“Stop Making ‘Dead Man’s Goals’” Ensign, October 2020
If you’re anything like me, your goals to change bad habits usually focus on what you’re not going to do:
Don’t eat a whole sleeve of cookies today.
Don’t snap at your roommate.
Don’t go on YouTube for a quick study break and get sucked into a video vortex for hours until you suddenly realize your test is tomorrow, and instead of studying, you’re wiping tears from your eyes as you watch an incredibly moving music video about yarn people. (Just me? Cool …)
Psychologists call these types of goals “dead man’s goals” because, well, a dead man could do them. A dead man can go literally forever without ingesting cookies, snapping at their “tombmate,” or browsing YouTube. Therefore, goals that concentrate only on not doing a certain behavior are ideal for a skeleton but not so great for a living, breathing you.
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) said, “Change comes by substituting good habits for less desirable ones.”1 The key word here is substitute. Removing the negative is great, but if you don’t plug up that gaping hole with something good, you risk either regressing or putting something equally negative in its place.
So if you’re trying to kick a bad habit, set some living-person goals. Identify a bad habit that you want to get over. Then instead of just resolving to quit it, identify a good habit you want to cultivate in its place.
To help you get started, here are potential substitutes for nine common bad habits.
TV bingeing. Instead of relying on TV to decompress, read a good book, go for a walk, or try your hand at watercolor painting. Do something that fills you up and makes you feel accomplished!
Social media scrolling. If you have time for social media, you have time to be social. Pick up the phone and call that old friend or relative you keep seeing on Facebook. You could even make a goal to call one person each week who ventures across your feed.
Complaining. Everyone needs to vent sometimes, but a habit of complaining can make us (and everyone around us) miserable. You might try letting gratitude crash some of your pity parties. When you’re tempted to complain, make a mental list of five things you’re grateful for. Then share one thing on that list with a friend.
Self-shaming. If you start self-shaming and thinking bad things about yourself, take a moment to list three things you genuinely like about yourself—like your desire to serve others or your rare talent for mimicking accents, mate. If you’re stuck, Heavenly Father can help you recognize your gifts, and so can reading your patriarchal blessing. Repeat as needed.
Catastrophizing. Ever blow something way out of proportion? Me too. When you feel a worry spiral coming on, take time to pray and focus on the eternal perspective. Some people have also found meditation to be helpful. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to meditate—there are lots of apps that can talk you through it. Focus on deep breathing for 10 minutes and see how you feel after.
Shopaholic-ing. Get involved in a service group. More time serving means less time at the mall. And serving others often helps us better realize what we already have.
Eating junk food. Make a list before you go to the store and stick to it! If you don’t have cookies in the cupboard, you can’t eat them. Then set aside time on Saturday to put together healthy snacks for the week. Stash them in your bag for when the munchies strike.
Scrolling on your phone. Clearly, you love pictures. So why not spend time perfecting your photography skills? Instead of selfies, try nature photography or some other form you haven’t tried before. Learn new camera features or peruse a book on the subject. Keep it social by asking friends to model in your pictures!
Wallflower-ing. You want to make friends, but the pressure to talk to everyone at a party can be overwhelming. Take the pressure off by setting small goals. For example, talk to two people you don’t know before going home to watch your favorite British cooking show in your pajamas. Increase your quota every so often.
We all have bad habits. But we don’t have to take them to the grave. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said it best: “You can change anything you want to change and you can do it very fast.”2 So if you have something you want to change, change it! You’ve got some living (goals) to do.