Want to quit a bad habit? Change your focus from quitting something old and tired to starting something new and impassioned.
Just do it strategically. Time your break with bad habits past to coincide with new and major life events. Get busy, and make sure you are going to stay very, VERY busy for a good long while.
I realize that this is somewhat counterintuitive: it might not be a good idea to try to stop smoking, for example, in the midst of moving house or when starting a new job. Lots of articles and experts tell us that. I’ve even said it: save your will power: don’t spread it out over several causes. Use it strategically and sparingly, preferably after a good snack.
Yet the kind of “quitting” I am talking about doesn’t require will power. It requires passion. It requires a mission.
Here’s a fabled example of what I mean. William Griffith Wilson, “Bill W”, a stock broker and lifelong alcoholic, was admitted to hospital more than fifty times for his excessive and compulsive drinking. Doctors despaired and declared him a lost cause. One of his doctors even promised him a drink if he would go over to the next room tell his story to a young man who was also battling alcoholism. In essence, Bill W was to serve as the cautionary tale to the younger man and scare him straight. It worked – for both of them. Bill W found such meaning and passion in counseling another person that he quit drinking – and founded Alcoholics Anonymous*.
This perhaps gives us a clue as to what really works when trying to make changes. Basically, change everything, be passionately focussed on something else, and be busy, busy, busy.
I know that this method works. In my own life, I quit smoking when I moved from Taiwan back to Canada; quit TV and untidiness when I moved house; got over a failed relationship when I moved house, too; and accidentally lost weight when I stopped trying to diet and instead got busy backpacking through Europe.
A profound change in routine – moving from one country to another, from one home to another, starting a business, or traveling – takes your mind off of ‘missing’ that bad habit or bad boyfriend. At the same time, the novelty and demands of a new venture or new environment fill the gap with positive, productive new habits. Cool.
In these circumstances, when you change everything, you only need will power initially and then distraction, novelty and sheer lack of time are the names of the game.
This works because bad habits are initially a function of boredom. Why was I smoking in a teeny-tiny Taiwanese alley between kindergarten classes? (Settle down, I was the teacher, not the student. Actually, that probably does not make it any better.) Because I had nothing better to do. Why was I stroking the bag of potato chips like a lover? Because I didn’t have anything/anyone better to do. Why was I watching hours after hours of soap operas, Divorce Court and Maury Pauvich? Well, I definitely had better things to do, but just did not feel inclined to do them. Boredom.
Passion is the antidote to boredom. Failing that, being busy is a good prescription, too.
Start something new, something time- and mind-space-intensive, and then let go of the bad habit. If no life-altering trips, moves, or business ventures are in your immediate future, then manufacture a set of all-consuming new life circumstances.
- Declutter on an all-consuming, grand scale (ie do you really, really, really need it? Would you stop to grab it during your panicked, naked exit from the house in a housefire? Ask yourself this about every object and person – apart from those whom you are legally obliged to feed and water – in your home beyond running water and electricity. Look at every object as a tax on your breathing space and as a dollar figure that ought to be in your bank account and is not. Resentment will rapidly clear your garage and your life).
- Volunteer to lead a project.
- Schedule an art show before you’ve even started painting.
- Have a child (you will have no time for bad habits for at least four years. Unfortunately your good habits like regular bathing and basic grooming will also get that memo and go on leave, too.)
This is not reasonable advice but if there’s a milestone or transition point coming up, or you want to make one, changing everything lets you change everything.
Change everything, including – especially – the little routines that reinforce your habit, whether it be smoke breaks between classes, or a set of friends with whom you drink. When your lifestyle is novel, busy, and exciting, the sting of loss is softened when you notice that ice cream is no longer your best friend.
Distraction, and a new, impassioned routine build and reinforce new habits. It is a lifestyle reboot.
This is why serious issues, like drugs and alchol addictions, benefit from stays in treatment This is why savvy parents over-schedule their teenagers in after-school activities. This is why Mae West said that “the best way to get over a man is to get under a new one.”
( I personally set my moral compass by the teachings of the scandalous Miss Mae West, but that is another post entirely, dear readers. To each their own.)
Although I am a fan of timing your change in habits with huge, sweeping, long-term lifestyle changes, in reality you probably only need six weeks to really, truly, conclusively let a bad habit go. (Heartbreak included.)
Changes of scenery, strategic visits and well-timed visits are not running away from your problems (because wherever you go, there you are), they are just a good, hard, forced page break in the book of life.
Oh, and as for the six weeks – research shows that this is the length of time it takes to start and ingrain a new habit.
Notice I didn’t say break a bad habit – I said start a new and improved one. Starting something new is oh-so-much easier than quitting something. And in your newfound, all-consuming passion for bellydancing/quantum mechanics/casual sex/pick-up-stix (the last two may be the same thing), you might just let go of an old habit. Easily.
* From “The Law of Unselfishness” by Fulton Oursler, in Stephen Covey’s book Everyday Greatness.