How to Turn Habit into Discipline

Turn habit to disciplineQ: If I feed my brain with a certain positive thought every time it wanders in a negative direction, does it eventually believe the thought? For example, suppose my mom tries to stop me from playing video games by telling me that it wastes time. My mind doubts her, and and I have thoughts that she’s just being overly protective. But if I keep repeating to myself that she’s right, would my mind eventually believe it and have no more doubts? – Michele

Dear Michele,

If your mind is like mine, part of you already believes your mother, while other parts will never believe her. There you are, just like me, caught between intellect and instinct.

Your question is really about breaking stubborn habits, a task that each of us faces eventually. It’s an acquired skill that can bring untold benefits in life. Rather than the usual approach, which involves a lot of self-recrimination, gimmicky techniques, and failed attempts at mental realignment, let’s establish a bit of empathy for what your mind is trying to accomplish each time it compels you to play a video game. If we understand its goals and methods, maybe we can find a way around this habit of yours.

Meet Your Board of Directors

The mind is more like a committee of disparate voices than a single decisive administrator. Your higher self – think of it as the chairman of the board – knows that too much gaming is wasteful. We must think about tomorrow, it says.

Meanwhile, your more instinctual, emotional side – the hippie in the back of the room – is shouting, Tomorrow be damed! This moment may never come again, man! There’s good evidence that the brain is a modular organ, meaning that different areas handle information in different and specialized ways.

Let’s say that you’re hungry and someone hands you a plate of donuts. Part of the mind was shaped by eras of hardship and deprivation, and it urges you to eat them all. The impulse makes sense, since plentiful and consistent food is a recent development for humans. (And some of us still don’t enjoy the luxury.)

Meanwhile, the chairman of the board wants to plan for the future. It’s the barely perceptible voice urging moderation while you gorge yourself on donuts – the same voice that becomes much louder after you’ve eaten the entire plate. That voice of reason and planning also makes sense because our ancestors had to arrange their lives around seasons and other long-term challenges.

That leaves you and me with brains that are literally competing with themselves. If you listen to the chairman, you get to feel good tomorrow. But if you listen to the hippie, you get to feel good right now!

That old wiring that compels us to eat one more donut, or play one more video game, can be confounding. What makes it so darned powerful? Part of the answer is geography. The mental modules that compel us to satisfy physical urges lie deep in the brain and have plenty of access to emotions. Emotions are more powerful motivators than logic.

The planning parts of our brain mostly sit way up in front, above our eyes. They’re not separate from emotion, but their connections to emotion are more distant. That means that while the chairman is preparing to articulate a well-reasonsed plan for the future, the hippie is already scarfing down donuts. The hippie is powerful, and its job is to satisfy urges because that keeps us alive.

By now you may be thinking, fine, Poindexter, but what do your tortured metaphors and anatomical disquisitions have to do with my gaming habit?

Just this: if I were your mind I would insist that you play video games. Why? Because I’m trying to keep you alive, silly.

Stimulus, Response… Stimulus, Response…

Video games don’t advance your survival, but some part of your brain may be tricked into believing that they do. They are a fantastic way to 1) reduce discomfort, and 2) replace it with joy. Video games let your mind satisfy two urges for the price of one behavior. You and your mother will never convince the hippie in the back of the room that a two-fer is a bad thing. Never.

So how can you gain more control over your habit? First, stop arguing with your mind. It’s exhausting, and it changes very little. Your higher self is already well aware that video games are a waste of time. It needs no convincing. And the more primitive side of you will never be convinced, so there’s little point in trying to beat it into submission. Instead, you can sidestep the process altogether, but it takes a lot of practice.

To get you started, I’m going to give you Victor Frankl’s recipe. He’s credited with one of my all-time favorite quotes (second to “Breakfast is ready!”):

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

For most people, most of the time, the mind works like this: you notice a stimulus (in your case, the presence or the mere thought of video games) and then you automatically respond (you play the game). But if you slow things down and take a close look at what’s happening inside yourself, you will probably notice that a lot is happening in that tiny moment between stimulus and response. You might notice that, just for an instant, your thoughts, your feelings, and even your body do things in anticipation of the game.

For example, you might notice a little jolt of excitement. You might notice that you feel more awake, or that your thoughts shift from daily anxieties to shooting zombies. It might even feel, for the briefest instant, that you’re already playing the game. Ahhh, sweet relief.

That little moment between stimulus and response is your chance to beat your mind at its own game.

Take a very close look at that brief moment and those tiny sensations. Put words to them. Write them down. Describe what happens inside you. Begin to think of those little sensations as warning signs that say “STOP!” Training yourself to linger in that moment helps you choose your actions rather than reacting blindly, just like Victor Frankl said.

Next, as you are learning to pause in that crucial moment, make a list of alternate behaviors. Rather than reaching for the game controller, maybe you turn your back to the console or step outside the room. Create three specific behaviors that will help you physically interrupt the stimulus-response cycle. That will give you time to think, which will give you the option to overrule that demanding hippie.

Failure Is an Option

Developing that kind of discipline takes practice, and failure is perfectly acceptable. Desirable, even. Each time you fail, you learn about the process. Perhaps sometimes you’ll notice that your resolve was reduced by something like fatigue, or bad mood, or some bit of distraction that you hadn’t planned for. Write it all down.

If you’re truly motivated to develop this kind of discipline, do yourself a favor and enlist someone who will hold you accountable to the goal. Your mom might be a good candidate, but you’ll need to educate her on this method. She won’t be much help if she is unwilling to resign the battle against your mind. Help her understand that if fighting your mind was ever going to work, it would have worked by now.

In fact, her current attempts to help you suppress urges may actually be strengthening those urges. Most of us have some belief that we must change our thoughts before we can change our behavior, but that strategy can backfire. For example, recovering alcoholics who actively try to suppress thoughts and cravings actually end up craving alcohol more than they otherwise would (Kavanagh, May, and Andrade 2009). Plus, all that tiring effort to suppress urges can weaken resolve and, paradoxically, increase the odds of drinking (Garland et al. 2012).

There’s nothing wrong with reminding yourself that gaming is wasteful, but actions are more useful than words for changing behaviors. Each time you successfully interrupt the habit and make a different choice, you become more skilled in the art of discipline. That skill will generalize to other areas of your life, making you a lean, mean, disciplined machine.


user-guide-human-mindIf you want tons o’ tips about managing the mind, I might humbly suggest my book, The User’s Guide to the Human Mind. Now, if you’ll pardon me, breakfast is ready.

Garland, E.L., K. Carter, K. Ropes, and M.O. Hower. 2012. “Thought Suppression, Impaired Regulation of Urges, and Addiction-Stroop Predict Affect-Modulated Cue-Reactivity among Alcohol Dependent Adults.” Biological Psychology 89: 87-93.

Kavanagh, D.J., J. May, J. and J. Andrade. 2009. “Tests of the Elaborated Intrusion Theory of Craving and Desire: Features of Alcohol Craving During Treatment for an Alcohol Disorder.” British Journal of Clinical Psychology 48: 241-254.