Upon completing a negative goal, where rather than do something for a month, I do not do something for a month, I usually notice some things.
There are the cravings. Once the allotted time of the goal is over, I don’t overtly want to do the thing I stopped. There’s a strong sense of control developed over the month, that keeps in line any physical need for the habit. But beyond that lies a little, tiny voice. It’s very insistent. It tells me that there’s no need to go on with the goal. The time’s over. You can have some beer. You can check your phone. It’s ok. It won’t hurt.
But it does hurt. I remember as a teenager starting to smoke cigarettes. They were awful. They tasted disgusting, made me sick, but I continued anyway. I would quit now and then, and I would have no physical cravings after several weeks. But the mental voice would insist. I would inevitably be disappointed with the result of trying it again. It was never as good as I thought it would be.
Beer is incredibly relaxing. But it makes me stupid. I like to relax. I don’t like to be stupid. On a hot Friday afternoon after work, I would rather be relaxed than tense, stupid be damned. On a cool Friday night, however, when I’m ready to write or work, I’m pissed and stupid and can’t do anything. I don’t sleep so well, and the next day I’m still stoopid; my memory is noticeably worse, and lethargy is pronounced.
The brain is a trickster organ. It told me that the beer I had on the first of December would be cold and delicious. It also told me that the feeling it would give me would not be everything I wished for, that in fact it would be extremely ordinary, and after the first sip I would regret having one.
That’s precisely what happened.
But like any good man I pushed the voices in my head into a padded room and continued to drink.
The same thing happened with my iPhone. I found a blog article and settled in to read it. Five minutes later I had incredible tension in my eyes and forehead, and my temples felt crushed in a vice.
For the rest of the day I had trouble focussing on the world around me. It travelled past me in a blur. I looked at it, but I couldn’t see. It was like looking at a slightly out of focus photograph, two dimensional and out of focus.
This has continued to happen every single time I read on my phone. My distraction machine is no longer pleasurable to use. But the habit is still there. I still want to distract myself when I’m on the shitter.
I don’t like to do things that are bad for me. When I really want to stop something, I set a goal for a set amount of time. I’ve never set a lifetime goal. I’ve never decided to quit something for ever.
So having never tried this before, here’s some ideas on how to do it:
- Desire: The desire to stop must be stronger than the desire to not. Otherwise there’s no point. Quitting something you enjoy without really wanting to quit will create immense amounts of pain.
- Closing the door: Once the decision is made, it must be like closing a door for ever. You can’t see past a door that is closed. You can’t wonder what it would be like to try that thing again. It cannot be a part of your thought processes anymore. It must be like forgetting a memory.
- Systems: The Myth wrote a great article on lacking willpower. The way to get around it is having systems to avoid what will encourage your lapsing. Don’t visit bakeries if you need to give up sugar. Don’t hang out with smokers if you want to quit. Don’t carry a credit card if you have spending problems.
I don’t want to quit booze and iPhone browsing for life. I just want to quit when it’s not necessary. I want these things to be tools I can use rather than crutches I lean on. But that’s where the difficulty lies. As St Augustine said: “Total abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.”