With the Jewish New Year upon us, many people are making commitments for the coming year: to cut down on screen time, exercise more and pick up after themselves. Trying to change a bad habit can be one of the most intense personal conflicts known to humankind. The sad news is that for all our efforts, bad habits are more easily formed than broken.

Many people think that the problem is a lack of self-control. But self-control is a misnomer, and when we focus too much on it, we are setting ourselves up for failure. The problem with self-control is that it means my self is in control, and that’s the last thing I want! What I really want is to be less self-focused altogether. The time I spend struggling with myself not to eat a cookie is time and energy that could have been put to better use. I don’t want to spend my life getting into fights with cookies. I have other things to do.

How to Change Your Nature

The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Chabad Rebbe, once asked his grandfather, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi: “What is the purpose of Chassidus?” He answered: “The purpose of Chassidus is to change the nature of your character.”1

What did Rabbi Shneur Zalman mean by that? Note that he didn’t say to change your natural character, but “the nature of your character.” There’s more than a semantic difference between the two: they represent two fundamentally different approaches to life and to character-building.

Usually, when we are motivated to change a character trait, it’s because we hope to enhance ourselves somehow: to be more successful at work, to have a healthier body, to be respected and admired by others. At the root of the motivation is what is good for me. I want to be a better person. I want to feel successful, fulfilled, perfected.

The goal of Chassidus is to change “the nature of your character”—to shift from a more self-centered orientation to a more G‑dly orientation. To be a Chassid is to realize that self-perfection is not the goal. Our purpose in building character is not to be more successful or accomplished, but to become the person G‑d wants us to be.

Is It OK to Lose Control?

Many people are resistant to the idea of giving up on self-control. What do you mean? Just go ahead and eat all the cookies? The term implies that only a tight leash is holding us back from wanton self-indulgence. But what would happen if we took off the leash? If we could do anything or be anything we desired, what would be our wish? To eat all the cookies? Or do we want something more?

When I was a child, my parents never bought sugary cereals. I tasted them only at friends’ houses. Oh, how I craved those sweet, colorful, crunchy breakfast delights! I promised myself that as an adult, I would eat sugar cereal every day.

Well, now I’m all grown up and when I go shopping, I walk right past the junk cereals without stopping. Not because I’m so disciplined. It’s just that at some point, the same cereal that seemed so alluring as a child had no appeal at all. I couldn’t stomach a whole bowl of it.

When trying to break an unhealthy habit, the key is to realize that you don’t want it all that much. The cookies don’t taste that good. Overindulgence isn’t pleasant for the body or the soul; all those unhealthy temptations are mere distractors standing in the way of fulfilling our genuine wants and needs. And the best way to get rid of a temptation is not by wrestling with it but simply not engaging with it. True self-discipline is learning how to divert your attention from the undesirable to what is most essential.

Adding, Not Subtracting

An idea that has recently caught on in the nutrition world is “adding, not subtracting.” In other words, instead of focusing on all the “bad” foods that you want to eliminate from your diet, think about the tasty, nourishing foods you would like to add. If your goal is to exercise more, what type of movement do you find invigorating that you would like to add to your daily routine?

The concept of “adding, not subtracting” has long been a cornerstone of Chassidic teachings. The approach is to focus less on avoiding sin and negativity, and more on embracing the positive and adding more goodness to our lives. The more we contemplate the greatness of G‑d and the richness and inspiration that can be found in Torah, the attractions of the world naturally fall away.

The Baal Shem Tov was once asked how his approach to serving G‑d was an improvement over classical Jewish ethical teachings. He answered that if you’re trying to keep burglars out of your house, there are two approaches. Either you can buy ever more sophisticated locks and alarms. Or you can reach out to the burglars themselves and persuade them to go into a more upstanding profession. Similarly, the approach of Chassidus is not to build stronger safeguards against temptation, but to work with the body so that it, too, takes pride and pleasure in Divine service.

We have an abundance of mitzvot to choose from. Start with the ones that seem most pleasant, interesting or alluring to you. Let things grow from there.

The Ever-Present Battle

The difficulty, though, is that even as we strive towards a closer relationship with the Divine, our worldly desires keep dragging us down. The Tanya2 beautifully explains that this is precisely the point. G‑d wants the struggle. We are working on a seemingly impossible task—to make the finite world a vessel for His infinite light. This requires us to hold and integrate two diametrically opposite forces within ourselves. When we relax and embrace the paradox, we suddenly find that we’ve entered a new, almost magical space, where the spiritual and physical fuse seamlessly.

What’s expected of us is to be an oved Elokim: one who is constantly striving and working to serve G‑d. The word oved is in present tense, denoting an ongoing state of effort.3 A tzadik, in contrast, is called an eved Elokim: “a servant of G‑d” because he has already arrived. He has succeeded in expelling all evil temptation from his heart.

So, even if you have to keep pushing away the same negative thought dozens of times per day, G‑d derives joy from it each time. Just as there are many different flavors of food, some sweet and rich and others spicy or pungent, there are also many different forms of Divine service. When we grapple with our negative character traits and work to refine them, it’s as if we are serving up a tasty dish before G‑d with a blend of sophisticated flavors.4

Avoid Negative Motivators

Sometimes, however, the yetzer hara, the “evil inclination,” lures us into temptation just to get us to feel depressed. The more let down we feel over our failure, the less motivated we feel to serve G‑d.5 We need to see through the ruse. Even when we slip up, G‑d is endlessly kind and forgiving. Although our Divine service isn’t perfect, G‑d nevertheless derives great enjoyment from it. Getting depressed over our lack of perfection is only a ploy to keep us from drawing close to G‑d.

I’ve almost completely given up using negative motivators—shame, blame, fear—and it has not resulted in me completely losing control. I’m more patient and positive with myself, which leads me to be more patient and positive with others. And because I’m feeling fewer negative emotions, they’re less likely to serve as a trigger for negative behaviors like yelling, stress eating or zoning out.

Positive thoughts lead to positive feelings which lead to positive actions. And it works in reverse as well. If you’re not in the greatest mood, even one small constructive action can help lift you up out of the doldrums.


  1. Avoid all-or-nothing thinking. You will have many opportunities each day to practice and strengthen positive habits. One action is better than a thousand laments.6
  2. You have no conception of how precious your body is to G‑d.7 Don’t abuse it. Treat it gently, with love, respect and compassion.
  3. Fill your time with positive activities, which will leave less room for unhealthy behaviors. Don’t try to fight with yourself.
  4. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses. You can’t fully understand someone else’s struggle. Don’t compare yourself to others. Accept yourself as you are.
  5. Self-discipline is not self-deprivation. Do what you enjoy. Figure out what nurtures and uplifts you. Discover your strengths and develop them.