“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn
Want to learn urge surfing? You’ve come to the right post.
This blog is about digital addictions–social media, porn, Internet, video games–but the strategies here apply regardless of what bad habit you’re trying to break.
No matter what superstimulus has hooked you, the answer lies not in:
- avoiding the feelings of craving;
- labeling them or yourself as bad;
- and escaping them through short-term pleasurable distraction.
This page is my ultimate list of science-backed techniques for calming intense wants in the moment, borne of my own struggles over years with porn, video games, and YouTube addiction.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is urge surfing?
Urge surfing is any technique where you ride out intense emotions to avoid acting on them. The goal is not to try to avoid these emotions, since that’s not only futile but leads to stronger outbursts. The goal is to reduce their power over you by practicing feeling them, watching them rise and fall, and not acting on them.
Trying to escape from uncomfortable emotions is the number one predictor of problematic use. Are you running from any of these?
- stress / anxiety
- or just liking the dopamine hits
A new habit won’t change your life if you don’t understand what you’re trying to run from.
But in the meantime (it took me 16 years to understand) throw everything you can at the symptoms while you search for the cause.
But I needed different techniques for different moods. For some reason, the same thing didn’t work every time for me. Hence this list.
Start with the theory:
- Eat not to dullness: the pleasure-pain balance
- Dopamine detox, self-binding, and more pleasure out of life
Then grab my Remember Your Why worksheet and try to pin down your initial “kindling” emotions. (All raging fires start with a spark.)
After bookmarking this page, practice urge surfing with any technique below. Some will work for you, others won’t. But if you want to kick your bad habit, you’ve got to get serious!
I start with porn addiction-specific articles, since the majority of my readers struggle with porn. And after the pink section, the all-purpose strategies.
But if none of these work for you, you can sign up for my newsletter for 3-5 helpful links and a scientific paper breakdown every Tuesday morning.
Table of contents (for mobile)
- The EasyPeasy Way to Quit Porn: Review and my experience
- Humanization: 11 empathy hacks to destroy porn addiction
- The forbidden fruit effect: how to defang porn addiction
- Breathwork: the instant cravings cooldown (free guide)
- Leaves on a stream: self-distancing for cravings & withdrawal
- Affect labeling, and 9 other craving brakes
- Mindful tech questions: the ultimate list (2022)
- Everything is marginal utility.
- Don’t, Shouldn’t, Can’t: How refusal framing motivates change
- Got cravings? Tame their lightning with the habit loop.
- Negative visualization and how to stop wasting your life
- The Underdog Effect: 3 ways to prove bad guys wrong
- How to stop cravings with Tetris (don’t think of a pink elephant)
- How to use achievements to break bad habits
- How to use personification to stop phonecrastinating
- Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors
- Willpower: 15 ways to charge your backup generator
- Time rich: how to become an addiction-deflecting wizard
- Conclusion and takeaways
Porn addiction urge surfing
The EasyPeasy Way to Quit Porn helped me uncover my core unmet need, so I reviewed its most salient points and how it continues to help me.
Fraser (or Hackauthor²), the author, posits that porn addiction is a loop of numbing to avoid some painful emotion. He defines the “big monster” as the amalgamation of beliefs and reasons that keep us stuck.
(For instance, mine were “why not?”, “I need motivation,” and “I don’t have a good enough reason not to.”)
Whereas the little monster is the justification goblin poking you with a stick. “Just one more. You can quit after that.” And so on.
If fear of the negative emotional state of “going without” / “being deprived” keeps you relapsing, disrupt the pornodonic treadmill with the deep truths in this article. This fear is the feeling you may be trying to escape, but urge surfing can rid you of it.
fMRI studies have shown that objectification (dehumanization) is REQUIRED for sexual arousal. Your brain needs a constant stream of dopamine, and it seeks out novel things to keep up interest.
The studies I cite prove the inverse: that empathy is reduced when we objectify. Could, then, an effective urge surfing technique be empathy, humanization, elevating the onscreen models beyond breasts and butts?
I tried it out. In this article are my findings.
Porn kills love. Love may kill porn.
People in the Bible Belt consume more porn than any American demographic. How does this happen?
Addictions thrive in secrecy and shame. A taboo only has appeal if there’s some clandestine benefit you can get with it. What, then, if you got no benefit from it and didn’t find thrill in the hiding?
I’m not the best Christian, but the trouble lies with where you attach the word “sin.” Here’s how to separate it from you.
And now, on to the all-purpose urge surfing strategies (which can also work for porn addiction).
Urge surfing cooldowns
When your engine runs too hot.
I cite several breathwork books, medical papers, and doctors to show you the easiest, most instant, longest-lasting way to do urge surfing. You just breathe, and focus on it.
This isn’t distraction: done correctly, any of these exercises activate your parasympathetic nervous system, slow down your vagus nerve, and even unblock serotonin uptake inhibited by cortisol.
Cravings give you anxiety. Anxiety narrows your vision. Breathwork can, in just a few seconds, cure the tunnel vision and desperate wanting–and thus the false beliefs that you “need it to be happy.”
This is my favorite and most effective tool on this list. I use it myself.
You are not your thoughts. And with the leaves on a stream technique, you can separate them from you.
When you create even a little delay, in that space that you can choose not to surrender to your vice of choice. Leaves on a stream is therapist-approved and effective on gaming, smoking, and impulse control in general.
Notice, breathe, observe.
This short article features a bookmarkable meditation and instructions to get the most out of it.
This article somehow ended up as a collection of the smallest miscellaneous “craving brakes” I found from science and the Internet.
Affect labeling is another simple technique where you notice how you’re feeling, say it out loud, and then– like the Teal Swan quote at the top of this article– attend to that emotional need via a healthy alternative.
These urge surfing techniques are useful for self-control, but more useful for self-regulation. (that is, reducing the intensity and frequency of cravings in the first place so you need less Herculean self-control in those difficult moments.)
This list of mindful tech questions can aid your urge surfing by giving you prompts as you breathe, focus, or choose anything else on this list. The point is you ask them before you commit. For instance:
- How easy will it be to stop using this technology?
- What will my use of this technology encourage me to notice?
- Am I doing this for enjoyment or because I’m miserable without it?
And so on.
Write these down where you can see them, and remember when you’re pondering which path to take.
Everything starts to suck the more of it you consume. And it doesn’t get better just because you get “hungry” again later. Porn, video games, scrolling through the Internet: it always gets worse, and it’s never as good as you expect it to be.
Learn the simple economics truth, and you may be able to stop wants without having to do urge surfing.
The problem is the hype. The initial dopamine spike. Remember that craving is something you actively do and train your brain to stop shooting off like a dog after a deer with this article.
Your thoughts for refusal framing (how you say no) determine how effective any habit change or urge surfing will be.
- “I don’t”
- “I shouldn’t”
- “I can’t”
Which is most effective? What does the science say? And how do you maintain refusal in the long run?
Urge surfing channelers
When you’re tense and you’re nervous and you can’t relax.
This article is an adaptation of the final chapter of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. In it, I show that the most effective type of urge surfing is to channel that energy (“lightning”) of cravings into another activity, thereby pushing it from yourself.
But you shouldn’t do just anything and expect it to work. It has to provide you the same benefit your brain was craving, just in a healthy alternative.
The idea is to divert water with some tributary before it breaks the dam, so to speak.
So in this article, I give you questions to help you discover your need, in four steps:
- Identify the behavior
- Identify your triggers
- Identify the reward you’re craving and experiment with rewards
- Make a plan
You will get older. It will get worse. Nothing lasts forever.
No matter what’s keeping you stuck, we all have a finite time on this earth. So (although I don’t recommend this for people who suffer from anxiety) use the power of visualization to imagine what’ll happen if your addiction (bad habit!) continues.
Also contains a list of 12 reasons to focus on recovery. Here are just a few:
- The broken promises you’ve made: to yourself or those you love.
- The lies you tell yourself. (that you can quit whenever you want, that you’ll start tomorrow, etc.)
- The thoughts you have when you’re craving that go against everything you stand for.
- To not see something you wish you didn’t and have that image flash in your mind for days or years.
These things are not meant to make you stress out: they’re meant to wake you up.
(Vanitas Still-Life with a Tulip, Skull, and Hour-Glass by Phillippe de Champaigne, 1671)
To snap out of inaction or bingeing, remember that you’re the underdog.
In this article, I teach you how to make a monster bigger and scarier, smaller and cuter, or derisive, to get you off your butt and working towards proving them wrong. Remember, they want you to fail. They want your money, time, soul, and life.
…Who are “they?” That’s for you to decide. All I know is this is a go-to motivator for me.
(© Lubomir Arsov: IN-SHADOW – A Modern Odyssey (careful with this one))
Endeavoring to not think of a certain thing ensures you will think more about that thing. If thoughts / fantasizing derails you, another way of urge surfing is distraction. Exercise, art, breathwork… why not try video games?
Tetris was clinically proven to reduce pain in chronic pain patients, because their brains were less focused on sending pain signals. Turns out pain is partly psychological.
And withdrawal often triggers pain signals. So why not direct your attention spotlight to something that completely absorbs you? (not recommended for video game addiction)
Learn how to set long-term motivating goals with this article, and what constitutes a good achievement (like in video games) to get you there. This can give you added resilience for urge surfing, since without a goal, you’re likely to think “why not?” and consume again.
You want to keep your goals and achievements SMARTY, or else you won’t care enough to keep them. (I go over this more in Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors.)
I hope these examples from games in my Steam library help you to set your own like I have.
Urge surfing can also mean slapping a : ( face on something that could be harmed by your inaction or continued use. Marketers have long used them to encourage good behavior, like in the below example.
Don’t use this haphazardly, though– it can cause unnecessary anxiety. Follow the steps in this article.
Urge surfing preemptive armor
Pleasure is a false god.
Based on 7 books and over 70 scientific papers, this life-building strategy will give you a blueprint to escaping escapism.
If you’re tired of wasting hours or years on YouTube, video games, porn, or social media, Quests aligned with your signature strengths are the footholds out of that pit.
Combined with committed action, hope and self-efficacy, self-regulation, mini habits, the Elastic Matrix, SMARTY goals, sneaking up sideways, a charged backup generator, and Epic Wins, too.
I thought I was hopeless. I wasted years on stupid crap! But Quests cured everything, from identifying my wound to Questing every day so it doesn’t pop up often, if at all. It’s the exact program I developed over years through trial-and-error, in and out of recovery groups. I stand by it!
“My experience has been that if a man pulls out of a… neurosis, then it is through work… in Symbols of Transformation Jung spoke of one cure – work – and having said that he hesitated for a minute and thought, ‘Is it really as simple as that? Is that just the one cure?'”
– Marie-Louise von Franz, The Problem of the Puer Aeturnus
Some people say willpower doesn’t work. That’s partly true. I believe more in self-regulation than self-control.
But I think willpower should be your backup generator. When severe storms hit, you don’t want to be without it. So this article will have 15 science-backed ways proven in experiments to boost it preemptively, if you see severe storms on the horizon. (Most will come from experts like Dr. Kathleen Vohs and Dr. Roy Baumeister.)
Because you can’t do urge surfing if you have no desire to do urge surfing.
One of the foremost drivers of addiction is numbing to escape responsibility or stress. And one of the most effective ways I’ve found to reduce stress is to become time rich, as opposed to being time poor.
Internet addiction all but makes this impossible. You need leisure, not lethargy, or you end up with acedia.
When you practice urge surfing, you feel like time slows down. (try it and see) This is one way of increasing the time you have in the day, because it goes only as fast as you perceive it.
Slowing down time may help prevent cravings before they start. I have my own experience, but I need more science.
Urge surfing: takeaways
Self-regulation beats self-control. That is,
“Self-control is about inhibiting strong impulses; self-regulation is about reducing the frequency and intensity of strong impulses by managing stress-load and recovery. In fact, self-regulation is what makes self-control possible, or, in many cases, unnecessary.”
– Dr. Stuart Shanker, “Self-Regulation vs. Self-Control“
But urge surfing is still your backup generator.
Don’t run from “bad” feelings; feel them, watch them, and they’ll always subside. No matter how much you want it now, no matter how impossible you think it’ll be to resist.
How long does an urge last? A few minutes, for most people. Though it seems like forever, this too shall pass.
This is the core of urge surfing, and while it’s simple, you need multiple ways of doing it. The same trick won’t work each time. So bookmark any of the above that help you, and at the end of the day, remember:
“What you resist, persists.”
– Carl Jung