How to Build Habits of Moderation

In many ways, breaking a bad habit is easier than creating a new, good habit. Going to the gym takes up a time slot every day you do it. But “not smoking” or “not eating junk food” don’t require you to block out any time at all.

In other ways, breaking bad habits is incredibly hard. Nearly every person I’ve ever met has self-professed bad habits they feel unable to control. Maybe it’s not even an addiction, just something simple like using your phone too much or watching too much television.

Is it Best to Go Cold Turkey?

I’ve always been a lot better at breaking bad habits by going cold turkey than aiming for moderation. I was a vegetarian for nearly eight years (currently pescetarian), and although most people insist they could never go vegetarian, I’ve had far less difficulty maintaining this habit than waking up early, going to the gym or even flossing.

Although it wasn’t a bad habit per se, Vat and my decision to not speak English in order to learn languages during our project, also worked best when it was a clear cut rule. When I was learning French in France, I just wanted to speak less English, not stop speaking it entirely. The result, unfortunately, was that I spoke English about 90% of the time, and my learning suffered.

Completely omitting a bad habit may be easier, in some cases, because it’s what James Clear calls a bright-line rule. A bright-line rule is a clear, unambiguous standard, such as never eating meat or never speaking in English.

Bright-line rules conserve willpower. Since you always know whether or not something violates your rule, you don’t have to think about tricky situations in grey. Because you need to think about them less, they use less mental effort to sustain.

Then Why Does Going Cold Turkey Fail So Often?

If bright-line rules make asserting willpower easier, and going cold-turkey is a perfect example of such a rule, why is it often so hard to go cold turkey? Why do diets that never let you eat bread, or decisions to completely abstain from vices rarely last long-term?

I believe the reason is that the bright-line rule is making a compromise. For many bad habits, you don’t actually want complete abstinence. Maybe moderation would be better for your life.

Consider junk food. I hardly want to spend every day eating potato chips and cola, but if you told me I could never eat them again for the rest of my life, I might rebel against that. The truth is, I want something in-between, maybe eating junk food only a third or half as frequently as I currently eat it.

Or consider aimless web browsing. I’ve previously gone on complete internet fasts, eliminating all non-work related web browsing from my habits. But they rarely last—because even if I sometimes surf to excess, completely eliminating all entertainment online isn’t ideal either.

Creating Obstacles to Vice

If you’ve decided that moderation—not abstinence, nor excess, is what you want, how do you make it a habit?

There are many ways to do this, but one of my favorite is to introduce obstacles to using the bad habit. When you add obstacles it nudges you towards a different behavior.

I recently found an excellent one for taming my web surfing habits: leech block. It’s a simple add-on to your web browser which can selectively block websites. With it, I can block off chunks of time when I don’t want any web browsing (say for work), or restrict to a certain amount of time (say 10 minutes every two hours). You can also restrict specific websites, so the tool needn’t disable your other work tasks.

Another which I’ve been experimenting with is using timer-controlled switches for television. Normally you buy these timers to control lights in your house, but the principle is the same for any electric device. You control when power goes into and out of the device, therefore you can set your television to be off at certain hours of the day.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable. If I really want to surf online, I can use a different browser, my phone or another computer. If I really want to watch television, I can unplug the timer and plug it directly into the wall socket.

But the obstacles make that vice slightly harder. Since I was engaging in these vices mostly out of laziness anyways, the push to read a book or work instead is a bit easier to manage.

The nice thing about these two examples, again, is that the expenditure of willpower is one-time. I only need to setup leech block and the timer once, for them to impede my access to the vice for as long as I want.

Other types of obstacles can also be introduced, but they still require ongoing willpower. One example, if you’re trying to keep from eating bad food, is simply not to keep any junk food at your house. But now you need to exert that willpower each time you shop. An improvement, perhaps, but not always a perfect one.

Still, I can imagine a hypothetical grocery delivery service which gives you the option to lock in your weekly deliveries in advance. That way, your groceries come automatically and, therefore, the obstacle to getting junk food would be much larger—a completely separate trip to the store.

Technology as a Habit Multiplier

Consumer technology often gets a bad rap for enhancing our vices. We’re slaves to the whims of our devices and social media accounts.

But, at least in the case of apps like leech block, I think technology can work in the other direction. It can provide new ways to move our behavior in a deliberate direction. As a result, I think technology will act like more of a multiplier—enhancing both our virtues and our vices—in the future, and it’s up to us to decide which.