Breaking habits 1 minute at a time

We often complain about our attention drifting, but the fact that we don’t hold our attention in an unrelenting way turns out to have an advantage when it comes to managing our cravings.

When we’re hungry, craving a coffee or cigarette; or finding ourselves trolling the internet at dawn searching for an angry fix, our attention for those cravings ebbs and flows.

If you skip breakfast you can perceive yourself hungry all morning. In fact, those cravings peak and subside. If the craving doesn’t get addressed, it subsides. When it peaks again, the intensity goes up some, and then subsides. Predictably, it peaks again higher and sooner, then subsides. After a few cycles of this, counterintuitively, the peaks begin to diminish and get farther apart.

In short, our attention for craving something drifts, and the upside of this attention drifting -- we get some relief from the cravings.

What makes our cravings appear constant is that when the craving goes away, our attention turns elsewhere. We’re intensely conscious of the craving. Of the relief, not so much.

Here’s how to resist giving in to the craving.

When that craving occurs, recognize you don’t need to resist for hours, often it's just a minute. Just commit to getting through those minutes.

When we stop surrendering to a craving, over time, it can extinguish. This is the necessary process to break a habit.

By contrast, when a craving is in support of an existential threat like hunger or thirst, it will go into remission, but will eventually roar back.

It’s not easy: our reward systems are insidious, they push cravings intermittently to find the weaknesses in our defenses. Try to remember the craving’s duration is short. Dig in your fingernails and hold on.

Important to note: serious addiction is often the result of the craving for a substance hijacking our existential threat response. This requires specialized treatment and should not be confused with breaking a habit. Addictions don’t yield to a simple formula of self-awareness combined with self-discipline the way an ordinary habit does.

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