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Good thing, bad thing

A common piece of willpower advice for breaking bad habits is to insert a short pause in between the arising of the desire to do the thing and actually doing the thing. It’s easier to commit to the pause instead than the full not-doing-the-thing, and it works because, even though it often doesn’t feel like it in the moment, our cravings (taṇhā) are impermanent and often just sitting with them in equanimity for a few moments will allow them to pass on.

I find this can work, but not always super well. Recently I’ve replaced this mental gesture with another tool I’ve been internally calling “good thing, bad thing”. When a craving arises that I wish to avoid (on a System 2 level), I quickly identify an action that is similar in some aspects, but with the key distinction that it’s something good I do wish to do—the “good thing”. I then promise myself that once I’ve done the good thing, I’ll also allow myself to do the “bad thing” should I so choose.

For example I exercised a bunch today and even though I had a big hearty dinner, my sweet tooth was still craving high octane carbs. Instead of immediately giving in to the urge to go out and buy some ice cream, I negotiated with myself that I’d first have a chocolatey but healthy protein shake and then I could go eat whatever sweets I wanted after that. I had the protein shake and the added feeling of fullness, plus probably some overlap in the activation my protein-shake-chocolate and ice-cream-chocolate receptors (some sort of weird GPCRs I’m guessing) meant that my cravings for sweets disappeared completely. In general cravings also seems to disappear in a much more enduring fashion with gtbt (hours to days) than for the pause-only version (sometimes only minutes).

I’ve done this of many other things, and it usually works. One of the keys though is to be ok with doing the “bad thing” too if you actually want to. Self-integrity allows the negotiation between your different IFS parts to be real in some meaningful sense instead of just a sort of mental sleight-of-hand.

I’m now wondering if there’s a similar move possible to enhance the opposite thing of when you want to make doing something hard easier by just spending one minute doing it…