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When Willpower is Trumped by Bad Habits

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”—Mae West

Many new ventures are foiled by the morning email habit, for example: when we want to exercise, write, or meditate, but we can’t resist checking our emails for just a minute… and then we get lost, and go down the rabbit hole. How can we build the willpower to beat these bad habits?

A reader recently wrote: “I’d love to see how to get over willpower being the final word on goal-setting. I was doing morning pages (suggested by Julia Cameron) this morning, and in spite of enjoying it, valuing the clarity it brings, and being able to quantifiably measure how much more productive they make me, I find it so hard to write them instead of check my email first thing in the morning. What the hell am I missing here?”

Writer Julia Cameron suggested to write three long-hand pages of free-flowing consciousness every morning, no matter what, before you do anything else.

It’s a beautiful habit. But some are tripped up by the urge to check their email first thing everyday. Does that mean you lack willpower to achieve your goals? In a word: no.

It’s not a lack of willpower, but a very strongly ingrained (possibly bad) habit that’s beating your goals. Checking emails first thing in the morning is a habit that has been repeated daily for years probably, with a positive feedback loop (“I have new email! I’m productive!”) that has reinforced the habit until it’s such a strong urge that’s hard to beat.

There’s also the negative feedback for not doing the habit: you feel like you’re missing something important if you don’t check your email, and so you go through withdrawal. It’s exactly how drug addiction works.

How to Beat the Addiction

So what’s the answer? Replace the bad habit with a good one.

You can’t just stop a bad habit, because then you’re left with a gaping hole and nothing to fill it with.

Bad habits fill real needs. In this case, emails fill a need to be up-to-date, to feel important. You have to figure out what the need is first, and then come up with a strategy for filling that need in some other way.

I would suggest replacing it with a habit that helps you to feel important (perhaps the morning pages) and maybe learning that you don’t need to be up-to-date right away—you can do it an hour later and still be fine.

There are several steps to beating a bad habit:

Figure out what your trigger is: Every habit has a trigger—something in our routine that directly precedes the habit. For smoking, I used to have multiple triggers—such as, drinking coffee, eating a meal, stress, drinking alcohol with friends, meetings, waking up in the morning, etc.

Find a replacement habit: A small, positive habit to replace the old habit. Ideally it fills at least some of the needs of the old habit. Start very, very small in the beginning, or you’ll be facing an uphill battle. For example, if you want to write morning pages, don’t try to write three long-hand pages—do just five minutes. If it’s small, you beat the obstacle of dreading to do the new habit.

When you check email, for example, you don’t say, “I’m going to do an hour of email now!” You say, “I’ll just check it for a second.” It often turns into more, but the point is there is a very low entry barrier.

Engineer positive & negative feedback: If positive feedback has built up your old habit, and negative feedback is stopping you from quitting the old habit, you need to make these powerful forces work for you and not against you. You can’t beat them, so use them.

Engineer positive feedback for your new habit: make the writing (for example) really enjoyable, with a cup of coffee and a quiet, peaceful setting, and focus on the enjoyableness of it, not the hard parts.

For not doing the new habit, do the same with negative feedback. Engineer a different consequence: tell the world (or a small group of friends) you’re going to change—announce it through Twitter, Facebook, G+, email, or blog. And report your success (or failure) every single day. When the world is watching, you want to succeed. Have accountability partners. Don’t let yourself slide secretly.

Do the new habit immediately after the trigger, consistently: If you can do it for a month, you’ll probably have a new habit. A new habit is built by doing an action immediately after a trigger, repeatedly, for a certain number of repetitions. There is no set number—it depends on how easy the habit is and how consistent you are in repeating it. Report to your accountability group after you do the habit.

Beat the urge to do the old habit: The urge will come. This is where you say, “But I don’t have the willpower!” Yes, you do. Everyone does, but they just don’t know the tricks.

Some tricks, so you have no excuses:

Pay attention to the urges. The urges win when you let them go unnoticed.

Know that the urges come in waves. They build up like a wave, they get strong, they crest, and then they go away.

Try deep breathing. Take a few very long, slow breaths. The breaths help relieve that anxiety, and it passes.

Walk around a bit. Physical activity helps you to get over the urges.

Use your accountability group. Call an accountability partner if you’re having an especially hard time. Make this person a promise that you won’t do the bad habit unless you call her first.

Give yourself little treats/rewards when changing a habit. Maybe daily, maybe once a week. Give yourself a pat on the shoulder, a massage, a nice dinner out, or a big plate of delicious tropical fruit, for example.

Be mindful of the urges, of your rationalizations. Our brains are very good at justifying for us to do the old actions. Pay close attention. Beating old habits isn’t a matter of having a mountain of willpower. It’s a matter of paying attention, doing a small new habit in its place, and using easy tricks to overcome the forces that work against you.

Willpower exists, but its importance has been built up in our minds so that when we fail at something, we blame it on the lack of it. There is no lack in willpower, except in understanding the forces that conspire against us.

This is a cross-post from zen habits
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“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”—Mae West

Many new ventures are foiled by the morning email habit, for example: when we want to exercise, write, or meditate, but we can’t resist checking our emails for just a minute… …