For the longest time I thought I was using a “weak” method for breaking bad habits, because I never rely on willpower.
Instead, I first change my environment so that I won’t end up in situations where I’m tempted. Then, when that line of defense fails and I do engage in the bad habit, I ask myself a lot of questions. “What am I getting out of this? What emotion is this habit really about? And is this working? Am I dealing with the emotion? Am I even coping with it? How can I tell?”
Over time, I find that I just lose interest in the habit.
Now I always knew that the first part, changing my environment instead of trying to change myself, was smart. But I thought the second part, not relying on willpower and instead asking questions, was inefficient.
I was wrong. Modern brain science continues to uncover the links between emotions, habits, and willpower. Apparently, the process of asking questions while engaging in a habit changes the brain’s emotional connections. Your brain just automatically connects the bad habit with relief from the negative emotion. The more you ask questions while engaging in the habit, the more those connections weaken as your brain starts to examine whether you are really getting the relief you expected. As time goes on, as you keep asking questions, eventually the connection between the habit and expected relief will no longer be automatic. At that point, the habit is broken.
The important thing is that you need to be asking the questions while you are engaging in the habit, not after.
If you do it afterwards then nothing about the chemical connections in your brain changes. You may understand intellectually, but you will not change emotionally.
And what happens when you rely on willpower? Willpower is effective for temptations that you only have to resist once. But willpower does not weaken your brain’s emotional connections. In fact, when you exert emotional energy to resist a bad habit, the terrible irony is that you are telling your brain that the habit is effective. The more you use willpower, the stronger the emotional connections become!
So if you have a habit that you know is harmful, and you can’t seem to break it, try a different approach. Try welcoming the habit in, and then just asking if it’s working. Keep asking those questions. Where willpower fails, boredom and doubt may succeed.