For some lawyers, their New Year’s resolutions are but a distant memory. For others, though, the annual struggle to break their bad habits is still too close to call. On Monday, they keep perfect time records and leave the office in time for a workout and supper with the family. But by Thursday, they dash home from work just in time to tuck their children into bed. And Friday morning at the office, they wonder how they possibly could have logged only two 10-minute telephone calls the day before.
Does any part of that sound familiar? Lawyers realize their practices would improve if they kept closer track of time, engaged in client development on a steady basis and didn’t procrastinate on that summary judgment response until just before the due date. Add to that the common resolutions of exercising more, losing 10 pounds and putting a stop to Internet surfing. The problem is that breaking bad habits is difficult work for almost everyone — and lawyers, that means you.
Few people can break a bad habit completely on the first try; most experience an isolated lapse here and there or a temporary relapse into the old bad habit, or they just give up entirely.
There’s a scientific explanation for that: Bad habits become hardwired into the brain. Researchers have discovered that habitual activity changes neural patterns in the basal ganglia, the part of the brain responsible for habits, addiction and procedural learning.
Once a particular behavior becomes routine, the brain puts its owner on autopilot to continue the behavior without thinking about it. In one study, for example, cinema-goers who associated the movies with popcorn sat in the dark like automatons, eating stale popcorn even though they weren’t hungry — because their brains were wired to connect the two activities.
No one needs to remain controlled by the neural patterns created by habitual conduct. But even when someone thinks she has beaten an unwelcome habit, if something comes up that she associates with the former autopilot behavior, her brain can send out signals to throw her right back into those old bad habits. That’s why it’s so easy to relapse.
Relapse is especially common when one bad habit or addiction feeds off of another. Some people, for example, eat excessively when they take on more projects than they can handle or worry obsessively about pressures at home. Other people find it impossible to refrain from smoking after they’ve had a drink — in part because alcohol compromises willpower and taints good judgment.
The best cure in such circumstances is to learn to let go of both destructive habits. Kicking related bad habits together is the best chance for establishing or regaining a healthy lifestyle.
How to Quit
Psychologists traditionally have recommended three strategies for breaking an unwanted habit: monitoring, distraction and stimulus control.
Monitoring means constant watchfulness of one’s own behavior, coupled with admonitions to stop when the unwanted conduct occurs. For instance, every time a lawyer finds himself interrupting a client, partner or secretary, he should self-reprimand: “Don’t do that.”
Distraction involves giving oneself something to do and think about other than the unhealthy habit. Instead of reaching for a cigarette, for example, counsel can distract herself by taking a walk, phoning a friend or having a jelly bean instead, the way Ronald Reagan did.
Stimulus control means avoiding circumstances associated with the bad habit: Don’t meet a client at a bar and don’t walk past the desk of the secretary who keeps a candy dish.
But recently, behavioral scientists have learned that different approaches work best for various kinds of unwanted, repeated behaviors. Some habits are merely routine, unconscious, unthinking behavior, like putting on a seat belt. But other temptations are less mechanical because they are linked to genetically programmed urges, like hunger, thirst or sex.
Studies confirm that strong habits are best kicked through the use of a person’s vigilant monitoring. Repetition wires a routine habit into the brain; the behavior becomes a person’s default conduct. Watching for the behavior lets a person take himself off of autopilot long enough to notice the conduct and consciously think about trying to change it.
In contrast, for strong temptations, constant self-monitoring is the least effective way to break a habit. Remaining on the alert for slip-ups means forever dwelling on the very temptation one hopes to avoid. The best way to conquer these more seductive, urge-linked temptations, studies show, is to avoid those things that tempt you. The old adage, “out of sight, out of mind,” really does hold true for such temptations.
Breaking bad habits and eluding temptation are not easy. Old behavior patterns are especially hard to break when a person is under a lot of stress, which, unfortunately, describes many lawyers. That’s why it’s easy to overeat after a run-in with a judge, drink too much after a deal falls apart or max out a credit card when you don’t make partner.
Still, it pays to hang in there; even those who relapse are more likely to kick a habit after six months than those who don’t even attempt a change. For most people, stopping self-harming behavior is not easy or impossible, but somewhere in the middle. Vigilant self-monitoring for routine habits and stimulus control for the undertow of temptation can help.