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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.