At some point in your bar exam preparation, you’re going to run into a wall called “motivation.”
“How do I get motivated to study? I’m so unmotivated.”
To answer this, realize that the lengthy marathon that is the bar preparation process is actually an advantage for motivation.
To explain, let me first disclose that I’m writing this while on vacation in Cabo (my thoughts and prayers are with you). I realized that if I were to wait until I got back, I might forget how to start. I might resist doing this until I have to force myself, and that’s not fun for me or beneficial to you.
There’s a mental frictional cost every time you start a new task. The longer you leave that task alone, the more resistance you have against doing it. I’m already internally grumbling about the grocery shopping and cooking I’ll have to do once I get home, even though it was a normal part of my life (like brushing my teeth) just a few days ago!
But what I won’t dread when I return to reality: helping bar takers, answering emails, exercising. I’m continuing to do these things even while on “break.” They’re things I have reason to do, am used to doing, and enjoy doing.
Similarly, motivation for studying for the bar exam comes from prior action. Action creates momentum. With momentum, motivation becomes a moot point.
Motivation doesn’t suddenly fall out of the sky. Waiting for inspiration will be an uphill battle —just like going to school back in the day.
After you read this article, you might say, “I needed this today!” But that’s “new year, new me” energy. If you feel a kick from this dose of intellectual candy, it would behoove you to “ride the wave” by acting on this “eureka moment” and starting to turn that flywheel of motivation.
The truth is that motivation must come from within, and it must be sustainable.
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” —Pablo Picasso
Given this, here are a few approaches you could try to ensure that you never run out of motivation:
1. Don’t “break the chain” of study days.
Jerry Seinfeld had a way to create better jokes. Each day that he wrote, he would cross that day off in his calendar. His job became to keep that chain going, or put differently, to not “break the chain.”
Creating a habit of doing something bar-related every day (or as you can) will create momentum, and from there, studying will become second nature.
The longer the runway (the length of study time), the stronger the momentum—and the motivation will continue as long as you keep turning that flywheel. Hence the feeling of post“bar”tum emptiness once it’s over. We get attached to the struggle.
Of course, you should moderate this marathon to avoid burnout. You don’t need to study 12 hours a day. It’s fine to have a day off, but try to get some “active rest” by doing something related to the bar exam. For instance, make a deal with yourself to do just one or two MBE questions. You may surprisingly find that you want to keep going. If so, keep going!
“Success doesn’t come from what you do occasionally. It comes from what you do consistently.” —Marie Forleo.
No wonder habit evidence is more powerful in court than character evidence.
2. Enjoy the process of studying.
If bar prep is something you actually enjoy, then you won’t have a motivation problem. “Is that even possible?” you ask. I get it—bar prep can seem like the dryest activity in the world. But I’ve done it! My parents even said I looked happy when I was studying for the bar exam.
How did I enjoy the bar prep process?
- No more lectures.
- No more filling in meticulous lecture notes until the sun went down.
- No more cookie-cutter plans.
- I took plenty of breaks.
- I tried different things to see what worked for me.
This made it way less exhausting than sitting there filling in notes all day. Doing is less exhausting than thinking about doing it (or perpetually preparing to do it).
You’ll come to enjoy your improvement and the challenge rather than the tedium. Studies show that we get more motivated when we see progress.
Bar exam preparation is about learning, not education; retention, not mere exposure; understanding, not just memorizing. The more you move, the easier it is to keep moving. Again, maintain the momentum.
You can also find your own reasons to enjoy bar prep. For example, set up a reward for yourself, get quizzed by your family members, or teach your friends about the intricacies of hearsay (a major area tested on the MBE). Hard work doesn’t mean you have to suffer.
3. Leave the loop open. Make it easier to start.
There’s mental friction whenever we start or switch to a new task, but we experience less of that friction when in the middle of a task. Let me illustrate how to take advantage of this with an example:
When you’re about to finish studying for the day, STOP what you’re doing in the middle of a particular MBE question. Leave it ready to go the next day.
Humans are wired to want to see the ending (the “cliffhanger effect”). Tease yourself. Maybe even leave 2-3 questions of a set unfinished. This will make you want to see the ending because you haven’t closed the loop. The next day, you’ll be more likely to jump right into study mode and continue where you left off.
As I like to practice what I preach, I used a trick for this article by leaving a draft open on my laptop to see at all times while I was on vacation. Since the unfinished piece stayed top of mind, I kept coming up with new words in the shower. Eventually, I had no choice but to write.
Attitude follows behavior; motivation follows action. It’s one of those things that is the reverse of what people typically assume (which may be why we struggle with it).
4. Have a “professional attitude.”
The key to this marathon process—and the hard part—is to keep going even when it stops being enjoyable, even when you’re spinning your wheels. When you simply don’t feel like sitting down to study, I encourage you to adopt a “professional attitude.”
Professionals do the things they’ve committed to regardless of the weather outside, of whether they “don’t have time,” and whether they’re tired or not in the mood. They do their best anyway.
This is why I’m happy to get sand on my keyboard as I’m typing; it reminds me of the dedication that I have to my professional commitments. And that dedication can be rewarding. I just got this email: “Thank you and no worries on the time delay; I am surprised and grateful you are still answering emails while on vacation.”
As a professional lawyer, you will have various duties to the profession and the people in it. You should be an advocate for yourself, and you have a duty to serve yourself.
The attitude of a professional is to begin the process even when you just don’t feel like it. Start where you are. Take the next step. Once we get started, we’ll often forget that we’re tired. We’ll enter the coveted state of “flow” where motivation is no concern.
Motivating yourself for bar prep
As you can see, motivation must come from within. It’s unreliable to wait for motivation to strike. You get motivated by starting.
Besides, you already have the motivation to make this your last time taking the bar exam. The gap between thinking about it and doing it is vast, but doing becomes natural once you cross that gap. Give it a try with one of the above techniques.