- Junk food
- Social media
- Video games
… the list goes on and on.
The chances are that you’ve already tried quitting one of those before and failed. Even if you were successful for a while, the negative behavior probably came back.
It’s depressing having to put in all that effort and see that it’s all been for nothing.
Yet, there are some people that succeed long-term. They stop the bad behavior and never look back. So you know it’s possible but somehow it doesn’t work for you.
Is it that you just suck at this? Are you not as good as those other people? Are you doomed to live with bad habits until the end?
You can make it, just like all the people before you — and I’ll show you how to do it permanently, not just for a few weeks. All we need to do is look at what successful people do differently and model it.
Why Some People Quit Permanently and Others Only Temporarily
In my coaching practice, I’ve worked with over 1,000 people one-on-one to get rid of negative habits and they roughly fall into two groups: temporary winners and permanent winners.
Here’s what typically happens when I work with both groups:
People from the first group sign up for coaching, we put in a lot of effort and make significant progress. After a few months, we manage to break the bad habit.
However, after a while, they give up or disappear without any notice.
Some of them contact me back a year or so later and want to work on the same issue again, realizing that the addiction is back and keeps wrecking their lives.
The second group of people looks exactly the same in the beginning. They start just as enthusiastic and motivated to make a change. We work on it and after a few months, their habit is gone in a similar fashion.
But when those people stop the coaching, it’s not because they gave up. It’s because they don’t need my help anymore. They have successfully gotten rid of the bad behavior and can easily maintain their lives without it.
If I follow up with them after a year or so, they still keep going without succumbing to the old ways.
• • •
On the surface, there isn’t any difference between the two groups. It’s not that one group is fundamentally better than the other.
On average, they have the same motivation, discipline, knowledge, patience, and all other qualities required to change a habit.
So what’s the secret?
The main difference that I’ve noticed is that permanent winners use a different strategy.
The Difference Between Permanent and Temporary Breaking of Addiction
Permanent winners understand the underlying reason for the addiction.
They know that the addiction, despite all the negative consequences, still serves a useful function.
Take smoking for example. Let’s briefly ignore all the negatives and focus only on the benefits.
- give you an excuse to take a 5-minute break from work.
- relax you when you’re stressed or overwhelmed.
- help facilitate a conversation with a friend/co-worker.
- help you be a part of a group that are also smokers.
Now suppose that a person has been smoking for years and is accustomed to all those benefits. It may not be healthy but it is a way to get these benefits quickly and easily. It is a helpful crutch.
If we break that addiction, we immediately lose the benefits.
- We don’t get those 5-minute breaks anymore.
- We don’t get to de-stress quickly and easily.
- We don’t get to have quick chats with a friend.
We can quit the smoking cold turkey and stop the harm it’s doing to our body, but that leaves us without those benefits. It leaves us without our crutches.
That’s why if we focus only on breaking the addiction without working on the underlying reasons for it, we eventually fall back to our old habits or replace them with other negative ones.
Most personal improvement strategies focus on tricks and techniques to help us break the bad habit. We use discipline, willpower, apps, coaches, habit building techniques, etc. And those might work to break the habit but not to fulfill the needs that the addiction used to mask.
The needs in the smoking example might seem relatively easy to address, but in most cases of addiction, the unfulfilled needs are much deeper and more difficult to deal with.
Let’s look at other addictions that are more difficult to deal with on the needs level.
Practical Examples of the Benefits of Some Addictions
When we think of bad habits we usually think only of the negatives. Let’s change the perspective and look at some of the positives.
What problems does coffee mask for you? What is it a crutch for?
- Lack of sleep — Do you use coffee to mask the fact that you’re chronically sleep deprived?
- Social facilitation — Do you feel like you need coffee to have interesting social interactions?
- Burnout at work — Do you need 10 cups of coffee per day to be able to focus at work?
While these are obvious problems, there isn’t a quick fix. To solve the problem permanently you might need to find a better job that doesn’t burn you out. Or you might need friends that are a better match. You might need to change your lifestyle and start getting 8 hours of sleep every day.
I, for example, tend to drink too much coffee when I’m doing boring or uninspired work. When I have to do something that I hate for a long time, I always drink more coffee.
And vice versa.
If the project I’m working on is enjoyable and I’m in the flow, the craving for caffeine isn’t there at all.
What are you compensating for when you spend hours on social media every day?
- Lack of social contacts — Do you have no friends that you can connect with so you have to constantly check Facebook to feel like you’re not alone?
- A job that sucks — Are you so bored of your job that you need to watch a video online every 5 minutes just to stay sane?
- No purpose — Do you have no purposeful work or passion to work on so you fill all the idle time with social media?
What positive effects do you get when you get stuffed or eat unhealthy food?
- Lower Emotional Sensitivity — You feel less emotional so you don’t have to face what is really bothering you.
- Entertainment — You mask the fact that you have nothing interesting to do so you eat to make it more fun.
• • •
All these addictions have similar positive effects. They all temporarily mask a core need that is not fulfilled in a healthy way. The bad habits are pain-killers that help you get through the day.
Pushing Against the Addiction Doesn’t Work Long-Term
While we’re working on the habit level, we’re never going to find a permanent solution.
All we’re doing is getting a temporary sense of accomplishment by breaking the habit for a few months. That, however, never addresses the underlying issue.
Sooner or later it will come back, or we’ll find another bad habit to mask the need. That’s why when smokers quit they start to overeat, or turn to drugs.
It’s like the myth of Sisyphus.
We struggle to push a huge rock uphill, only to get tired and eventually let it fall back to the bottom again.
So instead of pushing the addiction away directly, let’s focus on the underlying reason for why it’s there in the first place.
Let’s ignore the negatives from the addiction for a while and let it serve its temporary function. Let it be your crutches or your pain-killers. Sure, it might do some damage for a while, but struggling against it doesn’t work anyway.
• • •
I’ve had to deal with many addictions in my life like junk food, sugar, porn, masturbation, smoking, caffeine, and social media. But the biggest one by far was playing video games.
In my teens and early twenties, I’ve put in well over 10,000 hours into video games. While it had a lot of benefits and I learned many useful skills, at some point it was obvious that it was a huge time-waster.
I knew it was a habit that had to go.
With discipline, I managed to quit many times. Sometimes for a week, sometimes for a few months. But it always came back. Pushing against it directly never worked long-term.
By the time I was 25, some other changes started happening in my life. I got an interesting job that I enjoyed. I started making more friends. I got into a long-term relationship. And the more of those changes I made, the less I wanted to play video games.
I didn’t put any direct effort into quitting.
It wasn’t because I didn’t have time to play either. The desire for games just wasn’t that strong anymore. I had more interesting ways to spend my time.
Looking back, it’s easy to see what problems I was compensating for:
- Lack of social contacts.
- Lack of a romantic relationship.
- Lack of a job that I enjoyed.
- Lack of fun hobbies.
This wasn’t a linear progression either.
When one of these needs wasn’t being fulfilled for a while, the gaming came back. For example, when I broke up with my girlfriend, or I quit my job and didn’t have any meaningful work to do, I needed my gaming crutches again.
Fix The Underlying Need, Not The Habit
Dealing with the underlying problem might take a lot more effort and time than simply breaking a habit. But given that the alternative is just pushing a rock up a hill only to start from the beginning again, why not focus on the real problem instead?
To start addressing the real needs, we have to know what they are.
A great model that I learned from Tony Robbins is the “Six Core Human Needs”.
Four of those needs, which we’re going to focus on in this article, are essential. We always find ways to fill those four needs in a healthy or unhealthy manner.
Here’s the list:
- Certainty — The need to feel reasonably safe and secure. To have some control and stability in our lives. To be able to predict what’s going to happen to us in the coming months. To have some degree of comfort in our lives.
- Variety — The need to have some fun and excitement. To be able to break away from the routine and have adventures. To be able to change ourselves and have new experiences.
- Significance — Having a sense of importance in the world. To feel like other people appreciate you for who you are. To have a sense of pride in what you do. To feel worthy of respect.
- Connection/Love — The need to connect with other people on an emotional level. To have intimate and loving relationships. To get approval and affection from others. To feel worthy of love.
These core needs are universal. We all have them, regardless of our goals and purpose in life.
Let’s look at each one in detail, and see how every unfulfilled core need spawns a plethora of addictions.
Do you have enough financial certainty in your life? Are you sure that you’ll be financially secure no matter what happens in the next few months?
Or are you living paycheck-to-paycheck? Are you worried that you might get kicked out of your apartment? Not have enough money for food or to pay your bills? Not be able to support your family?
If you don’t have financial certainty it will create a lot of worry and stress in your life. Feelings that you later have to numb out with negative habits like alcohol, marijuana, overeating, internet addiction, etc.
Instead of using tools to eliminate the stress and worry, why not focus on the real problem?
What do you need to start solving your financial security in a fundamental way?
- Do you have to change your job for a better paid one?
- Do you have to save up and have a bigger cash buffer?
- Do you have to start your own business?
- Do you have to learn new skills and move to a better-paid field?
Sure, all these are big steps and require time and effort. In the meantime, you can use our crutches to deal with the financial stress. But what could you do today, to start addressing the core need? What is the first step?
What about emotional certainty?
If something terrible were to happen in your life, do you have the emotional support to help you through it? Do you have friends and family to rely on in a crisis?
What about toxic relationships in your life?
Is somebody around you a constant source of stress and worry? Is somebody in your life treating you in a way that makes you feel less secure and less in control?
What could you do today to change your toxic relationships and find ones that better support you emotionally?
If you start feeling more certain in your well-being and more in control of your life, which addictions would become obsolete?
The irony here is that if we felt totally certain and knew exactly what’s going to happen we start getting bored. Life becomes dull and repetitive.
If we get to that point we might pick up a few unhealthy habits just to spice things up a bit. Here are a few unhealthy things that we tend to do to get more variety:
- Cheating —how long can you be in an unfulfilling relationship before you start looking for somebody else on the side? If we don’t face the truth and get the courage to end the relationship (or radically change it), it’s only a matter of time before we start looking for another way to make it more interesting.Can you see how cheating, while against many people’s values, would make life more exciting? The danger of being caught and the appeal of a new partner would temporarily fulfill the variety need.
- A Boring Job — How many years could you endure a dead-end, uninspiring job?After a few months of working on something we don’t like, we start to develop unhealthy habits just to keep things interesting. Are you on social media or YouTube all day long? Checking your e-mail every 5 minutes? Smoking 3 packs of cigarettes every day at work? 10 cups of coffee per day?
- Lack of Social Relationships — Do you have few or no friends that you can genuinely have fun with? Do you feel like you have to get drunk or take drugs to make it fun?
Instead of these negative habits, what could you do to bring some true excitement and sense of adventure in your life? Do you need to create or find a more interesting social circle? Do you need to get a job that inspires and challenges you? Do you need to find new hobbies that you’re passionate about?
Are you proud of the work you’re doing? Are your co-workers, boss/employees giving you the respect that you need?
Do you feel like you’re important to the people that you’re spending time with or it wouldn’t make a difference to anyone if you became a hermit?
What would happen if you didn’t have any significance in your life?
- Violence — It’s the easiest way to get people’s attention and respect. Being domineering and controlling works, at least in the short-term.
- Cult/Gang — Do you feel like you have to join an unhealthy group of people, just to be a part of something bigger than yourself?
- Video Games — Do you play video games all day long just so you can feel like you’re good at something?
4. Connection and Love
What happens if you don’t have any meaningful connections in your life? No real and loving friends that are there for you. No intimate partners that you can love and receive love from?
Would you numb the pain with drugs and alcohol? Would you be more manipulative and needy just to get attention?
- Being a Victim — Do you feel like you have to complain and talk about your problems just so you can get sympathy from the people around you?
- Crazy Cat Lady — Do you have 10 pets in your house and pretend that you’re their parent?
- Social Media — Do you spend all day improving your Instagram or Facebook profile? Do you post dozens of cute pictures every day, hoping that you’ll get likes and comments?
Of course, these are just examples of the crutches that we use. There are hundreds of unhealthy ways we can use to numb the pain and temporarily fill the hole.
What are your crutches? Which need is lacking the most for you? And what are some healthy changes you can make in your life to truly fulfill your core needs?
A Formula for Permanently Beating Addictions
Obviously, we can’t go through all the possible addictions and solutions in one article. However, we can use the examples above and come up with a simple formula to apply in most situations.
Here are the steps:
- Identify your addiction or unhealthy habit.
- List all the benefits you’re getting from it.
- Stop resisting the addiction and feel gratitude for what it’s giving you.
- Identify which core need the addiction is trying to mask.
- Find a healthy solution to truly fill the need and start working on it long-term.
- Watch the addiction melt away as you start getting your core needs met in a healthy way.
Feeling guilty and ashamed of our addiction is not helping at all. In fact, it’s blocking us to truly fulfill the underlying need.
Instead of resisting the negative habit, accept it as a temporary pain-killer or as crutches that help you walk. Appreciate that it keeps you sane until you find a real solution.
I know — it’s difficult to replace resistance, guilt, and self-deprecation with gratitude.
But listing the secondary benefits will help you appreciate that you have a way to temporarily numb the pain. Given that finding a real solution takes a long time, it’s not only useful but necessary.
Willpower Doesn’t Work — Fix The Cause Instead
One bad habit doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s not going to make a big difference from day to day. But think about the damage it’s doing long-term. Think about how your life will be different 10 years from now.
If you get rid of the addiction now, how much better could your health be in 10 years? How would your relationship change long-term? How would your financial life change?
If you’ve been trying to break the bad habit with willpower, it’s time to stop. That approach hasn’t been working for you in the past and won’t work in the future.
Try something different.
It’s time to take a hard look at why you’re doing it in the first place and change the underlying cause.
Now you have a simple formula for finding out the underlying cause and start working on a real solution. But just knowing about the formula is not enough. It’s all about taking action.
Take the first step today and your future self will thank you for it.