Let me share with you three facts, and then explain how we can use them to eliminate bad habits.
- Our minds work with associations.
- Emotions have a higher impact on our behavior than thoughts.
- Negative emotions have a higher impact than positive emotions.
An Example: Quitting Smoking
I used to be a smoker. It was a severe addiction. A few cigarettes a day weren’t enough. When I smoked, I had to smoke around a pack a day.
On an intellectual level, I knew that this habit wasn’t sustainable. Understanding this on an intellectual level wasn’t enough to quit smoking.
Then, horrible pictures of mouth, throat, and lung cancer were put on cigarette packages, and that was the end of it.
Once, I made the association with the horrible pictures and smoking, I couldn’t smoke and feel good about it anymore.
Knowing Isn’t Enough
In the past, I knew that smoking was harmful, but the good feelings of the habit overrode that knowledge.
Remember the second fact above, “emotions have a higher impact on our behavior than thoughts.”
Then, I associated smoking with bad feelings as well. Now, two emotions and one piece of information competed to influence my behavior.
- The bad feelings triggered by the images of mouth, throat, and lung cancers.
- The good feelings triggered by smoking.
- The information that smoking was harmful.
The good feelings easily overrode the information, but the bad feelings triggered by the images had a higher impact than the good feelings. That confirmed the third fact above, “negative emotions have a higher impact than positive emotions.”
A Habit Harder to Quit: Distraction
In my daily life, I don’t watch any TV. I don’t listen to distracting pop music. I don’t surf the Internet for hours. I used to do all of that in my life. I’m glad that I quit those habits.
There’s another habit that stuck with me though. I watch distracting clips on YouTube for half an hour a day.
You might say that half an hour isn’t worth bothering about, but half an hour each day makes 7.6 full days a year. If you count only the waking hours, it’s 11.4 days a year. That’s a lot of time to waste, isn’t it?
The Subtler Effects of Distraction
Distraction has other, subtler effects on our lives than losing time. It reduces our capacity to process the critical events of the day. Moreover, it keeps our minds busy even if we don’t engage with it.
If you distract yourself for 10 minutes, that’s 10 minutes less for your mind to relax and process the events of the day.
Depending on the intensity of the distraction, your mind has one more event to process. This fact holds even if your distraction was a funny clip.
Your mind has to play the same funny clip over and over in your imagination until it doesn’t produce intense emotions. That distracts you long after you stop watching YouTube and have to concentrate on your work.
The Competition of Thoughts and Emotions
On an intellectual level, I know that even 10 minutes a day is too much distraction. I want to quit it altogether.
Unfortunately, the good feelings of watching a funny clip overrule the knowledge that it’s a distraction. I need to associate that behavior with negative emotions.
I tried to do that by thinking about death as Stoics suggest. I even associated it with images of skulls and cemeteries. None of that helped me. Death is still an abstract concept for me. To me, cemeteries are beautiful, peaceful places, and skulls don’t scare me.
Finally, I found something that influenced me, pictures of old people. That reminds me of the possibility of getting old and having wasted an essential portion of my time. At this moment, that scares me.
Now, my goal is to associate distraction with the fear of regret in my old age. I try to create that association with images of old people. Let’s see if that fear will override the good feelings triggered by distraction.
If you’re trying to quit a habit, don’t waste your time to convince yourself with intellectual arguments. They don’t work.
Habits are associated with emotions. Those emotions make you maintain your habits.
To quit a habit, you need to associate other emotions with that habit. Those emotions need to be more intense than the ones that make you maintain that habit.
Negative emotions have a higher impact than positive emotions. For that reason, it’s easier to find a negative emotion to quit a habit than a positive emotion.
The easiest way to associate an emotion with a habit is through images that trigger that emotion. Find pictures that trigger your target emotion, look at them frequently until you memorize them. Fire that image in your mind every time you feel the urge for that habit.
How would your life look like if you eliminated all of your bad habits using this method?