally feel you can focus.
My head hurts after my employer gets its share of my soul for the day, but I still have things to do. So do you. It’s easier if you enjoy bar prep.
“How can I make myself study today?” Study today. Do something today that your future self will thank you for.
It’s not impossible. You have control over yourself. Count backward from 5, and start. Try it for just 5 minutes. Focus and motivation—the energy to continue—will follow.
We all have those days when we can’t get anything done. Don’t beat yourself over it. If you can do one small thing that moves you forward, then that’s enough.
But never look the other way and say, “Oh well.”
These are NOT permanent sacrifices. Short-term discomfort for the lifetime privilege of calling yourself an attorney. The calculus is clear!
Your time and energy are best spent doing what you believe—and what I believe—is the best course of action: making this the last time you take the bar.
If not now, when?
Just nodding along and saying “yeah, I really should…” is different from actually doing it and making a change.
Pick ONE of the above. Commit to it.
Or if you REALLY want to make a change…
Check out Mental Engines, my actionable course on managing your overwhelm, stress, and unproductivity for your bar preparation (and beyond).
What do you get with it?
- 8 modules of lessons for stress, overwhelm, anxiety, feeling of incompetence, motivation, and more (full details here) — you can pick and choose which modules to go through since you’re busy
- Action steps, exercises, checklists, and worksheets — so you can apply the lessons immediately
- 3+ hours of audio (with text transcripts if you just want to read)
- Short email series over 30 days to supplement the course (this alone is worth the admission price)
- 30-day satisfaction policy
People sometimes ask me how I juggle MTYLT and my day job as an attorney. Some are surprised that MTYLT isn’t my full-time job.
Well, here are the principles I use to make it all happen.
If you also want to be more optimistic, productive, and focused in your bar preparation, tap the button below to learn more about the course. Hope to see you inside.
4 Replies to “6 Ways to Reclaim Your Time & Energy While Studying for the Bar Exam (Even If You’re Working Full Time)”
Great article and just what I needed.
Struggling with USMLE prep… again (the next test, not the same test again, FWIW). This is super helpful. Thanks.