Establishing new healthy habits — or breaking existing bad habits — is more difficult than you think because your brain seems to actually think of your future self as another person. Ignoring your obviously low levels of empathy for the moment, it seems to your mind as if some jerk in the future is the one who gets all the benefits for the good stuff you do in the present. Not much of an enticement to make all those sacrifices, eh?
I’ve been thinking about how the philosphy of Stoicism — which I’ve recently became a hug he fan of —might help one out in these situations. Briefly, Stoic techniques include the concept of mastering your experience of pleasure. Often this is erroneously taken to mean that Stoics deny themselves pleasure, but what it actually means to be Stoic is to be in control of the pleasures you experience, as opposed to being controlled by pleasurable experiences.
Just Say “No”. And “Yes”, Sometimes.
In my experimentation, most of the things we aim to wean ourselves off of are over-abundant and easily-accessed pleasures, made available as such to fill the bank accounts of those who’ve freebased these formerly benign pleasures into something with which we can spiral down into an unhealthy binge. This fits right in with a Stoic approach: the thing itself may not be bad, especially not in small, sporadic doses. As long as you have the ability to say no, you can actually enjoy it instead of consuming it compulsively.
Taking these two ideas into account, how do we identify with the self who reaps the rewards of maintaining control, but also avoid repeated failures and establish repeated successes?
That Random Jerk In The Future
I started thinking about the ideal chunk of time one could endure and still see the future self as the same person. My absolutely unscientific result was 15 minutes. Think of it as the Inverse Pomodoro Technique. Your goal is to not do something for 15 minutes. For me at least, I still see that guy 15 minutes from now as “me” and not “Some Random Jerk In The Future”.
So, the 15-Minute Stoic technique is simple: whatever the bad habit you’re trying to break, just make it your goal to resist for 15 minutes. When the time is up, repeat.
Often you’ll find the urge to binge on whatever it was has gone away once the 15 minutes are up, and realize these seemingly irresistible urges are indeed resistable. Slowly, you start to realize that you really can say no, and also that you were not consuming these pleasures by choice. These realizations will also help to further your progress.
Create “Good Decision Maker”, Not “Bad Decision Resister”
I’ve found that small, achievable successes help foster the new habit. Studies have shown that willpower is a limited (but replenishable) resource, so the best approach is not to blow it all on resisting urges to cheat, but rather to create small successes that encourage more. Successfully establishing willpower also helps build the ability. So this is a way to achieve many things at once, with small goals and small steps. In other words, use the willpower to start creating “Guy Who Succeeds Using Small Habits” as opposed to “Guy Who Didn’t Eat That Whole Box of Donuts”. The first guy can apply those skills to any task. The second guy can only resist eating a whole box of donuts.
By approaching things with this “15-Mintute Stoic” technique, you resist the temptation, identify with the self who reaps the rewards, maintain a reserve of willpower, prove you can make the sacrifice, achieve actual (if small) success, and build your willpower reserves — all at the same time.
The brain is quite literal. Any small success is still registered as a success. Use that to your advantage.
And on top of all your success in banishing that bad habit, and establishing a new you who chooses good habits? Now you’re a Stoic, too.