Why it’s OK to have bad habits.
One of the main reasons why we feel that we are not making progress is that we find ourselves repeating the same bad behaviors we did many years ago. Perhaps you overeat, watch too much TV, smoke or drink excessively, or watch too much pornography. No matter the action, the cause is always the same. A repetitive thought pattern which you cannot shake off, an addiction.
What can you do about it?
If you have been following this blog, it may be clear that I don’t advocate working against any force of nature. Addiction is indeed a force of nature. The neural pathways in our brains get strengthened with time when a certain activity leads to dopamine release in the brain. Pleasure is naturally accepted by our physiology as a good thing. It’s essential for survival and procreation. With overuse, as is expected in a developed society, the pleasure pathways become powerful and sensitive in our brains. It’s therefore quite difficult if not borderline impossible, to step away from our addictive behaviors. The smallest trigger makes us seek that pleasure.
The result is a continuous engagement in some sort of pleasurable activity. How can one possibly leave pleasure and accept the probability of pain, which any kind of change or growth requires? The main question which ought to ask ourselves is, how can I change myself if I am unable to break my addictive thinking habits? How can I change my habits from bad to good, if fighting bad habits only makes them stronger? This happens because of mirroring. Read this article and find out what Mirroring is.
The mistake we all make
One of the things I was repeatedly taught growing up was that in order to be successful, one has to give up all the bad habits one has. Nothing significant can be achieved until you have developed perfectly good behavior. Then, by the grace of the Universe, you will find success. Or you will become capable of reaching for your goals.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s like saying you cannot purchase any new clothes until you discard all your old ones.
This often repeated mantra that your bad habits have to die is not new. Idealists and moralists all over the world have been saying this for centuries. However, they have not factored in one basic truth.
The only way to make a person give up his pleasure is to offer him a better one.
To tell a person to give up their TV, or their XBox is entirely useless. It’s like asking a squirrel to give up the peanut. Why would it? What’s the point of giving up pleasure for some promise of a better future, when the present is already so good?
If one is forced or enticed by religion to sacrifice his desires, then such a sacrifice creates contradictions. You pray all day long and preach abstinence, yet the sex glands are burning with desire. There is a constant tug-of-war between what you ought to do, and what you want to. Serious and dangerous contradictions arise in the minds which are torn this way. Catholic priests are a prime example of this case, but it’s found in every religion on earth. In other words:
You can’t forcibly change human behavior without losing some of your humanity.
So what is the way out of this?
Remember you cannot fight a bad habit built upon your desire for pleasure. If you do, it only becomes stronger. But there is nothing preventing you from building a good habit, while the bad habit exists! As you develop the good habit, slowly the mind becomes less dependent on the bad one.
The mistake we all make is we try to break our bad habits first. You can never break bad habits. They break all by themselves while you focus on building the good ones.
I struggled with this for the longest time. My bad habits held me back. I felt as if I didn’t know, or was incapable of changing myself until I realized that I was doing it all wrong. Change is never made, you must create the right conditions for it and then it just happens.
It wasn’t that I was incapable of changing, just that it wanted to come into my life, in a way I didn’t expect it to- by accepting my bad habits in their entirety. But change is change. Progress is progress, no matter which way it comes.
Until I realized that it was ok to have my bad habits, I struggled with them, creating more and more contradiction in myself as I fought helplessly to get rid of them.
The key is to stop worrying about the bad habit entirely, while totally focusing on developing a good habit.
I love learning new skills. Then why couldn’t I apply the same principles to my life, and learn new habits? Something clicked as I understood this principle. The problem is sometimes much easier than we want to admit. Our ego doesn’t let us.
The state of panic before a change
We love to make our life harder than it is. Fighting one’s bad behaviors and changing one’s negative thinking by sheer force of will, makes for a much better story than not caring a damn about your bad habits. Changing behavior is hard. But the solution is not to change it directly, but indirectly. Not fight the bad habits, but ignoring them and focusing on building good habits.
In other words:
We refuse simple solutions to difficult problems because we have a bias towards complexity. Simple solutions make us panic.
We have to guard against this complexity bias because it prevents us from accepting solutions that are sometimes staring us square in the face.
This approach can seem scary. To even say that, “It’s ok to have bad habits” invokes a mild sense of panic. Panic is good, its an indicator that we are about to enter an unknown territory. It’s an indicator that we are about to change ourselves.
How to do this in reality, an example
Let’s say you have a bad habit of spending more than 6 hours browsing the web everyday. If you try to prevent yourself from doing so, you will see that the result is exactly the opposite. The more your force yourself to avoid the internet, the more frustrated you grow with your life. The more you get frustrated, the more likely you are to lose all will power and fall back harder into the bad habit. Eventually, that’s exactly what happens.
Instead of trying to force yourself to stay away from aimless browsing, spend some time everyday trying to listen to an audiobook, or reading a good novel. Read or listen for 15 minutes at a time, but do it every single day. Before you realize, you would be spending more time doing something useful, rather than reading the news or binge-watching Netflix.
You don’t fight the bad habit directly, but you approach it indirectly, by spending all the time in developing good behaviors, and leaving no time for bad ones. But remember, this should happen naturally, not forcefully.
Keeping your Ego aside.
Creating new behaviors in this way is not only creative, but also enjoyable. It does not lead to internal contradictions, and it does not validate one’s ego by defeating one’s desires. There is no glory in controlling one’s urges by becoming miserable wretch in the process. A much easier way is to redirect your urges in such a way that it creates a behavior change without any internal struggle.
After all, that is the only real and lasting change. The change which came by itself, stays, the change that was forced, wants to leave.
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