Productivity 101: How to Use Stoicism to Succeed in Law School

By Andy A. 

This is the first article in the “Productivity 101” series designed to give students actionable advice to increase their productivity in law school and to avoid burning out.

Many law students struggle with staying productive and keeping up with law school. Law school requires an enormous amount of energy and commitment, and sometimes students just burn out. In this article, I’ll discuss the principles and benefits of Stoicism and how you can apply them to your studies to maintain your course and obtain tangible results.

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is a philosophy founded in ancient Greece. Its followers were doers – responsible and public-minded individuals who never wasted time and never took their good fortune for granted. Their philosophy was one of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom. They wanted to live the best possible life they could rather than to idly watch life pass into inevitable death. One of the most famous Stoic practitioners was a Roman emperor named Marcus Aurelius. 

For Marcus, Stoicism gave him a set of tools to deal with the daily stresses of being the leader of one of the most powerful empires of human history. He detailed these tools and reflected upon how they made him the best possible person he could be in a personal journal, now published today as the book, Meditations. I’ll discuss a few of these tools in this article, and how they benefited me during law school. 

How to Apply Stoicism to Boost Your Motivation During Law School

Here are a few methods derived from Stoicism that you can use to conquer your time in law school.

1. Voluntary Discomfort: Practice discomfort in times of comfort. 

Lie on the floor after you wake up.

This exercise works best if you have a hardwood floor. After you experience your first moments of wakefulness, force yourself to get out of bed and to lie on the floor until you become fully awake. The contrast in comfort is key here. 

In my experience, lying on the floor actually helps me to wake up even faster because of how uncomfortable lying on the floor can be after sleeping on a soft mattress. 

This exercise is just an easy warm-up for voluntary discomfort. Next, we’ll discuss (freezing) cold showers and the point of putting yourself in positions of discomfort.

Take a 60-second freezing shower after you get up every morning. 

After you wake up for the day, get into your shower and take the coldest shower you can handle for 60 seconds straight. Don’t half-ass it and avoid the water as much as possible. Fully immerse yourself under the shower head, and embrace the discomfort. Your mind will probably be overwhelmed by the freezing temperature, but you must focus on taking long, deep breaths.

The first morning I tried taking a freezing shower, it was so much worse than I could ever imagine. In fact, my body went into shock almost immediately. I started hyperventilating after the first 10 seconds, and I was quite literally standing hunched over in the fetal position for the duration of the shower. I focused on counting to 60 as accurately as I could and taking deep breaths. And I refused to turn off the shower or to step away. I’m not usually a morning person, but after this cold shower, I certainly was. 

This experience borderline scarred me, but I felt like I could take on the world after the shower. The immediate transition of feeling intense discomfort to its absence filled me with so much energy and gratefulness so early in the day. After that I could focus that seemingly limitless energy on powering through each day in law school. This feeling results partially from the endorphins released in your brain after taking the cold shower. 

“In time of peace, prepare for war.”

-Vegetius

This is what you want to feel every morning. You want to feel invincible and motivated to tackle your day – to conquer any obstacle that may come in your path. You want to feel like you have so much energy that you will never burn out. Don’t just step outside your comfort zone. Get used to staying outside of your comfort zone. A cold shower is one of the most abrupt (and thus, effective) ways to achieve this state of mind as soon as possible. 

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”

– Seneca

If you absolutely can’t handle a freezing, cold shower for 60 seconds, here’s what you can do. Turn the temperature down to the point where you first feel uncomfortable. You can work on lowering the temperature more and more every day. Here’s a more detailed guide on getting started with cold showers.

Aside from boosting your motivation, here are some other health benefits of taking a cold shower:

First, a study has shown that cold showers improve your metabolism which can help you control your body weight. 

Another study has also shown that cold showers improve circulation. Athletes have known about this benefit for many years, and we’ve even seen that cold showers improve rates of healing after a sports injury. 

And finally, cold showers can also improve the effectiveness of your immune system. In fact, a study showed that cold showers can make the human body more resistant to certain types of cancer. 

2. Premeditation of Adversity: Use negative visualization.

Every night before bed, Marcus Aurelius would set aside some time to think about all the things that could go wrong in his life. By doing so, he was able to take greater care in avoiding or preventing potential things that could go wrong in his life. He also became more grateful as a result. 

Visualize, to the best of your ability, what it would be like to cross the street and get hit by a car. Feel the physical pain that would result – the pain of your bones snapping in half and your muscles tearing into shreds. Think about the insanely high medical expenses you would incur and how you may be paying them off for years to come. Think about becoming a paraplegic and how that would impact your life. After living through that nightmare in your mind, what are you going to do the next time you cross the street? That’s right – you’re going to look both ways and make sure there are no cars speeding down the road. 

Now think about what would happen if your child or someone else important in your live was to suddenly die. Think about the mental pain you would experience and the depression that would ensue. What is that going to make you do? You’re going to run over to that person and hug them (or call them if they aren’t next to you already).

This exercise is what we call negative visualization. Bad things happen to everyone, and the mental toll resulting from the negative experience can be much worse when its occurrence is unexpected. 

As a law student, think about all the things that could go wrong in your life. You could miss too many classes and fail out of law school if you were too hungover from partying too much. You could get a B- or C on a final exam because you didn’t spend enough time studying or reading your casebook. You could get sick or even get hit by a car. 

Your natural response would probably be to take precautions and make decisions informed by those fears. You would become more aware of the impact of your choices and feel more grateful for what you currently have in your life (e.g., the opportunity to attend law school and gain a higher education, the opportunity to better your life, the ability to walk, having a roof over your head). 

Before and during law school, I regularly visualized screwing up my final exams and graduating jobless while carrying tons of student debt. I imagined the lack of financial freedom that would follow me for the rest of my life as a result. Did I read every single one of these 1L guides BEFORE and DURING law school multiple times to make sure I could crush my 1L grades? Did I do everything I could to make sure I understood 100% of the course material and to prepare for the final exam? You bet I did. 

3. Review your day every night.

Set aside some time before bed and go over what happened in your day in as much detail as you can. 

What went well? Positive reinforcement can help solidify good habits, so congratulate yourself for things that did go well. Review your progress toward specific goals you’ve made for yourself and set new short-term goals. 

Short-term goals can be REALLY short-term. For instance, a short-term goal I would set for myself every weekend was to complete the casebook readings for all of my classes before Monday. This is something that just kept me going.

What didn’t go well? Identify problems you are experiencing and come up with a solution or plan of action to fix it. Otherwise, you’ll just forget about it and make the same mistakes over and over again. 

In addition to mentally reviewing your day, I would also recommend writing your experiences and thoughts down for the day. The act of writing will further ingrain the benefits of reflection. When you start preparing for your interviews before job fairs (e.g., OCI), you’ll have to go through this exercise anyways to reflect on your past work experiences and identify your relevant skills. Start building this habit today. As Marcus Aurelius once wrote:

“You need to get used to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, “What are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or thinking that.”

4. Contemplation of the Sage

Before making a major decision, Marcus Aurelius would ask what the ideal Sage would do and visualize their decision-making process. The exercise disassociates yourself from that decision. Have you ever heard of the phrase, “easier said than done?” We’re all guilty of not taking our own advice. It’s always easier to tell someone to do something than to do it yourself.

As irrational beings, we often procrastinate because we’re too emotionally connected to the “hardships” associated with carrying out our duties. Thus, one way to sever this emotional component is to ask yourself what someone with the ideal character traits you want would do and mimic them. 

Another way to do this exercise is to zoom out and see yourself from a third-person perspective. Pretend like you, as the outsider, are playing a video where you are controlling the actions of yourself, a video game character. Tell your character what to do and do those things.

5. Contemplation of the Cosmos

Zoom out even further until your view includes those around you. You might notice people walking on the street. You might see someone celebrating after hearing some good news on the phone. Perhaps there’s a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk asking for help as people pass by with wilful, ignorant bliss. 

Now zoom out even further until you see the whole world. What issues do you see? Starving children living in extreme poverty in other countries? People suffering and dying from a rare disease? Slaves held against their will by human traffickers? Look around you. Pain and suffering are everywhere. 

One purpose of this exercise is to decatastrophize your personal problems. Law school is tough, but realize that everyone has problems. Most of the time, our personal problems are an insignificant speck on a tiny rock floating through space. Compared to the scale of the universe, our problems may appear to be incredibly trivial. 

For instance, you may feel embarrassed because you bungled your professor’s cold-call during your Criminal Law class. Or you may just be nervous about cold-calls in general. Try this exercise. Put these challenges into perspective and you may more easily overcome them. 

“You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination…”

-Marcus Aurelius

Final Thoughts

The philosophy of Stoicism is an incredibly useful set of tools you can use to power through law school. As you have read, Stoicism strongly emphasizes the act of self-reflection. Everyone thinks they know themselves. But our personal perceptions of ourselves actually tend to differ from who we actually are. Realign your perspective so that you aren’t telling yourself to do one thing and proceeding to do the opposite.

Since Stoics are so quotable, I’ll leave you with one last word from Marcus Aurelius. Internalize it well.

“It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.”

-Marcus Aurelius