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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
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