By Leo Babauta
One thing I’ve learned from my weeklong bout with poison oak (read about it, including my update on a cure) … is a lot about itches.
I’ve become somewhat of a minor expert on itches.
I’ve learned to watch the itch and not scratch it.
Now, why the hell is that useful or even noteworthy? Because if you can learn to not scratch an itch, you can do anything.
Consider: procrastination is about scratching your itch to go do something other than hard work. Bad habits are just itches. Not doing good habits is about scratching itches. Giving up when things get hard is about scratching itches. This is what my Year of Living Without is about — resisting itches.
Most of the bad things in your life, and your inability to change them, are about itches.
So the question is, how do you avoid scratching an itch?
First: You have to know the itch is there, and that you’ve been scratching it. This is the part most people don’t do, so the rest doesn’t come into play. Most of the time, we scratch our itches (both literal and metaphorical) without noticing we’re doing it. It’s unconscious action. Most people don’t realize how much of our lives are controlled by itches: going to check email or social media or smart phones constantly is scratching itches. Eating junk food, turning on the TV, reacting in irritation or anger to someone, is unconsciously scratching itches.
So noticing the itch and that you’re scratching it is the first step, and it’s a doozy. It means developing consciousness, which takes time, because even after you decide to try to notice you’ll forget more than you remember.
Second: You have to realize the scratching is hurting you. What’s so wrong with scratching an itch? Nothing, if it doesn’t hurt you. But if you develop sores, or keep procrastinating on a project that means the world to you, or fritter your life away on social media and photos of other people’s lunches, then it’s not doing you any good. So recognize the harm of the scratching.
Third: Make a commitment to not scratching. Recognize that this commitment is for the benefit of you and others. Remember this commitment. Have a good reason to resist the itch.
Fourth: Watch the itch but don’t scratch. This can be difficult. Itches can get really strong. The next time you have a literal itch, try sitting there without scratching it. The urge to scratch gets so strong you feel panicky. But you can actually sit there an not move, if you really try.
This takes practice. It takes a trust that you’ll be OK even if you don’t scratch. Of course, I’m not just talking about literal itches anymore — I’m talking about the urges to go get some candy or check Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/email/ snapchat/tumblr/youtube/pinterest/ hackernews/reddit. You’ll be OK if you don’t scratch that itch.
That’s about it: notice the itch, recognize the harm, make a commitment, and watch but don’t act on the urge.
And once in awhile, every now and then, not all the time, mind you … give in to the itch. After you’ve resisted it, scratching an itch becomes so much more delicious.