Willpower is an important aspect of changing ourselves for the better, but it can only get us so far.
The truth is you only have a certain amount of willpower you can use throughout the course of your day. But once it runs dry, then you need to let yourself relax and reboot before your willpower “reservoir” builds up again.
For example, in one study published in Psychological Science, it was found that people tend to be more ethical in the morning and less ethical by the afternoon.
This is because our ability to resist temptations becomes increasingly difficult throughout the day. And this not only applies to ethical behavior, but any kind of bad habit we want to resist.
So when you can’t always rely on sheer willpower, what can you do? One tool you can use is creating boundaries between you and your bad habits.
First, we know from psychology research that all habits follow a pattern known as a “habit loops.” A habit loop consists of 3 main parts:
- Cue – the stimulus from your environment that triggers you to do something
- Routine – the physical action you take whenever presented with the cue
- Reward – what you gain from the habit that fulfills a particular desire or craving
Every bad habit you want to change follows this pattern of “cue → routine → reward.” Understanding this pattern makes it much easier to change these habits.
Often when we try to stop bad habits we only focus on changing the “routine” phase. But at that point it might already be too late.
Instead it can be better to break the bad habit at it’s earliest phase – which means avoiding the “cues” that trigger the habit in the first place.
To do this, you need to first identify the cues that trigger the habit, then find ways to add boundaries between you and those cues.
In the first section of my article Identify Your Habit Loops, I describe the many types of cues that can influence our behaviors. These include:
- Location – Where are you when your habits are triggered?
- Time – What time of the day is it?
- Mood – What’s your emotional state?
- Thoughts – What are you thinking?
- People – Who is around you when you act out these habits?
- Objects – What objects are in the room that may trigger the habit?
- Immediately preceding action – What do you do right before the habit starts?
For some of these cues, it’s easier to create boundaries than others.
For example, if you are someone who is addicted to alcohol or drugs, there may be certain types of places (clubs/bars/parties), people (friends who also drink and do drugs), and objects (the actual substances) that make it very hard to resist your bad habit when you’re around them.
Therefore, a good first step would be trying to avoid putting yourself in those situations and surrounding yourself with those triggers.
This means creating boundaries. And the next section of this article will explain more about how you can start creating these boundaries between you and your bad habits.
Boundaries between you and your bad habits
To change bad habits, make them more difficult to do even when you feel like you really want to do them.
Obviously, it’s harder to eat junk food if you don’t keep your home and office stocked with candy, chips, and ice cream. In the same way, it’s harder to fall back into your drug habit if you cut off all your contacts with friends and dealers who can provide you with said substance.
Create situations where it’s nearly impossible to do your bad habit, even if you really wanted to. The more boundaries, the more difficult, the better.
At first it may suck and hurt a little to not get what you want, but gradually you learn other ways to live your life and fulfill your needs. Boundaries force you to change and adapt in a positive way.
This is the same reason we often see people who just got out of a bad relationship block their ex on Facebook, delete their phone number, or stop hanging out with friends from that social circle.
We can’t always trust ourselves to change when we know we should – we’re imperfect. Situational factors can often outweigh even the best of intentions, so it’s helpful to find ways to avoid putting ourselves in certain situations before they become a problem.
Another example of using boundaries to change habits is using e-mail and website blockers to avoid procrastination at work. How often do you find yourself constantly checking your e-mail or Facebook or reddit? Now imagine how useful it would be if you could temporarily set boundaries from these time-suckers.
One application I personally use for blocking websites is the Self Control App for Mac. There is also a Firefox add-on called Leech Block and a Chrome add-on called Nanny (which allows you to set a specific amount of time you can spend each day on a particular site). If you do a quick Google search you’ll find plenty of other options as well.
These are just a few examples of the many ways we can create boundaries that separate us from our old ways. Be creative and use your imagination.
As long as you can identify the triggers behind your bad habits, you can find better ways to avoid those triggers, and thereby circumvent your negative patterns altogether.
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