Making Attorney Self-Care an Atomic Habit

Ashley Banks is a young woman with golden brown hair and brown eyes. She is pictured smiling against a black background, and she is wearing a red shirt and a black blazer. By Ashley Banks

As legal professionals, we dedicate significant time and energy to improving our practice, our knowledge, our business. But how much time do we devote to improving the way we care for ourselves? When is the last time you reviewed your self-care routine, implemented new self-care strategies, or set time aside for self-care planning? If you’re like me, your self-care routine may benefit from a well-designed system — James Clear’s Atomic Habits system.

Self-Care is Key for Legal Professionals, But it is Not Our Forte

As advocates serving others in a myriad of ways, our profession is notorious for disregarding the well-established principle of “fitting our own oxygen mask first.” But, it’s because we are advocates serving others in a myriad of ways that fitting our own oxygen mask first is so critical.

When we prioritize self-care, we become better advocates, counselors, colleagues, professionals, and, most importantly, people. This isn’t a new concept, and in recent years there has been an encouraging movement towards prioritizing attorney health and well-being, with an increased focus on incorporating self-care, wellness, and resilience into daily legal practice. However, many of us still struggle to implement and maintain self-care rituals and routines on a consistent basis, allowing urgent client matters or caseload upsurges to dictate and derail our daily resolves. Our profession comes with a sense of urgency, and when a pressing matter comes up, our self-care commitments are often the first to fly off the radar. Since these busy seasons are often when our minds and bodies are most in need of self-care, it’s a vicious cycle.

What if there was a system that could help us practice a self-care routine so repeatedly that the routine comes naturally, almost like an automatic response to a specific situation?

James Clear’s Atomic Habits: A Step-By-Step System for Sustained Self-Improvement

“The ultimate purpose of habits is to help us solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible.” – James Clear

Clear’s “easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones” is based on a four-step neurological feedback loop that motivates all human behavior. When repeated, this habit loop (cue, craving, response, reward) leads to the formation of new habits. Clear’s system breaks the habit loop down into four simple rules that can be used to make it easy to build better habits: the Four Laws of Behavior Change.

The first law of behavior change is to make it obvious (relating to the cue step of the habit loop).

A cue is anything that gets your attention and, as a result, is more likely to be acted on. The two most common cues are time and location. Clear says it is important to keep it simple — these habits should be small and easy to do.

Clear suggests two “formulas” for using these cues to promote certain behavior:

(1) The Implementation Intention Formula: I will [Specific Action] at [Specific Time] in [Specific Location]; and

(2) Habit Stacking Formula: After [Current habit], I will [new habit].

Both techniques are effective ways to kick start a new self-care habit. Keep it simple and short. Some examples: I will meditate at 7 a.m. in my office; I will change into my gym clothes at 6 p.m. before leaving my office; and I will read for pleasure at 10 p.m. in my bed.

Pre-planning is key. According to Clear, “you are two to three times more likely to follow through on a behavior if you pre-plan when, where and how the behavior will take place.”

The second law of behavior change is to make it attractive (relating to the craving step of the habit loop).

To increase the odds that a behavior will occur, you need to make it attractive. The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit forming. This is because habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop — the driver is the expectation of a rewarding experience, not the fulfillment of it.

Several techniques Clear suggests to make our habits more attractive include the following: temptation bundling (pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do); join a group where your desired behavior is the normal behavior (if a behavior is praised and approved by the tribe, we find it attractive); and create a motivation ritual by doing something you enjoy immediately before a difficult habit (habits are attractive if we associate them with positive feelings).

The third law of behavior change is to make it easy (relating to the response step of the habit loop).

We are products of our environment and behaviors are more likely to be performed when they can be accomplished with ease. So, if you want to develop certain habits, then make that habit the easiest, most convenient option within your environment. If you want to eliminate bad habits, make it as hard as possible to do the unproductive behavior.

The techniques suggested by Clear: reduce friction by eliminating the number of steps between you and your good habits; prime the environment to make good habits easier; master the decisive moment by optimizing small choices that deliver outsized impacts; use the two-minute rule to downscale your habits until they can be done in two minutes or less; and automate your habits by investing in onetime purchases that lock in future behavior.

Examples of how these techniques can be applied to various self-care rituals: reduce friction by laying out your workout clothes before bed to help you stick to your morning fitness routine; increase friction by deleting your social media apps from your phone — the steps required to download the apps again will help you refrain from mindlessly scrolling; scale down your desired self-care habits to two-minute versions to get started — for instance, “take out yoga mat” is a two-minute version of “do 30 minutes of yoga.”

The fourth law of behavior change is to make it satisfying (relating to the reward step of the habit loop).

If we associate something that feels good and has a satisfying ending with a behavior, we have a reason to repeat that behavior in the future. To get habits to stick, use reinforcement by giving yourself an immediate reward when you complete your habit; make “doing nothing” enjoyable by coming up with a way to see the benefits when you avoid a bad habit; and use habit tracking to keep tabs on your habit streak.

Habit tracking, in particular, works great to promote self-care habits because it acts as an obvious cue, motivates you not to break the streak, and feels so satisfying when you check off each box affirming you are one step closer to a better you.

Make it a Habit

Small changes to your self-care habits can lead to remarkable results. Whether your self-care goals involve mindful meditation, regularly-scheduled vocational distancing, or daily walks, James Clear’s Atomic Habits system can help you make the tiny changes that make a big difference in setting boundaries, reducing stress, and promoting vitality.

Are you ready to make a commitment to small changes to your self-care habits in order to obtain sustainable, unrelenting improvements as a professional and as a person? If so, start small, start simple, start a new habit.

The preceding article was researched, written and reviewed as part of the work of the NCBA Professional Vitality Committee (“PVC”). The lead author was Ashley Banks of Younce Vtipil Baznik and Banks, PA. (Raleigh, NC). Please direct comments and suggestions to Jamie Dean, Committee Chair, and LaSara Carter, Communities Manager.