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.

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When willpower is trumped by bad habits