Hating the Habits

  • March 04, 2021

Dear Advy,

I’m wondering if you can give me some advice about habit formation. Since COVID-19 has struck, I find myself getting into patterns that are unhealthy in both my work and personal life. At work, I am breaking my own rules about working hours/availability, which is leading to more anxiety and stress, and contributing to my making mistakes. At home (well, work is at home too, but you know what I mean!), I find myself staying up way too late binging on TV and sometimes junk food. I am also drinking more than I think I should be and using alcohol to alleviate my stress, loneliness, and boredom somewhat. I can’t seem to help that bad habit either! 

Any suggestions? 

- Hating the Habits

Dear Hating the Habits,

What you’re raising is a very real problem that has been widespread during COVID. You are right to identify it as something you need to pay attention to and work on. At the same time don’t beat yourself up for having habits you’d rather not.   Never forget that there is help available for you through your local Lawyers’ Assistance Program (LAP). Your LAP can help you in all kinds of ways including connecting you with a professional counsellor/collaborator or a trained peer supporter. Nothing I can tell you here can replace what a skilled helper can do for you.

Let’s zero right in on the alcohol. There are a lot of issues that you have raised in your letter and I couldn’t possibly unpack all of them, but if by chance you are coming to depend on alcohol to manage the rest of what you are mentioning, then you need to address it. Alcohol or any other dependency is the kind of problem that can creep up on you without your noticing. You could be going to a lot of effort that gets undone by the effect alcohol or some other substance. Would you go to trial without knowing the law related to your case? I doubt it. Trying to fix other habits without working on an underlying issue like alcohol is setting yourself up for failure. 
We’re all lawyers here. What do we want most of all? (Okay, other than the chance to say “I object!” once in a while). Evidence. You can only deal with this properly if you honestly know whether you have a problem and what the shape and size the problem is.  

Record how much you are drinking. What time of day do you drink? Are you alone when you drink?
Recording it can be as simple as keeping a journal in your own handwriting. If you want to make it even easier, find one of the free calendars that got foisted on you at New Year’s and either a pack of coloured sticky notes or some highlighters.. Consider a colour coded system: for every drink you have in a day, make a dot on the date. If it’s a drink taken alone, make it a red dot. If it’s a drink on a social occasion, make it a yellow dot. If you’re taking one drink right after another, put the dots close together. If they’re spaced out over the day, put the dots further apart.

After a week or two, stand back and take a look. How “dense” is your habit? Does it have patterns that coincide with other things? For instance, do you drink more on the weekend? Do you drink more after/before stressful court appearances? Is there anything else you notice? 

Now comes the part where you get to take back the control you’re concerned you’ve lost.
Looking at your record, make a commitment to yourself. Something realistic and not overly ambitious. We’re talking about baby-steps here. Let’s say for example, you want to commit to drink alone less frequently (or not at all). Write that commitment down where you can’t avoid seeing it. If you’re using the little calendar-dot system, write it on the calendar. Some people put a sticky note on the liquor cabinet. The key is to do what works for you.

Now record the extent to which you are able to keep that commitment. If you are keeping your commitments, reward yourself and then enhance your commitment for the next week/month. By the way, make sure your reward isn’t something that can become another bad habit. 

You may have already noticed but the secret sauce in anything like what I’m describing here is honesty. What do they tell you in law school about how to deal with “bad” facts in your case? Deal with them up front and right away. Pretending against the evidence that everything is A-Ok won’t cut it in a courtroom and it won’t work here either. If you fudge the data or your commitments, you are only cheating yourself.  

Why would you cheat yourself anyway? You are worth all the honesty you can give yourself even when delivering honest bad news to yourself is as hard as delivering bad news about a case to a client. It’s not fun, but it is something you have to do. You are the best client you ever took on. It’s time to advocate for a happy, healthy you and you have an INCREDIBLE closing argument: You are fundamentally good and worthwhile.  

Be well,
- Advy

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