Printer-friendly version

The Secret Rule of Changing Anything

By Leo Babauta.

I’ve learned a lot about changing habits over the years, and have taught thousands of people how to do it.

The hardest habits to change, by far, are the ones people can’t seem to control. They want to change, but can’t seem to find the “willpower” (a term I don’t believe in).

For me, some of the things that seemed out of my control: smoking, eating junk food, overeating during social occasions, procrastination, anger, patience, negative thoughts.

I learned one little secret that allowed me to change it all:

When you are aware, you can change it.

OK, don’t roll your eyes and stop reading yet. That secret might seem obvious to some, or too simplistic. So let’s go a bit deeper.

When we have urges to eat something we know is bad for us, we often give in. But is it that simple? The truth is that our mind is actually rationalizing why we should just eat that cake, why it’s too hard to not eat it, why it isn’t that bad to eat it. It asks why we’re putting ourselves through pain, why can’t we let ourselves just live, and don’t we deserve that treat?

All of this happens without our noticing, usually. It’s quiet, in the background of our consciousness, but it’s there. And it’s incredibly powerful. It’s even more powerful when we’re not aware it’s happening.

It beats us all the time — not just with eating, but with anything we try to do and end up quitting, caving in, doing it despite our best efforts.

How can we defeat this powerful force — our own mind?

Awareness is the key. It’s the start.

1. Start by becoming aware. Become an observer. Start listening to your self talk, observe what your mind does. Pay attention. It’s happening all the time. Meditation helps with this. I also learned through running — by not taking along an iPod, I run in silence, and have nothing to do but watch nature and listen to my mind.

2. Don’t act. Your mind will urge you to eat that cake (“Just a bite!”) or smoke that cigarette or stop running or procrastinate. Listen to what your mind is saying, but don’t act on those instructions. Just sit still (mentally) and watch and listen.

3. Let it pass. The urge to smoke, eat, procrastinate, or quit running … it will pass. It’s temporary. Usually it only lasts a minute or two. Breathe, and let it pass.

4. Beat the rationalizations. You can actively argue with your mind. When it says, “One little bite won’t hurt!”, you should point to your gut and say, “Yeah, that’s what you said all those other times, and now I’m fat!” When it says, “Why are you putting yourself through this pain?”, you should say, “It’s painful to be unhealthy, and it’s only painful to avoid the cake if you look at it as a sacrifice — instead, it can be a joy to embrace healthy and delicious foods, and fitness!”

There are lots of times when “willpower” fails us. These are the times we need to become aware of our minds.

When we are aware, we can change it. This is a small secret, but it’s life changing. It changed my life, because I can now change anything. I watch, and I wait, and I beat it. You can too.

Said another guy:

I've been following a mindfulness program to stop my thoughts running at a thousand miles and hour. I have to say this has been excellent and I thoroughly recommend it for anyone ("Mindfulness" by Williams and Pellman). I've had bad days and very bad days, but this has helped me control my anxiety to ensure it doesn't spiral out of control. Interestingly the bad days are good learning points, they point to instances in life where I'm still letting my mind run away with itself.


I have been practicing mindfulness for the past twenty years, and can attest to its benefits as evidenced in my own life. But there is significant object data in support of mindfulness as well. In the last few decades there has been an explosion of research on mindfulness. One area in which it has been shown to be incredibly effective is with addictive and compulsive behaviors. The urge surfing technique mentioned above has been used with people addicted to all kinds of substances and addictive behavior.
Although it is easy to dismiss at first glance as new-age mumbo jumbo, the mechanism of change
is actually quite simple. It is simply a matter of recognizing that the urge is merely a mental event, and that as such, it cannot exert any control over you. In other words, a thought is just a thought.