Breaking Hard on Bad Habits

Life rewards those who move in the direction of greatest courage. – Franklin Veaux

“I have a suggestion, and you’re not going to like it.”

“Ok…” She knows from the tone that I’m talking about a Task of Uncomfortable Growth, and braces herself for this particular TUG. I feel a little bad, because I know what’s going to happen.

“I think you should leave your phone in the other room at night instead of having it next to your bed.”

I wait and watch as it sinks in, and her eyes, even in the little Wire video window on my screen, look huge and possibly tear-filled. Her mouth literally makes an “oh…” of terror, and I hear strange syllables as she tries to express the horror at the thought.

Don’t laugh; imagine if I was coaching you, and I said to you: What you really need to do – right now – is turn off your phone until tomorrow. Some of you would shrug and say “No biggie!” and then weasel out of it by using your friends’ phones or your tablet, cleverly sidestepping the usefulness of the TUG.

Others would try it, and within a few hours the anxiety of emails missed and memes lost and opportunities to “like” something would be making their hands itch. But after about eight hours that goes away (especially if there’s sleep involved). They will wake, and breathe deep, and realize that they really don’t need that constant dopamine jolt all day – that the world is actually just fine the way it is!

Happy in the joyful pleasure of kicking the habit, they’ll pick up their phone just for one quick check on twitter…

The Chicken-and-Egg of Habit Change

Sometimes it’s necessary to quit things “cold turkey”. There’s a lot of arguments for and against this, based around ideas like “willpower depletion” and the like. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple; while some studies indicate that yes, our power to make good decisions is a finite resource, other studies indicate that it’s only finite if we choose to let it be.

In a study conducted by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dweck concluded that signs of ego depletion were observed only in test subjects who believed willpower was a limited resource. Those participants who did not see willpower as finite did not show signs of ego depletion.

Yep, you can decide you are “recharged” (I’m picturing Green Lantern reciting his creed in front of his lantern) and suddenly you’re back to making good decisions!

Of course, you have to decide to recharge, and if you are too tired to make that particular decision…

That’s the problem with trying to make it an internal process. We have far less control over our neurochemistry than we pretend to have, and the idea that our brain is somehow separate from our bodies is as silly as the idea that our bodies are not actually part of the physical world around them. “I know it’s below zero outside, but I don’t need a coat – I’m just going to not let it change my body temperature.

However, we can change our habits by leveraging that in the other direction: structuring our environment so that it is easier to reinforce the good habits than the bad ones. Possibly the most stunning example of how environment change affects our compulsions and addictions came after the Vietnam war, when the government was bracing itself for the huge numbers of heroin-addicted soldiers coming home.

But instead, those last two words are what really mattered. They’d been addicted to heroin as a way to cope with the horrors of the war. When they got home, those horrors were gone – and so was their need for heroin. In fact, the percentage of soldiers who remained addicted was right about on par with the number of addicts you’d find in the general population.

All it took to kick one of the most addictive substances in the world cold turkey was a complete change of environment. What does that tell us? Well, for one thing, if you suddenly decide “I’m going to do yoga every morning”, your chances of success are better if you replace that comfy chair where you surf the web every morning with a yoga mat. And set up some kind of timed release for a yoga video – and look, there’s an app for that!

In other words, you’re breaking the chain of events that keeps you in the path of your bad habit and replacing it. Preferably with something constructive, but hey, you can also choose “less destructive” (which is why there are a lot of smokers in AA; smoking is unhealthy, but not as destructive for most people as alcohol).

Me, I got into a journaling (and later blogging) habit by linking it to my morning coffee. And my personal assistant lays out the yoga mat between my bed and my desk, so that I literally trip over it before I can sit down and get into work.

Meanwhile, my friend who I was coaching did try to leave her phone outside of her bedroom…but found it too unsettling, and so compromised by putting it in the bathroom, so that if she can’t bear it she can still get to it. However, she has also acquired a small glowing analog clock which is now how she checks the time if she wakes up – thereby breaking the chain of reaching for her phone in the middle of the night and succumbing to the temptations of the social media gravy hose.

Go Out and Break Something

We all have something that we want to change in our lives – whether that’s something we want to do, or something we want to stop doing. Far too often the way we manifest that desire is to simply say “I’m going to do this!” as if our willpower (or won’t-power) alone is enough to change it.

Think of it this way: if simply thinking about it was enough to change that part of your life, you would have already changed it. It exists (or doesn’t exist) because something about your environment is making it that way.

Change your environment. Make the easiest path the one towards the life you want. Even if it makes you cringe with terror. Courage is the fuel that powers the practice that takes you into the life you want.

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