There is a legend of a brave adventurer who will arise one day. They start from humble beginnings, with no special powers. But by completing heroic quests, quickly they develop more strength than anyone could possibly imagine. They eliminate all of their bad habits forever and develop Absolute Willpower, rising above even the Gods themselves.
Could you be the adventurer foreseen in the great myths of old? Will you take up the challenge? Will you become the hero of your own story? If you play the game of Self-Control Quest, you will undoubtedly level up your "character."
What you're getting into:
3,207 words, 12 minute read time
Quitting bad habits is hard and unfun.
Gamifying it can make it easier and more enjoyable.
We can start building self-trust by making and keeping tiny promises.
By bundling all bad habits together, we can prevent "substitute addictions."
We all have bad habits we want to stop. But conventional approaches to quitting bad habits run into two major issues:
Making big promises we can't yet keep.
Quitting something and replacing it with another bad habit.
Breaking Promises We Can't Yet Keep
Imagine you meet someone new. You have a lot in common, so you decide to get together Monday at 6pm. 6:15 rolls around and they are still nowhere to be found. Later they apologize ("It will never happen again!"). You reschedule for Wednesday at 6pm. Again they are a no show.
How many more times would you attempt to meet up before you decide this person's "word" is meaningless? You can't trust this person to do what they say they will. They say one thing and do another.
What do we say to ourselves when we are fed up with our own bad habits? "I'm never going to do [bad habit] again!" That's a big promise, probably too big for your current ability level. You say you will never do it again, but then you do it again the next day or the next week.
Breaking promises makes us unable to trust our own "word." Like that new untrustworthy friend, we lose faith in ourselves. We don't trust our promises to ourselves anymore. We may even give up on trying, and feel hopeless.
But there's a way out of this. If you're in a hole, stop digging. We can build on success by making smaller promises and keeping them. Don't double down when you're behind. Start building back up by lowering the challenge.
If you have $0 in the bank, you can start making tiny deposits of a dollar here and there. This will slowly build back your account balance. Similarly, you can build back your trust in yourself by making and keeping many tiny promises.
The bigger the promise, the worse it is if you break it. Bigger promises are also much harder to keep. Our willpower is not unlimited. Like a muscle, it requires some training. You don't go to the gym the first day and try to bench press 315lbs, you start lighter and work your way up. If we practice with smaller promises, and then progressively keep bigger and bigger ones, we can rapidly build our willpower muscles.
This is similar to a Role Playing Game (RPG), where you start off at Level 1 and get Experience Points (EXP) for completing quests. The quests start off very easy, and get progressively harder over time. This kind of achievement is addictive, which is why RPGs are a very popular form of entertainment. We can utilize this same principle to make quitting bad habits easy and fun.
Quitting Something and Replacing it With Another Bad Habit
Long ago, I had a Twitter addiction. One day I got so fed up with Twitter that I rage quit. The next day, I had a Facebook addiction instead. Years later I quit Facebook because it was too distracting, and within a few weeks I had a Reddit addiction.
I've never been addicted to alcohol. But some "recovering alcoholics" tell me that in meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), it is common to see people gorging on candy. In AA they call this a "substitute addiction." While it is certainly better to be hooked on candy than alcohol, it can also be yet another bad habit to try and eliminate.
In our current world, there is always another thing that could rope us in. If you quit one addictive video game, there are thousands more waiting to give you a dopamine fix. In fact, we only really have one reward system in the brain.
Switching out one bad habit for another might not trigger the exact same neural pathways, but it's close enough that we can get easily hooked on something new. When people are successful at quitting, and don't take up a substitute addiction, they often have new motivation to do healthy things like exercise and meditate. That's because we aren't wasting all our reward chemicals on distractions.
All-or-nothing thinking can get us in trouble if we make big promises we can't keep. But we can quit all our bad habits at once if it's a tiny enough promise.
Can you go 1 minute without any of your vices? If you can do that, you can build upon success. Soon you will be able to go 5 minutes, 15, 30. Then an hour, 2 hours, 4 hours, 8 hours. If you can do 8 hours, you can do 24. And if you can do a day, you can do "one day at a time" as they say in AA.
Right now, you might not have the ability to quit all your bad habits for life. But soon you'll be able to say, "I'm not going to do any of my bad habits for the next 30 days," and not only will you trust your word, you will also actually follow through with it.
But what about moderation? People say that to be able to do moderation, you should be able to do total abstinence for 30 days first. The progressive approach provides a doable path to that goal.
Trying to change bad habits is hard and unfun. If we could make it easy and fun, we could succeed.
If we start small, we can build upon success. Many people enjoy Role Playing Games (RPGs) because they start small and build slowly. What if we make quitting bad habits into an RPG? We could get Experience Points (EXP) per minute of deliberately not doing the things we want to stop.
We can solve these problems by making quitting into a game. You can't yet quit all your bad habits forever. But can you quit all of them for 5 minutes? How about 15 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour?
Do at least one "quest" a day and you'll spend part of every day completely free from all bad habits. Progressively increase the quest difficulty and soon you'll be able to go a whole day or a week at a time. Eventually a month will be easy. And at that point you can decide if you want to choose moderation or just be done with them forever.
To play this game, you don't need an app. Pen and paper is enough, like old school RPGs. An app might even be distracting, since so many bad habits live on our mobile devices. I have a nice journal, a Moleskine rip-off I found on Amazon, that I use for my own Self-Control Quest.
Here are the rules of play:
Pick all bad habits at once.
Start with Quest #1 and 0 EXP.
If you complete a quest, get the EXP.
Complete a quest 3 times to unlock the next one.
If you fail a quest, lose the EXP.
EXP can never be less than 0.
If you fail a quest, next time pick an easier one.
Do at least one quest every day (or continue a quest in progress).
Pick All Bad Habits at Once
Make a list for yourself. I wrote mine in an early page in my journal.
These are personal to you. What one person considers a bad habit they want to reduce or quit, another person thinks is just fine.
Here are some possibilities:
Alcohol*: beer, wine, whiskey, etc.
Tobacco: cigarrettes, dip, vape, hookah, etc.
Marijuana: smoking, bong, vape, edibles, resin, etc.
Caffeine: coffee, tea, yerba mate, caffeine pills, energy drinks, sodas, etc.
Other recreational drugs*: opioids, heroin, cocaine, meth, MDMA, prescription drugs, psychedelic drugs, etc.
Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Reddit, Whatsapp, Kik, etc.
Video Games: console, PC, mobile, specific games you find very addictive, etc.
Videos: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, etc.
Sex: pornography, erotica, masturbation, orgasm, dating apps, etc.
Shopping: in-person (not including essentials like food), online, "window shopping"
Consuming information: news, sports scores, blogs, articles, videos, Wikipedia, etc.
Food: soda, coffee drinks, sugary junk food, fried food, chips, specific binge foods, meat, dairy, etc.
*For serious alcohol and drug addiction, slowly tapering is required to prevent serious health hazards, and this is best done under the supervision of experts in a rehab facility.
You can probably find at least 3 or 4 things on this list that you'd like to reduce or eliminate. Make a list for yourself now. I have 6 things on my list, and no, I'm not going to tell you what they are.
You can keep your own list private too. In fact, it's probably better if you do, in case you fail a quest. My motto is "Improve in secret." Or as the Stoic Seneca put it, "Verba rebus proba" (prove your words with actions). Show, don't tell. By the time people notice a difference in you, you'll have built up significant willpower already. It will no longer be fragile to other people's feedback.
Don't worry if your list is complete. If you find yourself falling into additional bad habits during a quest, you can add them to your list to include for the next one.
And remember, even if you just want to reduce your use, achieving 30 days of abstinence will give you sufficient willpower to attempt moderation. So I suggest completing Quest 13--no bad habits for 30 days--before trying to moderate.
Start with Quest #1 and 0 EXP
In every RPG there is a basic quest for beginners, often a tutorial. We call that Quest #1 here, and it involves quitting all your bad habits for 1 minute. You can't fail at this task, because even if you do your bad habits you can't go under 0 EXP.
So start with Quest #1: quit all your vices from your list for 1 full minute.
Here's how I do it. Write the date in your journal. Then underneath write "Q1(1m): " and leave space for a check mark. Say to yourself, "I'm not going to do any of my bad habits for the next minute!" Then start a timer. Do it now! Even if you just use a pen and a piece of scrap paper.
The next 60 seconds is a test of your Will, mighty adventurer!
If You Complete a Quest, Get the EXP
If the timer goes off and you didn't do any of your bad habits in the past minute, congratulations! You have completed your first challenge in Self-Control Quest. Perhaps you are the chosen one the legends have spoken about, after all!
Write a nice fat check mark in your journal. So it's "Q1(1m): ✓" showing your completed quest. And then next to it write "+1 EXP: 1" to indicate you gained some EXP and your current point total is 1. Feel the thrill of victory!
As you can see from the chart below, I've come up with 17 levels. You can decide your own levels if you want. But I've made it simple.
Notice the time in minutes equals the EXP gained (or lost, if you fail the quest). So Q9(24h) gives 1,440 EXP, the number of minutes in a day.
You only get the EXP if you deliberately decide to quit all your bad habits for that period of time though, that is, if you are running a quest. Just because you sleep 8 hours doesn't mean you get 480 EXP automatically. You have to work up to Q8(8h), write it in your log, and start a timer for it to count.
This is about connecting your promises with your actions, and developing increasingly greater Willpower. It's not a game of patting yourself on the back for things you did accidentally.
Complete a Quest 3 Times to Unlock the Next One
Having completed your first quest, you are probably eager to advance. But wait! To earn the privilege of Quest #2 (5 minutes), you must complete Q1 three times. Then the second quest will be unlocked.
So to advance, you must complete Quest #1 an additional two times. This will prove to the Gods that you are worthy of the next challenge.
You can do this in the next two minutes the same way as before. Write "Q1(1m): " and promise to yourself you will do none of your vices for the next minute. Then set a timer and go for it! Repeat again and you will have unlocked Quest #2.
For each quest, complete it 3 times in total to unlock the next one. How many quests will you choose to complete today, young adventurer? The choice is yours.
If You Fail a Quest, Lose the EXP
Working up to harder quests only after you've completed the current one three times will make success likely. Maybe if you were a High Elf, you'd always succeed. But as we are human, sometimes we fail.
If you fail a quest, subtract the EXP for that quest. Let's say you have 39 EXP and you are attempting your second Q3(15m), a 15 minute challenge. After 10 minutes, you forget what you are doing and open up Twitter. Suddenly you realize your mistake.
The first thing to do is cancel the timer. Then put an X in your log and subtract the EXP. So now you are down to 24 EXP, having subtracted 15 from 39.
You might also want to briefly reflect on how you can prevent this error in the future. But don't wallow in misery. Pick an easier quest and begin anew right away! The best remedy for failure is success. You can even go down to Q1 and complete 60 seconds of freedom from all bad habits right now, just to get back on the success train.
EXP Can Never be Less Than 0
What if you fail a quest that has more EXP than you have currently? Never fear, brave adventurer. Your EXP can never go below 0. So if you had 3 EXP, attempted Q2(5m) and failed, you'd have 0, not -2 EXP.
This is to prevent pity parties and guilt trips, or holding out for "rock bottom" until you are ready to get started. You start at rock bottom. There is no where to go but up! Respawn and build upon success.
If You Fail a Quest, Next Time Pick an Easier One
Normally people engage in this kind of faulty logic: "I failed to quit for 30 days, so now I'm going to quit forever!" That's like saying "I failed to bench press 225lbs today, so tomorrow I'm going to attempt 315lbs!"
Don't double down. If you fail, try something easier. Success breeds success. Do something easier and check it off! Get dat EXP.
In RPGs there's the idea of "grinding" which is where you do easier quests or go after easier monsters just to rack up a bunch of EXP. Do some grinding if the next level is too hard. Then when you've got more EXP, you'll be ready for it.
Do at Least One Quest Every Day (Or Continue a Quest in Progress)
Every day that you complete a quest is a successful day. It is much more fun to build upon success than to use guilt and shame to try to self-motivate. So think to yourself, "Every day I complete a quest is a successful day." And quests are as easy as 1 minute! So there is never any excuse to not complete a quest, even if you forgot and it's 1 minute before going to bed.
Better yet is to start your day with your first quest. That way you get off on the right foot. And if you're having fun, why not do another after that? Rack up as many points as you want.
You can take on a new challenging unlocked quest, or grind some lower ones for easy EXP. How you play is up to you.
If you're already running a longer (e.g. multi-day) quest, that obviously counts. Upon awakening, review how much time is left on your quest and recommit to it. That will help you remember and boost your motivation to see it through.
To get yourself to follow through with at least one 1-minute quest a day, I suggest using Stickk. Stickk is a service that allows you to set up a "commitment contract" where if you don't do what you say you will, you pay an amount of money you said you would pay. In other words, you put your money where your mouth is. An alternative to Stickk with more geeky features is Beeminder, but I prefer the simplicity of Stickk: do it or pay up.
Now you have all the rules of the game. Have you already completed your first quest? If not, why might you want to begin right away?
Once you get beyond the basics, these tips might be useful, or make it more fun.
Personalizing the Game
Feel free to add to or change the game in any way that you find useful. For instance, you might add stylistic elements like giving your character a name, class, race, and so on like in a real RPG. If you like to draw, you might even draw a picture of your character.
You might write in messages in the margins like "New Quest Unlocked!" You can change the Quest system, or add in Levels that are achieved with EXP gains, such as Level 2 after 100 EXP. You could even get a group of friends together to play as a team, and see how much party EXP you can get each week.
You can do whatever you want! Whatever makes it more fun can help keep you going.
Timers for Multi-Day Quests
The timer on iOS only goes up to 23h, 59m, 59s. That means it can work up to Q9(24h). Beyond that, you'll need a different strategy to determine when the quest ends. I use a Google Calendar event with an email notification.
Track Your Quests
There are various habit tracking apps like Strides and Coach.me which you could use to track doing at least one quest a day. This is a new habit which is highly recommended for play. Remember, even Q1(1m) fulfills this requirement!
In an RPG, a side quest is something that is optional but can get you more EXP. You can add your own side quests as positive habits, such as meditation or exercise. 30 minutes of meditation or exercise could equal 30 EXP.
Again, feel free to get creative here.
Equipment and Items
Sometimes when we quit bad habits, cravings and stressful emotions arise. Bring along some useful items on your quest and you'll be able to slay these monsters easily.
I also do Online Hypnosis where I help people become more resilient, transform bad habits, and cultivate good ones. Get in touch if you have any questions about Self-Control Quest, resilience, or my hypnosis services.
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