6 Ways to Reclaim Your Time & Energy While Studying for the Bar Exam (Even If You’re Working Full Time)

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.

I’ve been where you are. In a way, I’m still there.

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).

Time is not your most valuable resource.

You ALSO need ENERGY and ATTENTION. You need CLARITY so you can be productive. Even if you “had the time,” it wouldn’t mean jack unless you did 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.

Your sleeves are constantly getting tugged by things that cry for your attention. You’re ambitious. You want to do all of it.

You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want.

You get overwhelmed by wanting to watch lectures, take copious notes, memorize everything, make flashcards, and still do the practice questions (finally). Busy work. Wasted downtime guilt. Things you’ll forget. Paths of least resistance. You’re even setting aside Netflix for this!

Is it possible that you’re overwhelmed because you had too much time, which enabled you to think you needed to do all the things the past however many weeks or months?

To be fair, you might also have to attend to work, family, errands, your own needs, whatever millennials claim we need to survive, etc.

Bar prep programs may assume you have 8-10 hours a day. But what if you’re working full time and only have 3-4 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. You don’t get your “shoulds”; you get your “musts.” What are your musts” vs. “shoulds”?

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
  • 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 and a normal part of the process. 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 more mindful about distractions.

This is for you if you end up spending half your day scrolling, watching shows, or playing video games.

I understand the temptations! I have a huge queue of media and games to get to which only seems to get longer.

If you need to unwind with dinner and 20 minutes of TV after a full day of studying, by all means.

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’s much harder to come out of a distracted state than to enter it.

The more you distance yourself from distractions, though, the less you think about them over time. If you get busy enough, I promise you’ll get used to life without entertainment (as sad as it sounds).

Human attention is the scarcest resource in the world. Your time is worthless without it. Protect your attention.

How can you preserve your attention level? Some ideas:

  • If you want to relax or take a break, lie down and don’t do anything. Take a nap. Don’t use your brain.
  • Avoid looking at your phone. 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. Your phone is designed to steal as much of your attention as possible.
  • If you’re one of those talkative ones, message or respond to a study buddy or a friend. Find a community of bar takers (Discord, Facebook, Reddit, etc.) where you get energized and even make it an “active rest” by discussing bar exam concepts.

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.” In fact, you should enjoy the process!

But also remember: Bar prep takes priority (assuming it does for you). Your job is to prepare adequately for the bar exam. Putting bar prep ahead of other things doesn’t guarantee you’ll pass, but I can’t think of an example of someone who didn’t give it the attention it deserved and still passed. Be conscious about where your attention and focus go.

Julius Caesar burned his own boats to instill total commitment in his soldiers.

RULE 3. Limit or delegate obligations.

Not everyone is privileged enough to be able to give full attention to bar prep.

Do you have to take care of family, kids, dogs, groceries, laundry, etc.?

(Again, which of these are MUSTs and not just SHOULDs? I won’t tell anyone which category your kids fall under.)

Maybe you welcome these errands because they can provide relief and therapy (or you simply enjoy them—vacuuming the floor is my form of therapy). Or maybe they’re distractions.

For the distractions you don’t want to handle, are you able to delay them or ask someone else to handle them? Sometimes you have friends or family or significant other(s) who can help. Make it up to them later.

If you want to reclaim your time, offload things to other people so you can focus. Trade your time for theirs. Studying for the bar is an obligation to yourself. Where you spend your time shows where your priorities are.

You can also buy back your time: You might consider hiring someone, like a cleaner or babysitter. Or get some useful study tools.

No friends? No budget? AND no time?

I don’t know. Get your life together first. (It’s OK. I also need more friends.) 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. 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.

If you want to try this, at least wake up later to get the proper amount of sleep.

Otherwise, set a bedtime and try to stick to it. You use an alarm to wake up. Why not to go to sleep? 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 (and probably any psychic damage you incurred from bar prep). 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 separate 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 to work, when your mind is fresher. Or you could slow down on your career development for now so you can focus on your ultimate dream of passing the bar (which in turn unlocks doors for your career).

Feels good man

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.

A Modest Proposal

Don’t gloss over: The more you do it, the more you get used to it.

This is your duty of zealous advocacy to yourself. When you’re too tired for diversions is when you finally feel you can focus on the real work.

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!

Hardship, failure, success, promises, and even the euphoria from passing are temporary.

So if you’re ever discouraged, remind yourself that this is all “for now.”

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 (and night) 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. See you inside.

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6 Replies to “6 Ways to Reclaim Your Time & Energy While Studying for the Bar Exam (Even If You’re Working Full Time)”

  1. Struggling with USMLE prep… again (the next test, not the same test again, FWIW). This is super helpful. Thanks.

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