Why is it so hard to break an unhealthy habit, and gain self control?

self control

Losing control?

When I was a student in the School of Architecture, I lost self control. More specifically, I lost control of my diet. 

I was stressed out, working long hours into the night, burning the midnight oil. We all were. It was part of the esprit de corps of the architecture lab. We were colleagues, of a sort, but we were also young and ambitious and in competition with one other. 

We would get what was called a “building program,” which was a design problem in written form, and then be given a certain amount of time with which to design a building. The program would list site conditions along with desired design outcomes. 

We were taught that “design is the process of making dreams come true,” and then set adrift to make a solid, beautiful structure that embodied what the ancient architect Vitruvius called “Firmness, commodity, and delight.” 

It was stressful.

As part of my twenty-one-year-old coping mechanism, I would finish late at the architecture lab and head over to Dismore’s grocery store. There, I would buy freshly baked maple bars (package of 6), a one-pound bag of peanut M&Ms, some Betty Crocker canned frosting, and head home. Before turning in for the night, I would eat everything in my shopping bag. 

In other words, I lost self control. And if you’ve ever had an experience like this, be it porn or gaming or you-name-it, you know what I’m talking about. Once the scales tip past a certain point, you just stay on the path of least resistance because at some level, you know you’re already past the point of no return.

You say you’re going to stop, but you don’t, because you don’t believe yourself anymore.

How can you avoid a collision?

Which brings us back to today’s topic.

How can you say “no,” to an unhealthy habit, and actually stick to it? 

And you know the answer already, don’t you? The best way to say “no” to something you want to do less of is actually not to say no at all. Instead, what you want is to have a “yes” which is even stronger than the habit you want to change.  

Here’s why. Stay with me, now. We’re about to take a sharp left turn around a bend at night, in the dark. Ready? Okay, here we go.

Remember when you were first learning to drive? There were a few lessons that stuck with you. For me, one of those lessons was that when you’re driving at night on a two-way road, and there is a car approaching you around the bend, and maybe that car even has its brights on, you are tempted to use those headlights to gauge your position on the road so you can avoid the oncoming car. But when you do this, you may actually end up heading into the very lights you are trying to avoid. 

The better strategy, according to driving educators, is to look away from the oncoming lights, at the white line on the right side of the road. In other words, don’t look at the oncoming lights at all. It’s counter-intuitive, but it works. 

The same is true of breaking a bad habit. Look away from the habit you want to change, at a more interesting and compelling subject. 

When I finally stopped trying to say no to the maple bars at 2 a.m., and focused instead on fitting into my pants by heading over to the gym, I gained self control and self respect. 

Start small.

As always, start small. Let’s say you want to stop drinking as much as you currently do. Instead of saying, “I’m not going to drink,” find something else to fill your time and attention. Make a list of possible Yeses right now. Yes, right now. Get out a sheet of paper and write down some possibilities now, before you stay on the same old path by accident. As you write, you might be surprised by some of the possibilities coming out of your pen or pencil. Let your creative brain do what it is good at! 

The takeaway:

When you feel yourself losing self control, look away from the problem. Find a compelling yes stronger than either the unhealthy habit you are trying to change or simply by saying no to it.


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