How to Quit Bad Habits Right Now Using “Friction”
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I run a newsletter on productivity and write about productivity. It’s something I like to talk with other people, understand how they work and design their lives. I’m fascinated by why we do what we do, how we do it and how we can change it.
To build new habits, a simple hack is to structure your environment in a way that makes it easier to start the desired habit. Want to start running in the morning? Put your running shoes next to the bed or sleep in your workout clothes.
But what about the opposite? Can you remove bad habits by making it harder to do them?
When friends seek me for advice on how to quit a bad habit, no matter what they want to quit, it always boils down to the same:
To remove a bad habit, make it so hard to do that even thinking about starting it leaves you exhausted.
Let’s say you want to check Facebook. For that, you need to go to a specific computer store, needing to walk 10 minutes (no other way of transportation possible) and there might be a line. The browsing costs $10. Oh, and you can only use it for 1 minute every day.
I’m pretty sure you know what would happen…
You would quit using Facebook, duh! But why? The app didn’t change, neither did the dopamine rush. But the downsides are enormous: walking ten minutes, waiting in line, and a massive dollar cost for one minute of pleasure. Totally not worth it.
Too much “friction”…
How Friction Can Save Your Life
In tech, friction refers to the steps a customer needs to take to perform a certain action. Too many steps and your funnel starts to leak.
Companies aim for a frictionless experience. Think auto-logins and 1-click checkout with PayPal. One click and you are done. What a world to live in!
You, on the other hand, want to add the amount of red tape.
This is crucial: the harder it is to perform a habit, the less you will want to do it. You want it to be as frictionful (yes, that’s a made up word) as possible.
You probably already do this for things you dislike, such as annoying people/coworkers (not replying to their messages/emails) or cooking (eating out or ordering in).
The hard part is quitting things you love.
Follow these 2 steps to remove bad habits from your life:
Step 1: Know the Vice
Grab a piece of paper and write down all the habits that you think are unhealthy and want to get rid off. Once you have finished, rank them in order.
Now start with number #1. Forget the rest for now, just focus on removing that first addiction. Once you are “clean” you can move on to number #2. This is crucial:
Don’t try to remove all your addictions at the same time. You’ll probably fail and feel even worse. Just pick one vice.
In general, addictions deprive you of time or money. Very few fall outside of these two categories.
Find out which one your habits are depriving you off. This is key to get the next step right.
Step 2: Add 10x Friction
Let’s add layers of “friction” to your vices to make it harder for yourself to keep doing them.
If it’s time: find ways to take 10x the time it would normally take you to perform the habit. For example: if you to watch Netflix, change your password to something random with 20 characters and write it down on a piece of paper. Every time you want to watch it, you will need to enter the password manually.
If it’s money, make your habit 10x more expensive. If you want to stop smoking, every time you buy a pack of cigarettes, put 10x the price of it in a jar.
Find the specific layers of “friction” for your addictions and start applying them. If you still haven’t kicked your vices, keep adding friction of time, money, or both.
Then it’s up to you to be truthful to yourself and not cheat.
How to Remove the Main Addictions
We are all different and yet, most of us are guilty of being addicted to the same things: social media, web browsing, coffee, shopping and binge eating are the top 5.
Here are some recommendations on to remove those habits by adding layers of “friction”.
#1 Social Media
- Remove all apps from your phone. Trust me, you’ll survive
- Change your passwords to something impossible to remember (here’s a random password generator). Save them in a document/cloud
- Install a newsfeed burner on your computer on Facebook (I use this one)
- Log out after each session. No excuses
Now, to check social media:
- Phone: through the browser, but since you log out every time you must retrieve your password
- Computer: you have to log in every time and there’s no newsfeed to see (at least on Facebook)
Here’s a confession: I find myself opening Facebook on my phone a dozen times a day. That’s a very hard habit to break. But since I never know my password and don’t want to waste 10 minutes retrieving it, I never actually log in.
The nuclear option? Delete your accounts. I did it for everything except Facebook in my personal life.
Guess what? The world didn’t come to an end ;)
#2 Web Browsing
- Use Time Tracker to figure where you spend most of your web browsing. Knowing the time-wasters is the first step
- Remove the Bookmarks bar. Next time you want to browse Reddit you’ll have to manually type it
- If you use the Pomodoro Productivity to work, use Strict Workflow to disable distracting websites while on a 25-minute sprint
- Nuclear option: blacklist websites that aren’t essential for work. In Mac use SelfControl; in Windows Cold Turkey; in Chrome StayFocusd; in Firefox use LeechBlock
The internet is one big wonderful yet messy place. If you don’t use wisely, you end up in rabbit holes.
When you are working, make sure you are truly focused at work. Use your leisure time to use the internet as a distraction and hobby.
- Sell, donate or throw away your coffee maker at home. If you want coffee, you’ll need to go outside (again, you’ll survive)
- Get tea and put it next to coffee. If you use capsules, put tea bags next to them. I recommend green tea to start and then switch to white teas
- Don’t drink sodas, as most of them are caffeinated. If it’s not an easy task (your office has them), place water or tea next to them as a reminder
- If you must drink coffee, always drink decaf and no more than one per day
- Don’t go to a Starbucks or other coffee shops. Duh!
The easiest way to kick your coffee addiction is to stop drinking it at regular times. For me, this would mean an hour after getting up and after lunch.
Find the times of the day that you always drink coffee and tackle those first.
- Never buy an item on the first impulse. If you find yourself attracted, write it down on a piece of paper or phone. Only get it if the urge is still strong a week later
- Unsubscribe from all newsletters with “discounts” and “special offers”. Do it now. Just as alcoholics don’t “hang out” in bars, you are not “just browsing” on those emails. Do it now
- Same for the physical life: don’t go to the mall to buy something you can get somewhere else. Buying a soda from a vending machine is just fine. Don’t trust yourself. No, you are not that strong
- Don’t carry credit cards in your wallet. Leave them in a drawer at home instead. No 1-click purchase with PayPal and no using credit cards online. If possible mail checks (if you do mail checks, then you probably really want it)
- The nuclear option: only carry cash with you at all times, and not a lot of it
Shopping doesn’t just mean the traditional sense of buying clothes and other stuff. It means all the spending you do in your day-to-day life.
With many apps having auto-billing these days (think Uber), it’s even harder to resist the urge to spend. For those, you can make yourself insert your card every time you need to use them.
Controlling your expenses goes a long way to be wealthier in the long run.
#5 Binge Eating
- Cut the problem from the root: don’t even buy snacks at the supermarket. If you find yourself with a big bag of popcorn (guilty!) at the counter, there’s still time to leave it at the counter (yes, slightly embarrassing, but worth it). If you are really craving something, you need to go outside to get it
- Switch your meals to defaults by eating the same things over and over again. See The Slow Carb Diet (pro tip: stay away from cheat days)
- Switch unhealthy snacks with healthy ones. Trade those Pringles for nuts, for example
- Don’t go to fast-food restaurants. Again, duh!
Eating healthier is a process in itself. It might take time to switch habits that you’ve built for years but it’s totally worth it.
You’ll have more energy and feel better about yourself.
If you still find yourself addicted, keep adding layers of “frictions” until the downsides are too big.
Add time or money “frictions” so it’s almost impossible to continue doing your unhealthy habits.
Your body, mind, and wallet will thank you.