This month, as we are all juggling many things during the holiday season and year end, it feels like a good time to discuss a non-legal topic in our blog – the intersection of habits and identity.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to several podcasts on various business and leadership topics that interest me. One episode of the Brené Brown Dare to Lead podcast, where she interviewed James Clear, the author of the book Atomic Habits, has really stuck with me, particularly regarding the notion of “identity habits”. Clear postulates that the most embedded habits, the ones that lead to lasting change, are those associated with your identity (or one aspect of it). I read his book during the pandemic, but for whatever reason that concept did not stand out until I heard Brown and Clear discuss it. 

For those of you not familiar with this concept (and you can read more here), the basic idea is that typically, when we think about creating habits, it is because we want to achieve a certain goal or outcome. For example, a common goal is to get more physically fit. In order to achieve that goal, people generally sets certain habits and systems to achieve that goal; an example of that could be, “I’ll do yoga for 30 minutes every day.”

According to Clear, setting systems to achieve a goal is usually where people stop! They don’t take it to the next level, which is to associate the goal and habits with their identity. They don’t change their beliefs. As Clear says, “Outcomes are what you get.  Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.”  He also explains that in trying to build a habit, most people focus on what they are trying to accomplish (the outcome), and they don’t focus on who they are trying to be (their identity).  Guess where lasting change lives? By focusing on identity, of course.

At around the same time as I was listening to that episode, I was preparing some thoughts for my recent interview with my good friend and client Damali Peterman, founder and CEO of Breakthrough ADR for her podcast, Breaking Through. Her first question was to describe yourself in six words. This was a familiar question – I had first heard it during the Tory Burch Fellows week when we first met in 2019.  Back in 2019, that was quite possibly one of the hardest things for me to do. 

Over the last few years, however, it has crystalized to now where I can easily identify myself professionally in six words – IP lawyer, entrepreneur, advocate for women. All of you who know me are probably wondering what took me so long to come to that conclusion – but I suggest you try it for yourself, it is hard than it looks! The process of really thinking about your identity – your beliefs and judgments about yourself, your world view, etc., and choosing six words that represent you is hard, as you need to be very selective. 

In coming to those six words, I realize something important too – whereas for much of my career, I most strongly identified myself as a lawyer (specifically, an IP lawyer), now I see my primary professional identity as an entrepreneur, which definitely has required a whole different set of habits to go along with that too. It is a different mindset, a different skill set and a different set of systems and processes.

Circling back to Atomic Habits, having seen the impact that thinking of myself as an entrepreneur first and a lawyer second has had on my daily life and activities, I am considering trying out this notion of identity habits on one of the most challenging aspects of my life – taking better care of myself. One thing that I struggle most with (professionally) as an IP lawyer, entrepreneur, advocate for women and (personally) devoted mother, loving wife, appreciative daughter (see what I did there?) is making time for ME. 

Of course, I am not alone – how many lawyer moms out there are high-fiving me right now after the ordeal that has been the pandemic? Do we all recall the constant hunt for paper towels and other household necessities while juggling client needs, virtual school and who knows what else?

(How many of you are still compulsively hoarding paper towels? <raises hand>)

I’ve been trying to build better daily wellness habits – walking the dog more, drinking more water, and (less successfully) getting back to daily yoga.  But in doing that, I’ve been focused on process and outcomes, not on identity. And so, as we head into 2022, that’s what I am going to be focusing on – how to reframe my identity as someone who isn’t good at making time for myself to someone who is?  And how can I best describe the wellness identity I want to adopt? I’m not sure this will ultimately lead, but it has led to some interesting inner dialogues so far. 

And so, as 2021 draws to a close and the time for New Year’s resolutions are upon us, I invite you to think about your habits and identities and maybe some changes you might want to make in the year ahead. Maybe this will be the year that you will become a marathoner, a knitter, a world traveler, a writer, or even a chef? I look forward to discussing your newest identity with you next time we speak!

Year-End Musings on Identity and Habits
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