You should understand that I like coffee–a lot. I may not be one of those people who can tell Sumatra from Ethiopian at a sniff or who grinds it fresh every morning, but I really enjoy the stuff. I used to drink it black–no milk or cream or sugar or whipped cream or cinnamon or Sweet’n’Low. I have long enjoyed the smell, taste, and experience of a cup of coffee–and I haven’t had a drop of the stuff in over a year. For that matter, I’ve also had no caffeinated soda or tea and very close to zero chocolate in a year. It has been a bit of an adjustment.
I’d probably better mention that I don’t think coffee, caffeine, or chocolate are evil: my particular physiology just has a very hard time with caffeine. If I drink coffee, I have to have a specific amount at a specific time every day without fail, or I get headaches. Caffeine also drives up my blood pressure noticeably, makes me itch in cold months, and causes me excruciating pain at any time of year if I’ve been drinking it and then really, really exert myself. For you it might be healthy, but for me even tiny traces of caffeine are very bad. I shouldn’t even drink decaf, because decaffeinated coffee and tea aren’t free of caffeine; they just have less. I may have coffee or chocolate at some point in the future (for instance, if I absolutely have to make a long drive and I’m very tired), but if I do, there will be a price to pay.
So as much as coffee and chocolate appeal to me (especially together), I’m a much happier person not having them–though as you can guess, it hasn’t been easy. How have I kept on the straight and narrow and not even slipped once?
I do have a special advantage in resisting coffee, and that’s that once I finally discovered that it was caffeine that was causing all these problems for me, it was pretty easy to tell when I was experiencing the consequences. The headaches have a special, slightly queasy, all-day quality that is hard to mistake for anything else–even though they don’t come until the second day after a caffeine lapse. So whenever I’ve been tempted to have a cup of coffee, especially when I’m trying to get something important done and feel overtired, dwelling on that consequence and all the others reminds me how important it is to stick with my plan. Perkiness and energy now, sure, but later I get an all-day headache.
What’s interesting is that while this connection is clearer and more specific than most consequences, it’s really not that different from the bad consequences of our other day-to-day bad choices. Spending money we can’t afford now results in not being able to pay for important things later, or getting hounded for months or years by bill collectors. Bingeing on doughnuts for a week makes us carry around a couple of extra pounds day in and day out until we work those calories back off. Giving up on the dishes for a day or two can mean a kitchen that doesn’t get cleaned up until the next time someone stops by.
The encouraging thing is that we can make use of those awful consequences to help our willpower now. Usually when we think of buying something we want or eating doughuts or relaxing instead of doing household chores, the thing in the front of our minds is the short-term pleasure, which makes that bad choice feel good. If we move our attention to the negative consequences instead, then our associations with the bad choice begin to be the pain, discomfort, embarrassment, or tedium we’re buying ourselves in the future. A good motivational approach for almost any situation: when you’re thinking about a good choice, think about the good things it will bring you; when you’re thinking about a bad choice, think about how it will hurt you.
This change of attention isn’t difficult or tiring, it’s just not what we’re used to doing, and this one little habit of focus on the main consequences of a choice can help us do things that might seem next to impossible–like giving up a favorite thing and not even missing it that much. It’s a power well worth having.
Photo by The_Smiths