The Sun Tzu Guide to Vanquishing Bad Habits (and My 30-Day No TV Challenge)


“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” – Sun Tzu

Do you dream of defeating your bad habits for good?

Routing the bad, and sparing only the salvageable, usable elite (any useful parts of a bad habit)? Replacing it with something more productive?

Trying to deal with bad habits can be a terrible struggle.

There’s you, the ruler, the general, pitting limited willpower against well-established neural pathways and outside influences that compel you towards a certain behavior. The enemy.

It would hardly be an overstatement to call it an internal war.

When creating and sticking to good, and changing/eradicating bad habits, you are at once your own general, and your own worst enemy.

Rushing in head, no, will-power first, without a second thought, throwing yourself against temptation, outside influence, and established neural-pathways is a recipe for disaster. Thousands, if not millions, experience this after they make their ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ every year.

Success requires planning. Preparation.


That’s why you should use some of Sun Tzu’s timeless, strategic advice in our own personal battles against bad habits.

Don’t Directly Engage An Enemy That Outnumbers Your Forces

“In a case where the enemy force outnumbers your own troops, instead of directly engaging the enemy, use strategies to change this reality and retreat where necessary.”

Basically, instead of trying to tackle all of your bad habits at once, and spreading yourself too thin, (common after new year, or when summer is coming closer) focus on key bad habits first, preferably just the one, and save the rest for later (strategically retreating for now).

The bad habit I’m tackling, is the habit of binging on TV-shows or easily accessible web material (skimming, not reading, or even just looking at pictures), rather than read or listen to meaningful stuff.

I’ve tried to deal with this habit in the past, but my approach has been shallow, insincere and bordering on stupid. While there are certainly some people who succeed in using basically brute force ways to change their habits, my goal with this post and experiment is to see if there is a slightly more intuitive way to go about replacing a habit.)

This is also a part of my long term strategy to become more productive, as reclaiming this time, initially by doing something that requires a little bit more focus and energy, like reading, or listening to audiobooks, will be useful in itself, and later make the transition towards perhaps dedicating some of this time to focused study, and work, easier. Ultimately bringing me closer to being a better me.

Beware of the Terrain/Surroundings

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know heaven and you know earth you may make your victory complete.”

In his short, yet, momentous Art of War, Sun Tzu advises generals to study greatly and consider heavily the terrain/surroundings.

In the case of habits, get intimately familiar with where you are, who you are with, and what you do before you end up succumbing to bad habits.

One concrete example for me when it comes to people, is two of my best friends in the past with whom my friendship was based largely on our mutual interest in video games. Whenever we slip out of touch, I seem to naturally play less computer games, if any at all. But if I start talking to either of them, a game of either nostalgic value or just pure entertainment value will come up as a possible thing to do, and it will be incredibly easy to start playing.

Now I don’t blame either of my friends for my own actions, nor do I hold a grudge against them in any way. They have helped me cope through bad periods of my life, and enjoy good parts more, in the past. But as for now, I will keep in touch, yes, but make use of my knowledge and purposefully steer away from game related subject matter.

Collect Extensive Intelligence about Your Enemy

  • When did this habit start?
  • What time of day do you usually succumb to the bad habit?
  • Are there days in any given week when it gets worse/better than other days? Why do you think that is?
  • Has there been longer periods where it has gotten worse/better? Why do you think that is?
  • What mood are you usually in when you do this habitual action? What mood are you left in after the habit?

Watching TV, excessive, pointless blog-reading, or Imgur-browsing, is usually something that I do when I feel tired, either in periods during work hours when the pressure lets off, or after I come home from work.

For me it gets worse than normal when I’m stressed, and at the same time, feel guilty about not performing to a level that I expect from myself at the time. So to make it easier to stay away from these habits, I can adjust my expectations to something more easily achievable, or make a point out of consistency, or a combination of both.

Leverage Your Allies

Let’s say you have friends that positively influence you, and some friends who tend to be a negative influence. For the duration of your battle against the particular bad habit you’ve chosen to tackle, focus on the friends that are helpful to this cause, even if you don’t end up with ‘crazy stories to tell’ or ‘the most epic hangover since the movie’.

But it doesn’t have to be people. It can be good habits, or helpful interests that you can tie into helping you maintain your new good habit. For example, if you’re trying to replace watching TV, with reading/listening to books, choose genres that you’re already very interested in to begin with.

If you want to meditate, and you already have a habit of cooking and drinking tea, you can use putting the water on as a trigger for your meditation, and meditate until the water is ready.

If you want to work-out in the morning, and you already have a habit of brushing your teeth first thing, you can use putting the toothbrush down as the trigger. Put your exercise shorts next to your toothbrush, making it as smooth a transition as possible.

Bait and Trick Your Enemy

For example. you can try to recreate some of the things you enjoy about the bad habit, in the moment of action. For example, if you’re trying to substitute unhealthy eating habits for good ones, you can make healthier versions of some of your favorite dishes/flavors, helping to make it a positive experience on all levels, not just a reinforcement of your health and character.

Find ways to reward yourself for your new behavior. Trick your brain and body into liking your productive habit, and it will be a lot easier to keep going. (Read more about habits and rewards.)

Strike at the Right Moment and Location

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.”

For instance, right before you’re going home to see your family, or leaving on a road trip with your 3 alcoholic best friends, is not the best time to start a habit.

But also, if you know that you have an incredibly difficult time at work ahead of you for the next few weeks, or you want to replace your bad habit with outdoor exercise, but it’s -30 degrees outside, it might be a good idea too put it off.

Also, if you have always failed at starting a new habit in the past because you start out too strong, make a point out of starting small. Almost ridiculously small. So small that there is no possible way of talking yourself out of committing to it.

(You’ll notice later that I am not cutting out TV-watching piece by piece, because it’s one of those things that are just easier to quit cold turkey for me. I’ve tried to designate daily hour, or half-hour slots in the past, but it’s the kind of thing that just spills over, where choosing to stop to watch it becomes another draining step towards doing something productive. At least that’s been my experience in the past, with both TV-shows, and video games. So instead, I’m choosing other ways of making it easy for myself.)

Leave an Outlet Free

“When you surround an enemy, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”

If you have general issues with lack of energy, or ‘lack of motivation’, don’t try to deal with everything at once. And when possible, substitute something bad that you enjoy, with something better/more productive that you also enjoy, although perhaps not as much.

Don’t push yourself too hard, and if you feel that you absolutely must cave, do not resent yourself and feel guilty about it later. Instead accept it as part of the journey, and take it in stride. The guilt, and feelings of inadequacy are what will really kill your new habit, not the one-time slip-up.

Take Care of Your Troops, but Be Unrelenting about Discipline

“Soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under iron discipline. This is one of the certain roads to victory.”

Your body resembles troops in that it can sometimes seem to disobey your orders. You should obviously keep your body well fed and rested. Don’t make things harder for yourself than they have to be.

But don’t let up on the one habit you’re trying to change. For example if you’re trying to go for a long, slow walk, for 1 hour, instead of lazing on the couch in front of TV, this is the one point where you don’t let up. For many people, the first digression is fatal when trying to change a bad habit.

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

Plunder and Forage Conquered Area

If you try to just stop a bad habit, you are making things a lot harder for yourself than they have to be.

Why? The problem is that every time you feel like you want to indulge, or in a situation where you would usually indulge, you do not only have to deliberately choose not to, but also have to figure out what you should do instead.

If you make sure you always have a better alternative ready, with as easy and painless a transition as possible, you will skip an entire decision, and conserve your important decision-making-energy for more important decisions. For example choosing to avoid indulging the next time you feel like it.

Another idea is to designate some of the captured time to taking naps, light exercise, or other activities that help increase your pool of energy.

Conquering My TV-Watching Habit (the 30-Day No TV Challenge)

If you didn’t guess it already, I recently read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for the first time. While reading the book, I was inspired to again tackle my biggest, bad habit, which I might call the ‘thoughtless escapism’ habit, but which most often presents itself in the form of mindlessly watching TV-shows online. Hence the “no TV challenge”.

Certain chapters, and sayings, inspired lines of thought, and refreshed my memory on theories and research I already know about habit formation/changing. So rather than simply jumping straight in this time, I’ve carefully considered, come up with a plan of attack that’s as easy to implement as possible.

Since I don’t actually use the TV to watch TV shows, or the like, and I recently weaned myself off my latest gaming craze, my impulse for “thoughtless escapism” usually starts in one place. A new browser tab, or window. This is my trigger. And to always remind me that I’ve changed what follows, I have the Momentum chrome addon installed, with some permanent items on the to-do-list, simply there to show myself the alternatives. This makes opening a new tab look like this:momentumnewtab

I have an audiobook ready for listening in tab 1, and I have books on top of the nightstand next to my bed, where I might lie down to relax and no longer watch TV. The salvageable part of my TV-watching habit, is the nap that I would usually take between on weekdays 4:15-4:50, when I have no errands to run. I continue to take this nap, but I fall asleep listening to an audiobook instead. This is because it leaves me feeling quite energized in the evenings, and because the science of taking naps seems to find new benefits almost weekly.

I have my trusted text-editor, write monkey opened up on a relevant piece that I’m trying to write, making it easy for me to spend some minutes relaxing to classical music, and at the same time, do something productive, like proofread, think of new ideas, or even add a paragraph or two.

And because I know that my craving for mindless escapism gets worst if I feel guilty about inaction, I will strictly enforce my current productivity habits (healthy eating, writing every day, etc) so that I have no bad thoughts from which I need escape.

I’ve also blocked imgur with stayfocusd, another Google Chrome addon. If other sites single themselves out as distracting me from the task at hand, they will get added as well.

For accountability, I’m going to be posting updates here on how I’m doing, and make it a priority weekly goal during my accountability sessions, and enlist the help of my friends.

The goal of all this, is to remove absolutely all resistance that is possible to remove. To move past the struggle by strategy alone, avoiding the fighting. After all…

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” – Sun Tzu

All quotes taken from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”.

TV photo by Luca Rossato.

Shoutout to David and Chris for inspiring me to do this 30 day challenge/experiment.

5 Responses

  1. Micah February 16, 2015 / 7:15 am

    I love this post. It’s making me want to re-read both The Art of War, and Pressfield’s The War of Art. It’s amazing the parallels that can be drawn between the two, as this post demonstrates. I definitely think the TV watching time can be one of the most challenging things to get a hold of. I read somewhere that the author, Jonathan Franzen, purposely works in a private office with no TV or wi-fi connection to keep himself from becoming distracted.

    • Ragnar Miljeteig February 16, 2015 / 1:41 pm

      Thanks Micah, this one took some effort. The Art of War was the first paper-book I read after starting to read again, and it took me completely off-guard. There’s just something to millennia-old literature… it adds a certain depth to it. I doubt I would be enjoy reading a modern age military genius’ strategy handbook. Just knowing that it goes that far back is almost a little bit transcendent.

      That’s like the ‘low-tech’ version of what I’m trying to do… although to be honest, probably a lot more effective. If I simply got rid of my internet connection at home, maybe that would force me to be more focused when having internet access, i.e. making me actually do research, as well as giving me the mindspace to write more. Something to put to the test in the not too far off future, I think!

      • Micah February 20, 2015 / 3:29 pm

        Lol, it’d certainly be a challenge for me to manage. I do try to change the locations where I’m working, it’s one of the advantages of freelancing and often helps me stay fresh and focused, but I suspect that’s about as far as I could go.

        ‘There’s just something to millennia-old literature… it adds a certain depth to it.’ I couldn’t agree more with this. I’ve recently started downloading and reading through the free classics selection on Amazon Kindle. It’s like mining for and discovering treasure with every turn of the page. Which makes sense I guess. There’s a reason these books were able to stay in print and continue to find new audiences generations from their initial creation. Some truths are deep enough to transcent time, socio-economic context, geographical location or whatever else. I guess that’s what makes them classic. But yeah, absolutely, you can definitely detect a certain something extra when you read something like that.

  2. Eric June 29, 2015 / 10:17 pm

    Great metaphors … hope you manged to quash some bad habits using this approach!

  3. Eric December 20, 2015 / 1:11 am

    Sun Tzu’s works apply to so many aspects in life … I need to re-read his book again!

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