50 Lessons for Lawyers

Lesson 4. Get rid of bad habits.
90% of our behavior is based on our habits.

May 26, 2017

Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results.
– Albert Einstein

If you think about bad habits, aren’t they the living definition of insanity? As psychologist and philosopher William James wrote in the late 19th century, we are “mere bundles of habits.” My friend, Mark Powers, the founder and president of Atticus, a coaching and consulting firm that works exclusively with attorneys, likes to tell the story of the lawyer who’s trying to change his work habits:

You get up in the morning and say to yourself, “TODAY is the day! TODAY I will get to the office and work through my “to do” list. TODAY is the day! TODAY I will start to take control of my calendar. TODAY I will go home in time to have dinner with my family.” But at seven o’clock, you’re still at your desk and, once again, you feel like you’ve worked all day with little to show for it. “Oh well,” you say to yourself, “Tomorrow is another day.”

The lawyer in Mark’s story is like so many of us. We know we should change, and we truly want to change. But we are prisoners of our habits. These 50 Lessons will challenge you to examine your habits so that you can identify which habits work for you and pull you toward your goals, and which habits hold you back.

You are here.

The first step in changing your bad habits is acknowledging that what you’re doing isn’t working. If you’re reading this, you know it’s time to start doing things differently. It’s time for a change. So, let’s look at how the process of change works. In Changing for Good,[4:1] the authors explain the process of change in six stages. Each stage is part of the change process, which they define as: “Any activity that you initiate to help modify your thinking, feeling, or behavior.” Written from a clinical psychology perspective, Changing for Good is grounded in research on how individuals have overcome addictive behaviors such as smoking. Its lessons, however, offer valuable guidance to anyone who wants to rid themselves of a bad habit, such as working until all hours of the night when you’d rather be home with your family. (Yes, that is a habit.)

Following are the Six Stages of Change outlined in Changing for Good. By understanding where you are on the continuum of change, you can take actions that move you to the next stage.

Precontemplation: Precontemplators don’t see any need to change, and thus resist it. But while most pre-contemplators don’t want to change themselves, they’d love to change everyone else. Often they avoid even thinking about their problems because they feel the situation is hopeless. If your loved ones have told you that you’re working too much, listen to them, and move out of this stage

Contemplation: Contemplators want to stop feeling stuck. They want to change, but they are always looking for a better solution to their problem. According to the authors, “People who eternally substitute thinking for action can be called chronic contemplators.” I’d say they’re stuck in the knowing-doing gap. (See Lesson 2. Understand the difference between knowing and doing. Start doing.)

Preparation: People in the preparation stage are committed to action. If you are in the preparation stage, it’s the time to publicize your change efforts. In your office, this can be as simple as telling your assistant that beginning on Monday, you plan to leave the office at 5:30 p.m. each day. Enlist the help of those around you to move you to the next phase – action.

Action: This is where the rubber meets the road, and you actually change your behavior. Remember that while this stage exhibits the most visible form of change, “…it is far from the only one; you can also change your level of awareness, your emotions, your self-image, your thinking, and so on. And many of those changes take place in the stages that precede action.”

Maintenance: In this stage, you begin to consolidate the gains you’ve made so that your changes become permanent. Without a strong commitment to maintenance, you’ll likely go back to your old ways. But remember: Action followed by a return to bad habits is better than no action at all. Research shows that most people who quit smoking report three or four unsuccessful attempts before they succeed. The lesson? Don’t get discouraged! As you begin to live the 50 Lessons, you might fall back into old habits as you start to build new ones. Don’t beat yourself up about it! Just get back on the horse! You’ll get there.

Termination: At this point, you’ve extinguished the habit.

As you move through these stages, don’t get discouraged. Changing bad habits isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. Just get started. Take action!

Action followed by relapse is far better than no action at all. People who take action and fail in the next month are twice as likely to succeed over the next six months than those who don’t take any action at all.
– From Changing for Good

How Just 20 Seconds Can Help You Change Habits

Just as it takes tremendous initial thrust for a rocket to break through the bounds of gravity, changing a habit always requires a fair amount of initial energy. Why? According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work,[4:2] it is because “…we are drawn to those things that are easy, convenient and habitual, and it is incredibly difficult to overcome this inertia.” Achor’s book catalogs the neuroscience behind positive psychology and outlines seven principles for upping your competitive advantage by upping your happiness quotient. That may sound like mushy, right-brain, mumbo-jumbo to most left-brain lawyers, but the principles in The Happiness Advantage are grounded in thousands of scientific studies, as well as in Achor’s own research on 1,600 Harvard University students and dozens of Fortune 500 companies.

One of Achor’s seven principles is something he calls “The 20-Second Rule.” The concept is simple and effective: If you want to get rid of a bad habit, make it more difficult to engage in it. If you want to stop your habit of eating chocolate ice cream at 11 o’clock at night, don’t keep any in your freezer. You’re much less likely to get in your car in the middle of the night to buy ice cream than you are to saunter into your kitchen and down a pint of Ben and Jerry’s that’s waiting in your freezer. Research shows that making it even slightly more difficult to engage in a bad habit can help you extinguish it.

The same principle works at the office. Let’s use the example of habitually checking email throughout the day. According to Tim Burress, co-author of several books on effective email habits, the average professional spends about two-and-a-half to three hours per day on email. If you want to break yourself of the habit of habitually checking your email, turn it off and only check your email at certain times during the day. You will be amazed at how much more focused and productive you’ll be.

Living the Lesson

  • Know that wherever you are in the process of change, you can do it.
  • Identify those habits that you want to extinguish.
  • Use the “The 20-Second Rule” to begin to change your habits.
  • Start small. Extinguishing just one unproductive habit can make a huge impact over time.

[4:1] Norcross, John C., Prochaska, James O. and DiClemente, Carlo C. (2010). Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. HarperCollins.

[4:2] Achor, Shawn (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business.

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