The Monk Method of Changing Habits

Is there a bad habit you want to change? Have you struggled with changing it? The importance of habits cannot be understated. As F.M. Alexander said,

"People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures."

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I recently listened to Jay Shetty (author of Think Like a Monk) talk about how to break bad habits in this podcast, and I was pleasantly surprised by his monk method. Although I researched habits in the past and even successfully changed some bad habits, I found Jay Shetty's advice to be very insightful. He gives a 7-step process:

  1. Acknowledge that the bad habit served you well at one point

  2. Understand your motivation and move up the motivation ladder

  3. Know every single trigger

  4. Remove the triggers that you can

  5. Create if-then rules for the triggers you cannot remove

  6. Have someone you can call if you're about to fail

  7. Replace lower tastes with higher tastes

Specially, I found step 1, step 2, and step 7 to be quite unique.


The 7-Step Habit Change Process


Step 1: Acknowledge that the bad habit served you well at one point

When we realize a bad habit is hurting us, we might try to push it away with a lot of force. But that pushing away is still a form of attachment; our hand is still on it. Hating something and liking something are both a form of attachment; they are two sides of the same coin. If we can acknowledge that this behavior was useful for me at one point in the past, but it no longer serves me now, then we can gently open our palms and let it go.

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For example, I used to play a lot of video games. I used to feel bad about wasting so much time in the past on video games. But that negative emotion is still a form of attachment, and attachment makes us unhappy and stressed. When I am stressed, I am more likely to do bad habits like playing video games.


After hearing Jay's advice, I realized that video games served me well when I had a lot of free time and didn't know any better ways to use my time. Now that I know better, I should let go of that past habit just like letting go of my old clothes that are too small for me now. It is a natural and relieving feeling, not a forceful feeling.


Step 2: Understand your motivation and move up the motivation ladder

In his book Think Like a Monk, Jay explains that we are motivated by four motivations: fear, desire, duty, and love. Fear is the lowest, love is the highest. It is hard for us to jump from fear to love, so we need to move up the ladder one step at a time.


Jay gives the example of himself trying to eat healthier. He loves fried foods. But he learned how harmful fried foods are. That gave him fear. Then he desired visible results, so that motivated him to keep eat healthier. Then he thought about his duty to his family to be healthy. Then he thought about how much he loves his family and his body and how eating healthy is a way to show them love.

Step 3: Know every single trigger.

Jay gives the analogy of playing Mario. The first few times you play, you lose because you get caught by traps. As you keep trying, you take note of every single trap along the way to your goal. Then you can finally succeed by avoiding or dodging all the traps. The same is true for our bad habits. We all have triggers for our bad habits. We need to write down every single one.

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For example, Jay realized a common trigger for him was getting hungry at the studio. Then he would just eat whatever unhealthy snacks were available. For me, I often played video games as a way to take a break after doing some work. Another trigger was stress. Once we are clear about our triggers, then we can avoid or dodge them.


Step 4: Remove the triggers that you can

For example, Jay and his wife changed the snack drawer in their home to only have healthy snacks. That way whenever he wanted a snack, it was impossible for him to eat anything unhealthy. Jay also gave the example of a friend who was trying to quit pornography, and that person blocked all the websites on his computer and phone, making it nearly impossible for him to commit the bad behavior.


Step 5: Create if-then rules for triggers that you cannot remove

For example, Jay decided to carry about a packet of dried dates and nuts. If he gets hungry at the studio, he would eat that healthy snack instead of anything unhealthy available at the studio.

For me, I decided that if I felt the urge to play some video games, I would go watch an educational video about improving my virtues. Usually, I would get very interested in the video and the urge to play video games goes away. Afterwards, I feel a long-lasting sense of happiness that I spent my time well, rather than the temporary pleasure of gaming that results in guilt after.

Step 6: Have someone you can call if you're about to fail

This one is really interesting and useful. Essentially, calling that person helps to break our habit cycle. They can intervene and remind us of our goal and why we want to quit that bad habit. The fact that they gave us a pep talk will also motivate us to not disappoint them.

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Step 7: Replace lower tastes with higher tastes

I really like the phrasing of this. The phrasing other people use is to replace a bad habit with a healthier habit. But often times, people feel like the healthier habit is not as enjoyable as the bad habit. However, we should replace the bad habit with a higher taste.

For example, playing video games is a low taste. Reading literature is a higher taste. Although at first it doesn't seem as enjoyable as playing video games, after I got accustomed to the new taste, I like it a lot better than the lower taste. Now, I would rather read and write over play video games. I have learned to seek meaningful joy over mindless entertainment.


Another example is healthier snacks. I used to crave sweets like candy and chocolate. Then I replaced it with sweet dates and nuts. At first, these didn't give me the same pleasure high as unhealthy snacks, but over time, I've come to prefer and enjoy the healthier snacks more. I became accustomed to the higher tastes and don't have any desire to return to the lower tastes.


Ending Remarks

It takes around 10 weeks (2.5 months) to change a habit, so we need to be patient. Sometimes, people will say "In the new year, I'm going to stop that bad habit." But going from 100 to 0 is not realistic. A better goal would be to goal from 100 to 90, and then change slowly but steadily.

For a deeper reading on changing habits, check out this article: How to Build Healthy Habits that Stick and Break Bad Ones.


Changing our bad habits isn't easy, but it is one of the most worthwhile things we can do in our life. As Will Durant said,

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

What habit will you try to improve?

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