Sam Holstein

How to Break Bad Habits and Live the Life You Want

When Apple introduced Screen Time, I was one of the first people to turn it on. I’d tracked my computer use for several years, but until that point had found no tool for tracking phone use that I liked. After seven days of collecting data, I eagerly checked my first Screen Time usage stats:

I used my phone 42 hours a week — six hours a day.

Holy shit, I thought. I’ve got to get this under control. Four of those six hours were spent using social media, so I sternly told myself to use social media less. Whenever I felt an urge to check social media, I said to myself No and busied myself with other tasks.

After two weeks of disciplining myself that way, my Screen Time usage stats read… six hours a day.

When Willpower Doesn’t Work

This was not the first time this happened to me. Like many people, I have trailed behind me a series of failed commitments like ‘going to the gym every day’ (didn’t last a week) and ‘reading every day’ (never got started). After failing to reduce my phone use, it finally dawned on me that perhaps relying on willpower wasn’t the smartest thing to do.

As it turns out, the scientific community agrees. Research indicates willpower is like a muscle — every time you resist temptation, you tire out your willpower muscle. Rely on it too much, and your willpower can fail altogether. Ever lost control and eaten an entire box of cookies at once? That’s what willpower failure looks like. In addition to willpower being depletable, the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment indicates that whether someone successfully resists temptation or not has less to do with willpower and more to do with attentional control, the ability to intentionally direct your focus on one object or another. Most distressingly, Annaka Harris explains in her book Consciousness that our brains often send impulses to our muscles to act before we even think about acting, meaning most of our “decisions” are merely post-hoc rationalizations.

In short, your ability to be self-disciplined does not depend on the “amount of willpower” you have, but what temptations you expose yourself to in the first place.

Once I learned this, I immediately applied it to my phone-use problem. Social media tempted me, so I moved my social media apps off my home screen and made them difficult to access (a few months later, I deleted them altogether). Notifications also tempted me, so I disabled most of my phone notifications.

Adding In Replacement Habits

Any smoker can tell you what makes quitting so difficult is not merely giving up nicotine itself, but breaking the habit of taking a smoke, of getting up at regular intervals and taking a break to smoke. When their usual time for a smoke break rolls around, a recovering smoker is faced with a strong temptation to smoke and no viable alternative.

The same principle is at work for any bad habit. Even though I deleted my social media apps off my phone, I still picked it up several (dozen) times an hour. Each time I picked it up, I felt a strong temptation to use social media.

To short-circuit this temptation, I downloaded the educational app Duolingo and placed it on my home screen. Now, whenever I picked my phone up out of habit, I played Duolingo instead of doing anything else.

Just three weeks after making these changes, my phone use was down to two hours a day, a third of what it was*.


I was finally able to stop using my phone so much not because of any superior ‘strength of will,’ but because I altered my environment so I didn’t have to use willpower in the first place. Recovering alcoholics avoid bars for the same reason: you can’t fall off the wagon if you’re handcuffed to it.

You can apply this lesson to all sorts of ways to improve your life:

Plenty of people don’t make these changes. Serial adulterers continue to go to bars with their friends where attractive women hang out. Alcoholics who are trying to get sober keep hanging out with their binge-drinking friends. Stoners leave their packed bong out on the coffee table. Lazy college students buy big expensive televisions and small cheap computers. (And plenty of people stay stuck where they are.)

Ask yourself:

Then make them.

Footnotes

At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if new research was released in the next few years indicating that ‘willpower’ itself doesn’t exist and that what we call “willpower” is actually an individual’s ability to manage how much attention they pay to what tempts them.

*After my temptation to use social media faded, I deleted Duolingo. Since Duolingo is much less addicting than social media, I never needed to replace it with anything. After making that change, my phone use dropped to 48 minutes a day, of which I’m proud.