Saturday, January 1, 2011

breaking bad habits

Maybe you have resolved to start, stop, or alter a habit in 2011. Sometimes it's stopping a habit that is the hardest, but if you can narrow down the exact moments when action is critical, the whole process is much easier. (You can modify these steps to form a new habit, too.)

NOTE: If you are dealing with a habit that involves addictive or illegal substances, or anything with physical withdrawal symptoms, you should also have a read through the book The Addiction Solution and follow its guide.

Ok so anyway, if you are just trying to stop obsessive thoughts over a love interest, or snacking in front of the TV, or playing computer games so much, stuff like that, here's a guide to reaching your goal sooner.

  1. Firmly decide that you want to break the habit.
  2. Whenever you find yourself about to do the thing, remember that you decided not to do it.

That's it!

Oh ho, if only we could all just do things so simply! Wouldn't that be great? Actually, with some practice you can definitely get better at this stuff. Let's look at these two parts separately.

Firmly decide that you want to break the habit

Each word here matters. It's a decision, a conscious decision. Imagine life with the habit, and life without the habit. Imagine a situation where you typically do the thing, and consider that one day you may instead not do it. Is this something you want?

Hmmmm... if you're like me, at this stage, even this stage, a little whisper of doubt creeps in and says, "Actually, I sort of like this bad habit for some reason." Well, tough. You need to decide this before you start. Make up your mind. Think about your long-term future, think about your ideal lifestyle, think about your best version of your Self. Still want to have the habit?

You need to want to change. This is when you do your research on what is good or bad, your soul-searching. Now, in your philosopher's armchair, not later when faced with the temptation itself. Some part of you wants to change. Focus on that part.

Decide firmly. And to break the habit, not merely put it aside for a while.

Not easy! But again: much MUCH easier now than when the thing is right in front of you.

I recommend taking 10 minutes right now on this. Set a timer so you don't "waste" any extra precious internet-surfing time (I know how it is...). For the first 5 minutes, just clear your mind. I have a meditation guide explaining what I mean by this, but maybe you have your own method. Then take 5 minutes and really focus on this decision. Take as much time as you need, but I find a timer helps me get started and focused.

Whenever you find yourself about to do the thing, remember that you decided not to do it.

So, if you normally come home and go straight to the bad-habit computer game, this means coming home and then remembering you were not going to go to the game anymore. And then not playing it.

What do you do instead? Saying yes is so much easier than saying no, so figure out beforehand that you will be saying yes to some other activity -- instead of thinking about this as saying no to the game. You can be saying yes to a better future, or you can be saying yes to watching youtube videos. It's going to be a lot easier to have prepared activities in mind, mostly things you generally enjoy doing.

Come up with a bunch of things you'll be saying yes to, both philosophical and concrete. Come up with a bunch of replacement activities, both fun things and productive ones.

And now, it's time to practice. You've already firmly decided you want to break this habit, remember. Remember this because you're about to face the toughest part of breaking the habit.

In reality, there are very few pivotal moments in this whole thing. It's the moments at which you decide to do the activity or not. Included in this is those moments where you realize you're doing the thing, and you either continue or you stop. These are the only moments you need to worry about, and the only ones you really need to prepare for. So the idea is to practice facing these moments when you're of solid mind and strong desire, so that when you face them in reality you'll be better off.

Take another 10 minute chunk of time. Again, spend the first 3-5 minutes just clearing your mind. It's going to be important to focus. For the remainder imagine a future situation in which you normally do the habit, and then imagine yourself not doing it (by doing something else instead). As often as necessary, go through the first exercise of re-affirming your desire to change this habit and all the reasons for doing so.

Again, this might be pretty tough! That slimy thought of "actually I don't mind this habit that much" may come back to strangle your will with its fat, greasy fingers. But keep deciding, and keep practicing, and brush those tempting hands away. Of course it's hard. You would have broken this habit long ago, otherwise. But it's easier to decide now during practice than during the real thing.

And so, next time you are actually faced with the decision, go through your plan. Reiterate to yourself the reasons for stopping, and recall your firm decision to stop. Then do a different activity instead of the habitual one.

Remember: just like how in practice you can fail and falter a few times and that's ok, the same thing goes for real life. Don't give up just because you didn't do it perfectly the first time. That's fine, it's all fine, everything is fine, just keep practicing and following through will be easier and easier!

Have you tried this and found it successful? Any tips to make it even more effective! Please leave a comment letting me know!

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