How Curse Words Can Strengthen Your Willpower [30DHC]

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Recently, I've done a lot of reading on the principles of habit development.

One book that stands out is Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.

What I like about this book is the exhaustive look into our willpower and how it affects your ability to stick to new habits.

Specifically, the authors prove that willpower is a finite resource.  So as you draw from your willpower throughout the day, your ability to handle “temptation” weakens.  Often, this leads to a phenomenon called ego depletion where it gets harder to stick with a habit change.

While I highly recommend reading all of Willpower, I feel there is one concept that stands out.  What Baumeister talks about is the idea of “willpower stamina.”  Basically, it is possible to improve your willpower if regularly “exercise” it.

Simply pick something that you do subconsciously, and then try to catch yourself every time you’re doing it.  He includes examples like: “trying not to slouch,” “not using certain speech habits (saying ‘like' or ‘umm'),” or “trying to do routine tasks with your non-dominant hand.”  If you do this for awhile, you'll improve willpower and have a stronger capacity to stick to habit changes.

So for the seventh month (July 2013) of the 30 Day Habit Challenge (30DHC), I decided to put this concept into action.  For the whole month, I decided to NOT use curse words in order to see if it strengthened my willpower.

Here’s how it went.

30DHC – Stop Using Curse Words

Here’s an overview of this month's habit challenge:

#1 – Reason Why

Like I mentioned in the intro, willpower can be strengthened by making a change to an action you do subconsciously.  Probably one of the worst subconscious habits I do is cursing.  While I'm good at not swearing in my writing, I definitely use colorful words when I'm around friends and family.

While this habit has never been a major problem, it's still the first thing I thought of when I read that section in Willpower.  I figured if I could limit my usage of curse words for a whole month, I'd become better at sticking with a new habit.

#2 – Description

I had a unique challenge for July's 30DHC… I was in Greece for the entire month.  So I needed a challenge that I could do everywhere and didn't rely on the fairly rigid schedule that I normally follow.

From my research, I found that the one way to break a habit is to create a “monetary penalty” whenever you break it.  In this case, I wanted to set up something that I would really dread.  So I came up with a simple solution:

I will pay $1 for every curse word.  This money will go to a clothes shopping trip with my girlfriend where I have to pretend to enjoy myself.

Maybe it's a guy thing, but I can't stand sitting there and watching girls try on 20 different outfits before picking one.  By paying a dollar per curse word, I knew this challenge would fund an activity that I found to be unpleasant.  Talk about a great incentive to stick to a habit!

My plan was simple:

  1. I would be in Greece with my girlfriend for all of July
  2. Whenever she caught me cursing it would cost $1
  3. At the end of the month, the money would fund a clothes shopping trip

Sounds simple, right?

Well, there was one obstacle I didn't think of…

#3 – Obstacles

Okay, I'm a Jersey guy.

While I might not look like I'm from the cast of The Jersey Shore, I still have that attitude–especially when I'm driving.

The obstacle I didn't consider was the TON of driving we planned for Greece.  And if you've ever driven in Greece, then you know that the drivers are pretty aggressive.  The “rules of the road” are more like suggestions.  There, it's perfectly normal to be clipping along at 110 KPH (68 MPH) and see someone hang off your bumper flashing their headlights.

From my experience, aggressive driving and a Jersey attitude don't mix well.  Let's just say there were many cultural exchanges, often of the “one-finger” variety.

#4 – Results

All kidding aside, I loved Greece.  Everyone I met (in person) was warm and welcoming.  But, I found the driving experience to be frustrating, especially when I'm trying to NOT use swear words.

The results?

I cursed 85 times in July.

Not good at all because that's an $85 shopping trip.  Since my girlfriend likes to look for bargains, I envision a long afternoon with me saying: “Oh, honey that looks great!” a few hundred times.

The one positive outcome from this experience is the “number of incidents” went down as the month progressed.  On those first few days, I must have cursed 30 times.  But, after awhile I caught myself and was able to better control what I said.  So, in a way, my willpower improved from this challenge.

#5 – Verdict

Ditch it!

While I like the idea of strengthening willpower, I don't want to stop cursing. In life, some things are best described using a simple four-letter word.

While I might attempt another willpower exercise in the future, I think I'll try something else.

How to Strengthen Your Willpower

I encourage you to try your own willpower exercise.  While you don't have to do it for a whole month, I recommend trying this challenge for a week or so.  For instance, you could try one of the following:

  • Not slouching in your chair for an hour
  • Not using swear words or certain phrases (“like” or “ummm”)
  • Do routine things (like the dishes) with your opposite hand

Try one of these actions from time to time and you'll find it's possible to strengthen willpower.  Odds are, you won't be successful all the time.  But, these attempts will make you mentally tougher.  And it will have a carryover effect the next time you want to resist the temptation from that bowl of ice cream that's calling you.

9 thoughts on “How Curse Words Can Strengthen Your Willpower [30DHC]”

  1. Interesting experiment, Scott!

    I have tried using my non-dominant hand for some activities (brushing my teeth…controlling the mouse etc). In the end, I kind of liked using my non-dominant hand. It was refreshing 😉

    I have also tried not using swear words – I am still going through with it. I am having great success with it (then again, I am not going anywhere right now. Since I am not taking any classes this semester, I am at home most of the time. And there is not much of a need for cursing. But, I do occasionally do it, especially when I go through pain. For some reason, cursing alleviates the pain.

    I haven’t read Willpower yet (it has been in my reading list for a while now – about 6 months. I need to go get the book. Thanks for reminding me :D).

    • Jeevan,

      The non-dominant hand thing is pretty cool. It is something you really have to work on because it is SO unnatural at first. But this does make it really good to try and built willpower. It is also a great way to improve co-ordination, something I sometimes lack. MAybe I should try this as an upcoming 30 day challenge, myself!

      Anyway, willpower is one of the really cool books. I think certainly one of the top 10 books on changing habits, so you will hear me mention it again on here. 🙂

      Have a great weekend, Jeevan


  2. “From the fruit of the mouth is a stomach filled, it is the yield of the lips that gives contentment. Death and life are in the gift of the tongue, those who indulge it must eat the fruit it yields.” Prov. 18: 20-21
    To manage your language is to manage yourself and ultimately to manage your life.
    You’ve picked just a too hard topic for willpower training S.J.! Try something easeir next time.
    Having said that, I’ve just started today (there are no coincidents in the universe) my Ultimate Silence Challenge. I’m trying to don’t speak for the whole day. If I have to open my mouth I have first to say a 3 words prayer in my mind, to be mindful of what I’m saying.
    Keep your fingers crossed for me!

    • Certainly, keeping my fingers crossed for you Michal. I am not the MOST talkative person in real life -yet not talking for an entire day would be rough. I wonder how those Monks who have the vows of silence do it for YEARS. That is some discipline. Good luck to you!

  3. Another great post S.J. I’ve read before about willpower being finite. It means you have to pick and choose where you want to focus your will power.

    I liked how you tied a punishment to cursing, but which do you think is more useful in building habits, negative consequences for the wrong actions, or positive rewards when you DON’T do the wrong thing. Have you seen more success with one or the other?

    • Tony,

      I think it really depends on variables, specifically the person and their temperament and the habit that is trying to be changed. I have seen both work, but I would say if BOTH help you, using both is best, because it simply gives you more levers to work with.

  4. “I will pay $1 for every curse word. This money will go to a clothes shopping trip with my girlfriend where I have to pretend to enjoy myself.”

    I loved this! Totally my kind of humour!

    I recently did my own 30 day challenge, to improve my health and to get rid of my laziness and these things work a treat.

    For an article I wrote for, I looked into research that suggested using your non dominant hand for 2 weeks (I think) actually reduced anger in volatile individuals. Interesting stuff!

    • Jamie,

      Glad you liked the humor! 😉

      I have heard good things about the non-dominant hand thing too. It is a tough one that takes a lot of focus, and has all sorts of small mind benefits. Willpower takes work, and excludes a lot of other negative BS.

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