When Willpower is Trumped by Bad Habits

‘Conscience whispers, but interest screams aloud.’ ~J. Petit-Senn

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Have you ever set out to start a new habit or goal, but found your willpower lacking?

Many new ventures are foiled by the morning email habit, for example — we want to exercise or write or meditate, but we can’t resist checking out email for just a minute … and then we’ve gotten lost, down the rabbit hole.

How can we build the willpower to beat these bad habits?

Reader Shanna Mann recently wrote:

“I’d love to see how to get over willpower being the final word on goal-setting :). I was doing morning pages 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 emails first thing in the morning.

What the hell am I missing here?”

Shanna, of course, is talking about Julia Cameron’s suggestion to write three long-hand pages of free-flowing consciousness every morning, no matter what, before you do anything else. I’m kinda doing that right now, as I write this post.

It’s a beautiful habit. But Shanna is tripped up by the urge to check emails first thing every day. Is she lacking in willpower to achieve her goals?

In a word: no. It’s not a lack of willpower, but a very strongly ingrained (possibly bad) habit that’s beating her goal. Checking email first thing 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 a very strong urge that’s hard to beat.

There’s also negative feedback for not doing the habit: you feel like you’re missing something important if you don’t check 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.

Bad habits fill real needs. In this case, email fills 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:

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

2. 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. 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.

3. 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 enjoyability of it, not the hard parts. If you want to meditate, focus on how relaxed it makes you, not how difficult it is.

Do the same for negative feedback for not doing the new habit. If you don’t do the new habit, what’s the consequence? Usually, nothing. You check email, feel a little guilty, but no one knows, nothing bad happens. So 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, 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.

4. 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 (which is why I suggest starting as easy as possible) and how consistent you are in repeating it. Report to your accountability group after you do the habit.

5. Beat the urge to do the old habit. The urge will come, I guarantee you. 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. I’m going to teach you the tricks so you have no excuses:

Et voila. These small tricks will get you past the urges, which can be strong but will subside. And the miracle is, if you can do this for a week, you’ll be past the worst urges. They will start to get weaker and weaker, until they’re incredibly easy to beat.

Be mindful of the urges, of your rationalizations. Yes, there will be many rationalizations — our brains are very, very good at justifying doing the old action. Pay close attention. This is really the most important trick, and it doesn’t take a master of willpower to do it. We’re all capable of paying 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 some easy tricks to overcome the forces that work against us. Anyone can do it — I’ve done it many times, and I assure you, for many years I thought I had the least amount of willpower of anyone in the world. I was lazy, overweight, a smoker, broke and deeply in debt … the list goes on and on, but I was nowhere near disciplined.

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

‘I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.’ ~Mae West