The right habits can make a big difference for busy lawyers and law students — but making them stick can be challenging. Shifting our focus to our environment (and ‘keystone habits’) can make a big difference.
Some habits that served us effectively enough before law school, including how we approach stress, need to be improved to help us meet the challenges of the legal profession. Staying aware of our habits (arguably a habit itself, more of a keystone habit or meta-habit — more on those later) is foundational to our well-being, enabling us to identify when we need new habits in the first place. Find more on monitoring habits in this previous post on our blog.
Habits, Identity, and Environments
Understanding how habits work can help us work with them. The habit loop is a neurological pattern explained by reporter Charles Duhigg in his bestseller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, involving three stages: Cue, Routine, and Reward. James Clear, author of New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, adds a fourth stage by breaking “Routine” into Craving and Response.
Acknowledging that our motivation is fleeting, Clear offers four principles based on the habit loop to make new habits stick. We have to make them: (1) Obvious, (2) Attractive, (3) Easy, and (4) Satisfying. He highlighted how the struggle involves our sense of identity in a recent podcast episode of Do The Thing, hosted by Whole30 co-founder (and recovered drug addict) Melissa Urban. One common problem he recognizes is individuals looking for a finish line in habit-building, a point at which the habit sticks and we can rely on the habit without feeling the overwhelm of building the habit. He notes the average of around 66 days is basically useless — it depends dramatically on our starting position, the complexity of specific habit, and how it aligns in our surrounding environment.
Clear explains how focusing on making small steps in the present can change our sense of identity over time by giving our brains new evidence about our identity. Clear suggests that small steps allow us to shift the way we see ourselves more effectively than the idea of “faking it till you make it,” which he argues can feel “delusional”. Find more on how to build identity-based, long-term habits here on his blog. Research on how making small changes to our posture with occasional ‘power poses’ can improve our confidence led by Amy Cuddy involve a similar concept of changing how you think about yourself by making real changes. He also notes it can take many small steps in the right direction before it feels like a habit, like we’re acting in alignment with part of our identity:
“Any habit that you perform is how you embody a particular identity. So every morning that you make your bed, you embody the identity of someone who is clean and organized. Anytime you write one sentence, you embody the identity of someone who is a writer. If you study biology on Tuesday night for 20 minutes, you embody the identity of someone who is studious. And so you can sort of think as like every action you take is like a vote for the type of person you want to become. And the more that you take those actions, the more that you perform those habits, even if they’re quite small and seemingly insignificant on a daily basis, the more you’re casting votes for being that kind of person. And early on, if you do it the first day or the first week or even the first three months, no, that might not be enough votes to like shift your self image. But as that body of evidence builds up, as more votes are tossed onto the pile, each time you perform that small habit, eventually you have to turn around and kind of admit to yourself, Hey, this is like part of my identity.
As motivation ebbs and flows, our environments provide regular cues. The steps we take to build habits never happen inside a vacuum — they happen in an environment that influences our actions. Importantly, our environments — the cultures and norms of our professional and personal lives — shape our identity and our habits. Building identity-based habits often requires making changes to your environment, which can include finding new social supports who embody the habits you wish to embody. We need to actively prime our environments to make our desired habits obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying enough to stick. Find more on habit cues and how to shift them in this post from James Clear.
Overwhelm, Procrastination, and Keystone Habits
It’s common to feel overwhelmed by our goals. We might face option overload to start, and might recognize that the only environments we’ve ever known (and learned to feel comfortable in) are problematic in a number of ways we don’t have control over. We might face situational or chronic depression and anxiety, as well as trauma triggers and any range of mental health struggle.
When overwhelmed, a few strategies might help. In the habit-building phase, Clear shares a 2-minute rule you can use as a maximum time commitment to allow you to master the art of showing up for the habit before you actually practice performing the habit. Another 2-minute rule can help you fight procrastination by tackling anything that can be accomplished in 2 minutes. “Eating a frog during your power hour” is a particularly powerful way to overcome procrastination and make progress. Journaling just one sentence each day can be a great habit you can build on, and use for tracking other habits. And you can find 5 Steps to Bust Through Procrastination & Overwhelm in this webinar presented by Dr. Sarah Reiff-Hekking.
Certain habits are foundational, underlying your ability to adopt new habits and overall well-being — focus on building these “keystone habits” or “meta-habits”. Clear points out the examples of sleeping and reading habits. Sleep improves your ability to perform anything, and reading unlocks every form of skill-building and growth. We might add networking to that list, as a means to find new opportunities, information, and social supports.
Thinking patterns are perhaps the most elusive meta-habit to change. If we’ve adopted a scarcity mindset, we fail to recognize opportunities to make change for the better. Positive psychology recognizes a number of “happiness habits” like savoring positive experiences, focusing on strengths, expressing gratitude, nurturing relationships, living with purpose, practicing forgiveness, learning optimism, building resilience, and setting regular goals. Shifting to a growth mindset can help, but even then we might encounter challenges that the most positive thinking habits can’t counter. That said, a habit of trying to force positivity can be toxic when we simply need to appreciate the realities of our current struggle. Fortunately, licensed therapists can help us sort out our thinking patterns — and lawyers and law students in Massachusetts can schedule a Free & Confidential appointment with one of ours.
One final suggestion for a keystone habit is to embrace project planning not just in work but in personal life. Most goals involve a number of associated tasks and just knowing where to start requires planning. Project planning might sound overwhelming after we’ve been through so much education — but it isn’t. Get started here.
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Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can discuss concerns with a licensed therapist, law practice advisor, or both. Find more on scheduling here.