Why do people fail to change their habits? Why do they succeed? A complicated question, to which I will confidently offer some simple observations.

"Changing your habits" can mean a lot of things. Merely saying "I will change my habits" is vague, and doomed to failure. (The "I would simply" meme comes to mind.) Some further breakdown of the phrase "changing your habits" is warranted. There are different types of "change". Each is mechanically different, and should be thought of as a distinct tool in your personal development toolbox. You don't want to use a wrench when you need a screwdriver.

The toolbox:

  • REMOVING an unwanted habit
  • ADDING a wanted habit
  • REPLACING an existing habit with a new habit

Let's consider someone, we'll call him "Sam", whose goal is to improve his health. We will assume Sam is the "standard American" in every regard. Standard American diet. Standard American exercise. Standard American willpower. Sam decides that he wants to become something more than standard. For each of these habit-changing tools, when should Sam NOT apply it? When SHOULD Sam apply it?

REMOVAL should never be applied when it would create a "habit vacuum". Let's suppose Sam has an ice cream addiction. If he resolves to himself, "I will stop eating ice cream," he has done nothing to stop himself from merely replacing the ice cream habit with some other unwanted food habit. If he merely attempts to "willpower his way through" not having his daily ice cream with no other modifications to his lifestyle, the likeliest outcome is that he will pick up some other junk food habit. Most people do not have vast untapped reserves of willpower that they aren't using, and Sam is no different here. A much better strategy for Sam would be REPLACEMENT - he can stop eating ice cream, but still satisfy his sweet tooth with a bowl of mixed berries.

When is REMOVAL advisable? Whenever there is no clear risk of a removed habit leaving a vacuum. For instance, if Sam installs a kitchen water filter, he has removed fluoride and other particulates from his drinking water, but clearly he hasn't created any kind of a vacuum that demands to be filled. Unless he REALLY loves the antichrist, he will never seek to remediate his new fluoride-free lifestyle.

Though generally a worthy goal, ADDING good habits is not without pitfalls. There are psychological traps to be avoided. In the face of overwhelming bad habits, one small good habit might achieve nothing, while providing a false sense of "I did something". Sam doesn't gain much by retaining his Standard American Diet and merely adding a daily green juice to it. (Assuming that green juices are even a net positive - research dietary oxalates!) ADDING is advisable when it isn't pissing in the wind - when ADDING something is so obviously beneficial that the positive impact cannot be denied. If Sam works out zero days a week, he will see tremendous health benefits from working out four days a week.

REPLACEMENT carries no real downside. This is the workhorse strategy of genuine self-improvement. With REPLACEMENT, a Fabian war can be waged between the old self and the slightly better new self. If done correctly, and slowly, there is never a vacuum, and there is never a major shortage of willpower. If Sam wants to clean up his life, he can plan a "death of a thousand cuts" for his bad habits, carefully ensuring that he never overreaches or makes himself miserable. First, Sam can replace his Krispy Kreme donut-flavored coffee creamer with whole milk. Second, instead of doomscrolling on Twitter to fall asleep, he can read a book to fall asleep. And so on, and so on. After a few weeks, months, and years of this kind of consistent change, Sam is unrecognizable, and he never had to drain his willpower to do it.

We have a finite amount of time and energy to better ourselves, dear Boyz Town reader, and I wish for all of us to not only improve, but to do so smartly and efficiently. These concepts have been useful in my personal progress, and I hope they provide some utility in yours.

God bless, now go kick some ass.