Suppose that you find yourself on a desert Island. It’s pretty good there at first. There’s sun and surf and no-one to bother you. It’s a little cold and creepy at night, but you soon get used to it, and build yourself a shelter. And it’s all okay.
Until it’s not quite as okay anymore.
Eventually you start to get a little sick of fruit for every meal. And the cloud of mosquitoes that uses you as their only food source gets a little old. But, it’s okay. This is your island. It’s where you chose to be. It has a lot of good things going for it. It would all be great if you could talk to someone sometimes.
Then comes the day when you notice that your sunburn is starting to look a little strange, and you wish you could look up skin cancer on the internet. And while you are thinking about that, you start to also get a bit curious about what kind of malnutrition comes from eating only fruit. And you’re getting more and more concerned about your friends and family back home. And the constant sound of the surf is turning into a kind of torture, and all the great things about being there are getting less and less appealing.
But, how are you supposed to get to the mainland? Which way is it? Do you have the strength to swim that far? Or will you need a raft? And how do you even build a raft? It’s a big problem.
So, why am I talking about desert islands? Because having a strong habit is a bit like being on a desert island. You went there for reasons that seemed good at the time. And, at first, it was fairly easy to convince yourself that you really liked it there. Slowly, you fell out of love with it. And some days you truly hate it. But getting away seems almost impossible.
There is a big important theory in psychology called the Transtheoretical Model of Change. A couple of researchers called Prochaska and DiClemente suggested it back in 1983, and it still stands as the clearest picture we have of what it takes to really change. They divide the process into 5 stages. The first is Precontemplation (or, “Not even thinking about changing yet”). This is like the honeymoon period with the habit, when it all seems so good. The substance or action you chose is doing what you wanted it to. It’s dulling your pain or reducing your anxiety or making you feel in control, or giving you a break from reality.
The other stages are Contemplation, Preparation, Action and Maintenance. But guess which one I think is the most interesting and important?
Nope, not Action. I mean, of course you have to take action to change. But Action only works if you get the Preparation stage right. This is the time when it looks like nothing is happening. But you are very busy internally.
If you are preparing to leave an island, you are building a raft, and figuring out which way the mainland is, and gathering your strength by focussing your mind on how much you hate the island, and how much better life will be on the mainland.
So, what would preparation look like for leaving your particular island? What kind of raft do you need to build? Is it a group of supportive people who know what you’re going through and want to see you succeed? Is it a visit to your doctor to get some medical assessment and resources? Is it a visit to a counsellor? (Of course I think this is a good idea 😉 Is it research about the costs of what you’ve been doing, and the measures you could take to fulfill your needs without your habit?
Do you know where your mainland is? What could life without your habit offer you? How are you going to get there? Do you need help navigating this, or can you just stop on your own?
Have you built your strength by changing the way you think about your habit? You might want to spend some time really noticing how bad it makes you feel, and how it never actually gives you the payoff it promised at first.
This preparation is so important, because it gives you the power you will need to overcome your desire to turn back.
Many people will tell you that if you have a habit that is harming you, you just have to quit right now. But I’m here to say that the key is to start reducing the harm you are doing yourself as soon as you can, but take the time you need to be prepared to stop. It’s risky to just dive randomly into the waves and start swimming. Remember, the goal is to survive, and make it to a happy new life on the mainland.