If you want to change a habit, you’re going to have to figure out a way to “sell” that habit change to your brain in such a way that there is a recognizable upside. 

The unfortunate truth is, many habits that are ultimately self-destructive— smoking, eating unhealthy foods in unhealthy amounts, unrestrained substance use— are pleasurable. 

We are not wired to give up pleasure easily. 

This is ESPECIALLY true if we struggle with mood or anxiety disorders, or have had a traumatic past.

If we don’t have a lot of pleasure in our lives in the first place, and if we have brain chemistry that doesn’t make it easy to feel good, our brains are DEFINITELY going to fight to hang on to the pleasure we DO have in our lives. 

For many of us, that means self-defeating behaviors. 

It’s true that, in the long term, if we want to crawl OUT of that hole of usually-feeing-bad, we need to give up those self-defeating behaviors…but our brains don’t often want to hear about the long term. 

They’re preoccupied with the here-and-now, specifically the balance of feeling good or bad in the here-and-now. 

Why, our brains will quite reasonably ask us, should we give up this behavior pattern that actually gives us SOME pleasure in a world in which pleasure is hard to come by…all so we can MAYBE experience some pleasure eventually, in the long term? 

Nah, our brains will usually say. We’re going to stick with the behavior we KNOW will give us pleasure in the here-and-now. The long term can take care of itself. 

This is what we’re up against when we’re trying to change a behavior pattern. 

So we need to think in terms of salesmanship. 

We need to think in terms of the VERY REAL upside to whatever NEW behavior pattern we’re trying to adopt. 

We can’t just get obsessed with the pleasure we’re giving up. 

If all we think about is how much of a bummer it is that we won’t be able to smoke anymore, or we won’t be able to eat what we want when we want, or we won’t be able to get high anymore— if we don’t then transition into thinking about a new, replacement behavior that will lead to positive, potentially pleasurable experience that we WANT to feel…well, the behavior change just isn’t going to stick. 

We need to get very clear on the benefits we’re chasing. 

We need to get very clear on the UPSIDE of change. 

If that upside is in the distant future, we need to use the tools of visualization and self-talk to bring that upside into the present moment, so we can viscerally experience a “preview of coming attractions.” 

I get so dismayed by people who try to diet, and count on “willpower” to get them through. 

People who try to quit smoking, counting on “willpower.” 

People who try to swear off bad relationships or quit using drugs, and their only plan is “willpower.” 

“Willpower,” if it even exists, is vastly overrated. 

What you NEED is a vivid, realistic picture in your head of the GOOD STUFF that can and will come from this behavior change. 

What you need is LISTS of the BENEFITS of the new behavior pattern, that you can review and review and review and memorize. 

What you need to do, in short, is sell yourself on how AWESOME this change is going to be. 

Then you need to get used to using those feelings of deprivation and loss that are attached to the behavior you’re giving up as the trigger to review the benefits of the new behavior. 

If all you’re focused on in changing a behavior is deprivation and loss, it’s just not going to stick. 

Focus on upsides. Focus on benefits. Focus on what you eventual victory over this behavior pattern will look and feel like. 

Focus on these again, and again, and again, and again. 


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