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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:
- I would be in Greece with my girlfriend for all of July
- Whenever she caught me cursing it would cost $1
- 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.
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
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:
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.