Often, when we try to change a habit, we’re asking something demanding of ourselves.
Sometimes, we want to push ourselves—to go to sleep earlier, go for a daily walk, cook more, read to our kids every night.
Sometimes, we want to deprive ourselves—to give up fast food, to stop watching TV after 9 pm, to stop drinking caffeine.
As I explore in Better Than Before, my book about habit change, we really, really don’t like to deprive ourselves.
Here’s one simple way to make deprivation easier: Turn deprivation into indulgence.
If you’ve decided to deprive yourself of something because you know that you’ll be happier and healthier without it, you’ve made a very helpful choice.
So, if you can afford it, you might throw a little money at the problem, to make it easier to follow through.
For instance, last year, a friend was planning to do Dry January, and she knew it would be tough for her. And not only that—she was actually hoping that Dry January would help her to drink less in the future. She didn’t want to give up alcohol altogether, but she wanted to cut back.
So she decided to use Dry January as an occasion of pleasure, interest, beauty, and ritual.
First, she did a lot of enjoyable research, to figure out what she wanted to try.
Then she divided her bar into Mocktails and Cocktails. She bought new, specialized glassware, like coupe glasses, margarita glasses, and martini glasses.
She got lots of interesting mixers along with items like ginger and lemon, fancy salts—anything she could find to elevate the mocktail.
She invited friends to join her in rounds of taste tests to evaluate different alcohol-free brands and mocktail combinations.
If you’re interested, here are some of her recommendations:
By turning Dry January into a fun project that involved collecting, tasting, and spending time with friends, she was able to build an indulgent, delightful atmosphere around something that she knew would be taxing.
“It felt more life-affirming,” she told me, “so it was easier to stick to it.”
She was able to elevate her experience in many ways:
- she made her consumption more intentional and mindful
- with her husband, she created a nightly ritual of fixing a mocktail that they both enjoyed
- she had fun with her friends as they compared concoctions
- she used her creativity to fashion her own specialty drinks
So, while she did make many purchases, she wasn’t just buying stuff—she elevated experience with her mindful attention, by engaging with other people, and by learning and creating.
She turned deprivation into indulgence for Dry January, but this approach could work for many aims.
Want to give up coffee? A friend said, “I had to give up coffee, even though I love it, because it made me jittery. Now I let myself buy any herbal teas, cups, or tea-making paraphernalia that I want, and I drink tea whenever I want. I keep everything nicely organized in a special cupboard, and my tea-drinking feels very elevated.”
Want to stop eating out so much? Splurge on expensive or unusual ingredients, fine tools, gorgeous cookbooks.
Want to “Go Outside 23 in 23?” and spend 23 minutes outside every day in 2023? Perhaps this aim seems like it will be demanding—if, say, you’ll be depriving yourself of some comfy TV-watching time.
If so, identify ways to make it feel indulgent. Maybe you buy a wonderful coat or scarf that you love to wear. Maybe you buy a membership to the local botanical garden so you can visit every day for free. Maybe you buy an outdoor chair so you can sit in comfort while you drink your coffee outside, as well as a new set of binoculars so you can watch the birds.
Whatever the deprivation, when you’re thinking, “I can’t have this,” you can answer, “but I get to have that.”
While this approach might seem self-indulgent, if we’re taking steps to create a habit that will add greatly to our happiness, that’s a good place to spend money. And, of course, it’s not enough just to buy the stuff; we must put it to good use. Real enjoyment is not passive or idle.
Another way to think about indulgence and deprivation is to ask yourself, “Am I a ‘no’ resolver or a ‘yes’ resolver?”
Some people respond well to “no.” I actually do better with “no” resolutions; this may be related to the abstainer vs. moderator split—I’m such an abstainer, myself.
Some people, however, resent negative resolutions and want to say “yes” to themselves. They dislike hearing “don’t” or “stop.” If you’re a “yes” resolver, you might find it especially useful to turn deprivation into indulgence; it’s a way to re-frame a “no” as a “yes.”
There’s no one right way to make a resolution, but it’s important to know what works for you. As always, the secret is to know your own nature. (Here are more know-yourself-better questions to help you keep a habit.)
Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, so it’s worth the effort to cultivate habits that make us happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.