Lawyer workload - redropesLawyer work context:  Lawyers procrastinate. Lawyers have heavy workloads. This means that they have a large quantity of tasks to perform.  And, lawyers’ workloads require them to regularly engage their brains in highly complex work.  Also, this requires that engage themselves in high mental activation in order to complete their work. Lawyers fail to detach from their work.  They do not separate themselves physically from their work.  If they can accomplish physical separation from the workplace, they often continue to work.  How?  They leave the office or department and work somewhere else.  Some lawyers who can physically separate from the workplace and stop performing work still have thoughts and feelings about their work because they fail to psychologically detach from their work.  Many, if not most lawyers consider themselves “on the clock” 24/7 – 365.  Also, they do not stop thinking about or having feelings about their work.  All this adds up to serious self-regulation resource depletion.  This “dry well” created by lawyers’ work and workload contributes to self-control failure.

Your failure to get all of your work done and done on time does relate to “you”.  But, psychological science suggests that something else comes into play here.  The failure does not all stem from “you”.  Like many things involving the human element, context matters.  Specifically, work context matters.

Hopefully, you self-admitted procrastinators and bosses of alleged procrastinators will want to read more.  Increased knowledge and understanding about a pressing problem in the legal workforce should result from your efforts.  I’ll add a caveat:  you can’t blame your boss or your firm while taking no ownership for your procrastination.  Accountability starts with “me” and factors from all work context points on the organizational compass which comprises your firm, practice group or team, department, or company have important considerations, too.

Unsurprisingly, many, if not most, lawyers get fatigued from their labors.  The lawyer’s daily grind does just that.  By its nature as described, the lawyer’s work context “eats away” at and depletes our self-regulation resources.  Fortunately, some new research sheds new light and shows that correlates with . . . procrastination.  By better understanding the connections between workload and procrastination, perhaps more effective means of managing lawyer stress lurk around the corner.

A recent study, which did not focus on lawyers specifically, investigated workload, psychological detachment, and fatigue and a hypothesized connection between workload and procrastination.  The research team combined two research streams:  self-control and psychological detachment literatures.  The results of their investigation of  “the psychological process through which workload influences procrastination” begin to provide insight into a significant, prevalent problem which afflicts some 20% of the adult population.  While long held to relate to personality traits and individual differences, this research study highlights that characteristics of work, jobs, and organizations can influence procrastination.

This post will summarize the important findings and conclusions of this ground-breaking applied organizational research study.  The research summarized in this post should resonate with most working lawyers.  It did for me.  While we all can do better at managing our time and efforts, we as individual lawyers and the organizations for whom or where we do our work must realize now, more than ever before, that attorney workloads and legal work contexts do matter.  Procrastination involves more than simply individual differences, coping styles, and / or personality traits.  Courts have begun to recognize workload as an important fact of professionalism.  All organizations who provide legal services will do well by seriously considering these issues, and making adjustments accordingly because doing more work may backfire and negatively impact the bottom line.  Suggested implications for lawyers and the legal workplace conclude this post.

Theoretical Background

Procrastination involves the voluntary delaying of an intended course of action despite expecting that the delay will make one worse off.  These investigators conceptualized that definition and described it “as a form of self-regulation failure”.  Procrastination, a negative behavior which involves irrational delay, does not involve strategic delay of low priority tasks in favor of higher priority tasks.  Most of the prior studies have centered on procrastination in academic, not workplace environments. The authors noted that those prior studies have indicated that procrastinators “suffer greater stress, more health problems, and have poorer performance than those who have greater self-control.”  Leading meta-analyses squelch any idea that procrastination enhances performance.  The authors note that those “results clearly show that procrastination has a consistent negative effect on performance.”

This post’s featured study used a strength model of self-control instead of the more prevalent cognitive models of self-control.  A person needs strength and energy to properly self-regulate.  Under this theory, we use a “reservoir” of self-control resources.  By engaging in challenging tasks, in addition to more specific self-control tasks, that well can get depleted.  Self-control failures, including procrastination, can occur in a typical workday in which the worker deals with “chronic occupational stressors”.

Fatigued?  This research study’s model strongly suggests that it correlates with your procrastination.  When occupational stressors tear us down and deplete our resources, “ego depletion” sets in, according to another aspect of the theory used in this research.  This impairs our ability to self-regulate successfully.  This, the theory goes, renders us more apt to procrastinate.  In that “well run dry” state, we need rest, recovery, and rebuilding must occur.  This rebuilding of energy or self-control reserves depleted as a result of fatigue has not been studied in “paid employment settings”.  This ground-breaking study did.

A different line of research, occupational stress literature, indicates through a series of studies that “failing to recover or detach from work can negatively impact health and reduce performance.”  We need a period of time after exposure to stressors to recover and return to our normal, pre-stressor level of functioning.  We need a “sense of being away from the work situation.”  Taken further, i.e. not just physically detached, by one of the world’s leading researchers, we need to experience psychological detachment.  This means “being completely uninvolved in work-related feelings or thoughts.”  This means that when you are home, i.e. physically detached, you also do not work and do not think about work and you have no feelings about work.  You relax and stop thinking about and doing work.  You do not activate your brain for purposes of work and your job.

This study fills a gap in the current research literatures according to the authors.  No prior research had established connections between stressors, fatigue and recovery, strain associated with relative psychological detachment, and job performance.  They used procrastination, a form of self-regulation failure, and determinant of performance, to investigate the underlying processes and pathways of those connections.

Study:  Method, Participants, and Measures

The researchers created a stressor-detachment conceptual model.  They combined concepts from the self-control and recovery/detachment research streams.  Their study assessed and investigated connections and relationships of four distinct, key constructs:  workload, psychological detachment, fatigue, and procrastination.  The research team theorized that a workplace stressor, heavy workload, relates to problems with psychological detachment.  Psychological detachment depletes critical resources needed for self-control / self-regulation.  This fatigued state, the researchers theorized, makes us experience self-regulation failure and as a result more vulnerable to engage in procrastination, a form of self-regulation failure.

The investigators collected the data from working adults in three waves over a two month time period.  At Time 1, the team assessed workload and psychological detachment. Time 2, one month later, assessed fatigue.  The last data collection point, Time 3, which occurred two months after the initial Time 1 survey, assessed procrastination.  The participants [547 responses total] had an average age of 40.8 years, worked about 40.2 hours per week, and some 40% worked in professional and related occupations, management, business, and financial operations.

The researchers adapted and used measures of the four key constructs from existing, psychometrically proven scales.  Some key factors from each assessment, expressed as points or questions here, appear here:  workload [job requires you to work fast and hard, little time to get things done, great deal to get done, and “how often do you have more work than you can do well?”]; psychological detachment [“as soon as I get up in the morning I start thinking about work problems”, “work rarely lets me go, it is still on my mind when I go to bed”, “if I postpone something that I was supposed to do today, I’ll have trouble sleeping at night”]; fatigue [how frequently felt tired very quickly, physically exhausted, problems thinking clearly, felt mentally exhausted, felt physically weak]; procrastination [often perform tasks that had intended to do days before, continually saying “I’ll do it tomorrow”, even with tasks that require little effort except just doing them, these seldom get done for days].


The results obtained by the investigators [via factor analysis and structural equation modeling not explained here] appear in highlighted summary form here:

  • Workload related negatively to psychological detachment – people who reported greater work demands had more trouble detaching from work
  • Psychological detachment related negatively to fatigue – people who reported greater initial detachment at the first data collection time reported less fatigue one month later
  • Workload had an indirect effect on fatigue via psychological detachment – to the degree that it negatively affected a person’s ability to detach from work, workload related to fatigue
  • Fatigue related positively to procrastination
  • Fatigue mediated the relationship between psychological detachment and procrastination – psychological detachment also had an indirect effect (via fatigue)
  • Workload demonstrated a significant indirect effect on procrastination

Discussion and Implications for Legal Organization Leaders . . . .

The authors state that their study adds to science, i.e. self-control and recovery/detachment literatures, in “several important ways”.  Without discussing the study’s limitations and future research issues it left open, the main points [for lawyers] include the following.

Workload and its relationship with psychological detachment explains a significant portion of the variance in procrastination.  Procrastination does not relate solely to individual difference variables.  Importantly, the authors state “Our findings suggest that characteristics of organizations and jobs should be explored as potential antecedents of procrastination and other types of self-control failure.”  The study’s evidence shows that an increase in fatigue has a positive relation to procrastination via resource depletion.  Workload, according to the authors, had an indirect relationship with procrastination through psychological detachment and fatigue.  It depletes resources for self-control.  Also, failure to recover from workload and its resource depletion plays a role in the capacity to self-regulate.  According to the authors, their “results suggest that psychological detachment, as a form of recovery, is associated with fatigue 1 month later and procrastination 2 months later.”

This research study suggests “a psychological mechanism by which workload may be associated with decreased performance.”  More than individual factors contribute to procrastination, a prevalent problem which involves some 20% of the working population.  Work context – occupational stressors, i.e. the characteristics of the work, the job, and the organization, influence procrastination.

This research has “important implications” for stress management interventions by [legal] organizations.  What can [legal] organization leaders do?  Taken from the research article, suggestions include:

  • Encourage psychological detachment during nonwork time – workers [lawyers] must be “completely uninvolved in work-related feelings and thoughts”
  • Design work in such a way that psychological detachment can realistically happen
  • Reduce workload – knowing that failure to do so may result in increased procrastination, which ultimately impacts performance
  • Explore components of the recovery process, e.g. mastery experiences – challenging activities which require learning and dedication during nonwork time, e.g. train for half-marathon

Legal leaders, how does procrastination impact your legal workplace?  Don’t deny that the problem exists.  What strategies and interventions does your firm, department, or company use?  Think of procrastination control as a stress management intervention.  Generalizing the results of this ground-breaking research study, we now have reason to believe that if lawyers can’t psychologically detach from their work and workload, fatigue will persist and resources will not get replenished.  Self-control failure in the form of procrastination will result.  The effects of procrastination will impair the health and well-being of your lawyers and will negatively impact your workplace and your bottom line.  Psychological science has suggested some sound reasons to reduce workload to manage occupational stress – procrastination.

Thank you very much.  Please visit again soon.  Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices. | | | Blog See you next time.

Article Source:  DeArmond, S., Matthews, R., & Bunk, J. (2014). Workload and procrastination: The roles of psychological detachment and fatigue. International Journal of Stress Management, 21 (2), 137-161 DOI: 10.1037/a0034893.

Resources for Lawyers:  Check out Conquering Procrastination here by Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program (MOLAP) Director, Anne Chambers, LCSW.  See her series on procrastination by expert Attorney-Coach Cami McLaren, of McLaren Coaching, here

Image Credits:  Lawyer workload here

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

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