Don't do something everyday.
At the beginning of each day, or even the night before, choose something that you will NOT do the next day. The aim of this practice is to cultivate willpower and keep it growing by challenging yourself to move just a little bit out of your comfort zone. Discipline is a muscle that must be exercised. With enough discipline you can make choices you previously thought impossible.
For the type of thing you want to not do: Don't pick something impossible at first, but set yourself up for success. You want to be able to succeed so that you can create a positive feedback cycle that builds upon itself. If you decide to tackle that big issue in your life, the one you've been avoiding but really want to get rid of, and then try to immediately face it head on with a single day of cold turkey attitude - maybe you'll succeed, but you're unlikely to stick with it even if you can win for a while. It's normal to have days where you succumb to previous habits, or seek comfort when you know isn't the healthiest, and that's okay - those impulses are human. The point of this practice is to build your willpower through actively practicing choice of what you will and will not do - and then that is methodically reinforced by keeping a daily promise to yourself not to do something specific, just for one day at a time.
So start with something that you know you are likely to succeed with, but ideally something that also makes you just a little uncomfortable. Can you go a single day without checking that one social media service? Did you feel a little bit of an internal cringe there? That inner voice squealing "Nooooo"? Good, that is discomfort that means it can challenge what you believe you can do. Pushing that limit a tiny bit here and there helps you get better at facing new challenges. If it's not realistic to go without social media because you have business or making plans with friends that day, don't set yourself up for failure by choosing something you know you won't do. If you want, you can break down a challenge into smaller and smaller parts. For example you could decide "Today I will not use Facebook except for the www.facebook.com/messages and I will not use it for anything longer than 15 minutes per hour".
Think of this right now:
What is something that you should probably be doing less of in your life that you could survive a single day without doing?
Did you feel some discomfort? Even if you didn't, that's okay. You can work yourself up to challenges if you don't think you're ready right now. This practice can start anywhere, even someplace silly. Just by repeatedly not doing something specific each day that you have promised to yourself, you can build willpower and discipline. Think of the neurons in your brain like a pathway over a lawn. The more you use it, the more worn it becomes, and then people take it by default when crossing because it's easier and orderly. By practicing willpower and discipline like this, you are building up capacity to use everywhere else in your life. And by choosing something silly, you can set yourself up for success even when you're not sure you're ready to push your limits.
An example of a very very low discomfort task is "I will not enter the bathroom without first turning around in a circle." That's a trivial task, it's really hard to not do as long as you remember. You'd only look silly if you were doing this at work and a coworker happens to be behind you. But even then, maybe it's a good opportunity to talk about what you are doing and why. More reinforcement means further progress towards the freedom of doing what you really want to, and not just what's automatic.
By repeatedly applying this practice and building up the level of challenge in what you are able to say no to, eventually you will have the willpower and discipline to break ANY bad habit.
So, now that we're good with all the introduction and pre-amble:
What are the core instructions of this practice to follow?
- In the morning or night choose something that you will NOT do for the day
- this needs to be something that you are committed to succeed at
- When or where are you going to not do this?
- What exactly does not doing it look like? What will you do instead?
- Why are you not doing this?
- this can be anything from a serious goal to simply "I'm doing this peculiar action because it helps me to build my willpower that allows me to progressively choose better things in life"
- Write these details down
- you can carry it with you, or put it somewhere visible if it will help you remember
- Now say it aloud e.g. "I will not do the thing when I blah blah because then lalala. It's only for today and that makes it okay"
- Don't do the thing. All day. Congratulate yourself every time you manage to catch it
- Did you do the thing? :(
- Too bad, try again tomorrow with something else or by breaking it down into smaller steps
- Did you not do the thing?! Yay!!
- You're scoring imaginary points towards very real ability to change habits and enact your will
- Choose a new little thing to not do for the next day if you're bored or not able to keep up a streak
- If you want to really challenge yourself, 60 consecutive days is the estimate for how long you need to do something before it starts to become automatic.
The format I've given you here I've tested with people and is the most effective you can get in a short explanation. I will break down the reasoning now.
Having yourself both write it down and say it not only brings it out of your thoughts into physical reality, but gives it multiple forms. It's well known in education that encoding knowledge in repetition through multiple actions for different senses helps things to stick better.
Locating exactly when and where this habit change will be identifies the context at which the behaviour typically starts. This makes it easier to interrupt the trigger that is already automatic. This is really key to the whole thing, because if you can't remember to catch yourself before it happens, then you don't have the opportunity to make the choice to do it differently.
Being specific about the actions that you will do instead of your default ones means that you have tangible steps to follow at that time and don't have to wonder about what to do next. If you were to stop and think, it brings some mental friction and it's easier once again to just do the default thing. But having it clearly replaced with new steps means that once we've made the choice, we can just act without having to figure it out right there.
Stating why it is that you are not doing the thing gives a real weight to the reasoning about your actions. It allows you to connect it to your broader values and desires about life that aren't automatically in mind in that situation you're trying to disrupt. This is important because often our desire to be healthier from making good choices is at odds to the indulging comfort of automatic reactions. If you have a clear why, then you know why it's worth it to not do the thing.
It's also useful to have this stated in a clear, positive, and present tense. With no woulds or coulds.
If you give yourself a loophole then you're not completely committed and it's easier to build an excuse.
And of course, positively rewarding yourself right after is good to acknowledge that you're able to take steps towards making your life better, even if it isn't always the easiest route. By not beating yourself up and instead using the mistake as an opportunity to refine your way of approaching the problem you also build resilience so that you can move forward instead of getting mired down in blame and guilt. Mistakes happen, they're only failures if you fail to learn from them.
This practice may appear deceptively simple, but its great power is in the fact that it can build and build upon itself over time.
"How do I make my life better? Don't do something!" - that might seem like backward advice at first, but hopefully now you can see how it is in fact exactly what you need to practice. By not doing something, you make room for something else - whether it's just the choice to do things differently, or actually releasing yourself from a bad habit. It puts you back in control and builds the habit strength to do that repeatedly. And that control gives you freedom.
Additionally, since there can be a little bit of a challenge to this every time you decide not to do the thing, you are also increasing your tolerance to discomfort. I'm sure to talk a lot about discomfort in future posts, but consider this paradox: the way to deal with discomfort is not just to get rid of it or replace it with comfort, but to cultivate resilience so that we can accept what it is really telling us and then choose to move through it if we must. Again, this ties into giving you more freedom in how you live your life. I'm starting to think that this skill of weathering discomfort is one of the most important skills for people in this modern world.
Best of luck with not doing the things, and keep trying, keep practicing. Rest in the knowledge that you can build the life you really want, and taking tiny steps like these will build unstoppable momentum with time and tiny bits of cumulative effort.
Aaron Ball. Recovered Academic. Grieving Environmentalist. Evidence-Based Transformational Coach. Electronic musician. Transrationalist.