Android app on Google Play iPhone app Download from Windows Store

 

A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors

I have a reader who wants to make positive changes in her life, but can’t seem to stop certain behaviors.

She writes:

“I am consistently challenged with being mindful when buying food. What do you do when you are doing things that
self-destructive and are not good and continue to do them. Is there an opportunity to change this?”

This is such an excellent question, because I think we can all relate to this, can’t we? Who among us doesn’t do self-destructive behaviors from time to time, if not on a regular basis? I know that I’ve lived most of my life doing things I wish I didn’t do, and only in the last 8-9 years have I (slowly) been able to change those behaviors.

So can you change self-destructive behaviors? Can you stop yourself from doing things you can’t seem to stop?

I can unequivocally say yes, these behaviors can be changed. I’m living proof of that.

I quit smoking, changed my eating habits completely from junk food to pretty darn healthy, went from sedentary to active, got out of debt, got rid of clutter, just to name a few of the changes I made. These all went from destructive to positive behaviors.

And trust me, I’m no superman. I might seem disciplined and a model of self-mastery to an outsider, but from within I have always felt undisciplined, a procrastinator, with a distinct lack of self-control. I never thought I could make changes, but I did.

What worked? Here’s the lowdown: a quick guide to changing these behaviors when you’re having trouble.

  1. Feel the pain. We don’t tend to make changes unless we are motivated to do so. Sometimes seeing other people make changes gives us inspiration. But sometimes we just need to be in a painful place that we’d rather get out of. And so, if you’re in that painful place, allow yourself to feel the pain, and ask yourself whether it’s time for a change. Eating out of control? Well, what kind of pain is this causing you? What do you want to do about it? Get out of that painful place.
  2. Turn toward the problem. One of the biggest problems with making life changes is that we tend to avoid thinking about the problem. It gets worse and worse, and yet we distract ourselves, because looking at the problem can be scary and painful. But this only makes the problem worse. If you want to get out of the cycle, you have to let yourself think about it. Look at the problem. Acknowledge it. Accept that it’s the way it is, with the understanding that it can change, if you acknowledge it.
  3. Pick one small, distinct change. Once you’re ready to start making changes, just pick one. If you want to change your eating, you can’t change it all at once. It’s not realistic. So pick one change, and be specific: eat one fruit at lunch each day. Drink unsweetened green tea instead of that Big Gulp of soda you have in the afternoon. Drink unsweetened coffee with a splash of creamer instead of a Starbucks grande latte with extra whipped cream. Work on not going back for seconds until you’ve had a 10-minute break after your first helping. And so on. One change at a time, slowly.
  4. Commit big time. While you want your change to be small, you want your commitment to be huge. This is what keeps you going when you don’t feel like sticking to it. How can you commit big time? Announce to a hundred people, or a thousand, that you’re going to do this, and ask them to hold you accountable. Join an accountability group. Publicly commit to a big embarrassing consequence if you fail. Do it publicly for someone else, or a charity group, so you have people you don’t want to let down. Make a pledge to someone you love. Put a big sum of money on it with your friends. Be all in.
  5. Learn to believe that you can. In the beginning, you will probably have doubts that you can stick to this change. That’s OK — start on it anyway. Stick to it for one small step (drink a glass of water, eat one fruit), and see that you can do it. Then stick to it for another small step. Each time you do it, use this as evidence that you are capable.
  6. Use failure to learn. While doing the habit is evidence that you can do it, failure should not be evidence that you can’t. Use it as an opportunity to learn: learn about how you work best, about how habits work, about negative self-talk (see next item) and urges. Learn about obstacles, which are inevitable, and how to get around them. Each time you mess up, this is an amazing opportunity to get better, to improve your method. Failure isn’t a bad thing — it’s new information to improve your habit method.
  7. Don’t believe the negative self-talk. There will be thoughts in your head about not being able to do it, or wanting to quit. Don’t listen to them. See them, acknowledge them, but don’t follow their commands or believe what they say. They just come up because your brain is trying to get out of hard work. Lazy brain, lying brain. Instead, come up with better counterarguments: “Brain: You can’t do this.” “You: Actually, I can and have. Other people have done this, and so can I. And I will only really know if I try.”
  8. Find support. Ask your partner or good friend, or family or the Internet, to support you. Ask them to check on you and not let you fail. If you don’t have anyone supportive around you, find a group online.
  9. Create the right positive & negative feedback. When you eat junk food, it has positive feedback (it’s yum), and there’s negative feedback for not eating the junk food (cravings and hunger and wishing you could eat it). This is the wrong feedback cycle for the change you want to make. Instead, create a new feedback cycle that supports your change. More on this below.

Creating the Right Environment

When you put all the steps above together, it’s about having the right environment. Think of it as a greased slope — right now, the slope is greased toward your self-destructive behavior, so even if you fight against it, you’re likely to keep doing the behavior.

You can consciously change the slope. Create your own greased slope, so that it’s structured toward the direction you want to go in.

For example, if you’re trying to change the way you eat, get rid of all the junk food in your house, so it’s hard to get the unhealthy stuff. Tell people in your house not to let you go to the store or fast food places to get junk. Instead, have healthy stuff around for when you’re hungry. Have accountability and consequences, so that you don’t want to embarrass yourself by messing up (negative feedback) and you want to look good by doing well (positive feedback). Don’t meet people at places with unhealthy food — that’s like going to the bar when you’re an alcoholic. Give yourself rewards, like a massage, if you stick to it for a week or two.

These are just examples, of course … you’ll want to set up your own environment for whatever works for you. This is something you can adjust over time, which is why failure is such a good learning tool: you can see where your environment needs to be changed. If you stay on your computer instead of exercising, unplug the computer and give the cord to a friend to hold until you exercise. And so on, adjusting each time you fail until your environment is set up so you will definitely succeed.

If you leave this guide with any message, it’s that change is possible. Even if you think you can’t do it, you’re wrong. You can. You just need to take one action, start one motion, change your environment, and grease the slope.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
Chapters
Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC