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Student Success 101: Reduce distractions and increase focus

Where does your time go? Knowing, controlling, and managing your time is critical in law school.

A primary challenge to dieting is that we need food for sustenance. A secondary challenge is that food is all around us—it’s part of our socializing with family and friends, it’s in the student lounge, it’s in our apartments, it’s for sale everywhere.

Similarly, combating e-distractions is particularly challenging for students when the very same place you must go for your syllabus or homepage during bar review, to access readings, listen to lectures, and upload assignments is precisely the same place that carries endless distractions. Devices that are supposed to be tools we use for detailed concentration and complex learning also house our fiercest distractions (social media, YouTube videos, podcasts), much of our human connection, and nearly all of our necessary communication.

If you’d have empathy for a friend trying desperately to get fit who lives inside the most delicious of bakeries, then have empathy for yourself.

That’s what our modern world has foisted on us. We live, work, and socialize inside the most distracting of virtual worlds. To thrive academically, and pass the bar exam the first time around, you must combat distractions with enormous discipline.

You must be on—mind, body, and spirit. To do this, you need to ruthlessly protect your time and put up walls around everything that steals time and focus from your studies.

Where do you spend time?

The first step in this process is to become aware of where your time goes. Complete the survey at the end of this article to get a handle on how you currently budget your time.

Armed with awareness, you’ll be able to manage your time and make certain you get and stay on the path to success. It will also help you battle the time thieves who steal minutes without us even noticing.

One example of a time thief is transitions. You may not be aware of how much time gets eaten when you move between tasks. Unconscious spending of time is like unconscious consumption of calories. We fail to “count” the minutes between tasks just like we fail to count snacks between meals. But they add up. Another time thief is procrastination. When we avoid doing something critical, we often fill the gap with something unimportant, unhelpful, or even destructive, such as engaging in negative self-talk. Sometimes it can help your studies to alternate between mentally active tasks, such as creating your own outlines or taking practice tests, and study tasks that are less demanding, such as calendaring or reviewing the syllabus, or personal tasks, such as paying bills and exercising.

Do things that are purely leisure after tackling at least some necessities. Reading, reviewing class notes, making your own outlines, strategically consulting reliable study aids, taking practice tests and studying sample answers, meeting with classmates, talking with professors—these are all necessities.

What else is a necessity? Some positive “time off.” Healthy eating, exercise, adequate sleep, and some uplifting human connections are necessities, not luxuries.

But are there other things you spend time on that are not necessities and do not lift you up? What are they, and how much time do you spend on them? How are they detracting you from achieving your academic goals?

Protect yourself and your time

Budget your time the way you budget money. Keep time commitments to yourself. You’re important. You’re indispensable. Your future is worth every ounce of time, energy, and money you’re investing in yourself.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, and don’t let people pull you into distractions you’re not interested in or you don’t get anything out of.

Pause and think about how your time is best spent before you say yes. Next time someone asks you to do something, try saying, “I’ll get back to you if I can make it.” That will buy you time and empower you to decide for yourself how to budget your time.

If you’re working full time or raising a family while studying—or both— your obligations aren’t mere distractions.

You can’t tell a child who needs to eat, “Not now, I’m studying” or delay a critical medical procedure for an aging parent. You thus need special strategies to juggle your competing responsibilities. Arrange for help wherever possible to free up time for study.

And study when you’re studying. I’ve counseled far too many law students who feel guilty about not being with family when studying and guilty about not studying when with family.

Being fully where you are when you’re studying and fully embracing your family, outside job, or other responsibilities when you’re in that part of your day or week will ultimately help save time and promote focus.

Assuage your guilt by knowing that you’ll provide a better life for your children with your law degree. Also know that studies show that children who see their parents reading and studying often thrive as a result of that role modeling.

Note: I heard U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak in January 2020 and declare emphatically that having a child during law school helped her prioritize. She said having a life that was not all law school all the time helped defuse some of the stress and helped her focus—and not waste any of the time she had to study.

Each of you is unique. Some of you have similar time thieves, but at the end of the day, you each must manage your own challenges. You may need different strategies to free up time for your studies. What helps you focus may vary greatly from what helps others focus.

Your goal is to be at your best and most productive. Consult reliable resources. Find what works for you.

Pave your own path to success. Don’t let anyone else tell you there’s one right way.

Sara J. Berman Sara J. Berman is a legal education thought leader specializing in student success, teaching and learning, and bar exams. Her most recent book, Bar Exam Success: A Comprehensive Guide, was published in 2019. After decades in faculty and law school leadership positions, Berman is now leading student success research initiatives at the nonprofit AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence. The views expressed in this article are Berman’s own.