How to develop essential habits for long-term success

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Whether you realize it or not, a lot of what you do every day is done out of habit without much thought. Maybe your first activity of the morning is to always get the coffee brewing. Or, you routinely walk your dog right after dinner.

Habits are triggered by cues, whether it be a time of day, a firm goal or something else. Ideally, good habits are easy to acquire with the right triggers, but that’s not always the case. Oftentimes, things that are immediately rewarding are not the things that meet long-term goals. Desirable behaviors take time.

Take studying for law school finals, the bar exam or Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), for example. It will likely be difficult and painful for a while, and the benefits won’t be immediately apparent. This lack of an immediate reward may cause motivation to wane. The key is to find your cue to move forward in the right direction.

Define your why

To be compelled to adopt a new habit, such as buckling down to prepare for finals or an exam as important as the bar exam or SQE, start by asking yourself what you crave. Why do something over and over again?

Maybe it’s something like: “If I make time every day to study just one topic, I’ll be able to power through the copious amount of information I need to learn to be fully ready come exam day. I’ll pass the exam and enhance my career opportunities.”

Your why becomes your motivation, even in the face of sacrifice (e.g., time away from friends and family, not being able to complete a work project ahead of schedule). Just be careful not to commit to too much too soon. The reason people fail to adopt good habits is often because they don’t adequately reward themselves for taking even a small action on something beneficial.

Thus, why it’s important to have a realistic plan for habit formation — and there’s a science to it.

Make a plan

The secret to success when it comes to habits is to make the goal so small that you can’t fail. This 5-step process can help you create an essential habit and make it stick:

  1. Don’t try to change or implement a habit too quickly.
  2. Apply the compound effect to your habit (start with 30 minutes of study time today, 45 minutes tomorrow, etc.).
  3. Break a big habit down – don’t be afraid to study in chunks throughout the day rather than all at once.
  4. Never miss twice – it’s okay to mess up, maybe you miss a day of study, just don’t let it become a common occurrence (learn from early missteps and redirect/reset).
  5. Be patient and find a sustainable pace – slow and steady wins the race.

Ask for support

Accountability is a powerful tool, so it’s important to find a support system or person to help you stay committed to your end habit or goal. Consider choosing someone who will build you up with positivity throughout the process. They should understand the why behind you building your habit. What it means to you in your work and/or life.

Guidance from someone who is already successful in achieving the same goal, such as passing a U.S. bar exam or the SQE, is good. They will have firsthand knowledge of what you’re walking through and can help you get where you want to go.

Not sure who to call on? BARBRI provides attorney mentors and learning coaches to support you throughout your bar exam or SQE preparation with study strategies, eligibility assistance and more. Our unique 1:1 guidance for extended U.S. bar prep is designed to help you stay on a good path to reach your goals.

Learn more about 1:1 mentor support for extended U.S. bar exam prep and the SQE.

Track your progress

As you work to adopt a good habit, whether it be study or something else, look for measurements of success. This will help you modify your plan or know to stay the course.

Journaling can be a good form of accountability. Record your scores on practice questions, for instance, and make changes to your study strategy as needed. There are also downloadable apps, such as Habit Tracker and Strides, that can help you analyze your progress by tracking things like the amount of study material you complete over a certain period.

Just remember that it takes time for long-term success to appear. There’s no magic number as to how long it takes for a new habit to form or for an old one to be broken, but studies suggest a timeframe of a couple of weeks to a couple of months. To make a good habit stick and be successful, it’s best to look at it as a marathon rather than a sprint.

Reward yourself

Take a study break with a friend, go for a long walk, buy a new notebook to use in your studies. Most habits break down because we don’t reward ourselves. So be kind to yourself, keep the end goal in mind and you’ll be well on your way to passing your licensing exam.

Watch this video to learn more about developing essential habits for success.

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