How to Surf the Urge

Do you have some big important goals, but find your days filling up with other priorities? In a year’s time, will you look back and wish you’d made different choices?

You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf!

One of our productivity coaches, Sally May, is a keen sea swimmer. She connected with the term Surf the Urge as soon as she heard Kelly McGonigal’s talk The Willpower Instinct. The idea is: you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.

“In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly refers to an experiment with a group of smokers in which they are ‘tortured’ by the researchers who prevent them from smoking and then ask them to note their cravings. The interesting thing is that the week after this experiment, half the participants were smoking 40% less than before, even though no-one had asked them to.

What was the difference? Those who were smoking less had been taught a simple technique called ‘surfing the urge’, which meant that they no longer had to act on the impulse.

How to Surf the Urge

These are the steps to learn how to surf the urge:

  • Notice the thought, craving or feeling: try placing your hand on the part of your body where you notice it
  • Accept and attend to the inner experience: don’t judge it, just accept it
  • Breathe and give your brain and body a chance to pause and plan
  • Broaden your attention, and look for the action that will help you achieve your goal, such as doing a weekly review and reminding yourself of the important, but not urgent stuff.

[source: Kelly McGonigal – The willpower instinct]

The conclusion of the study was that the smokers were no longer making a connection between stress and smoking. They still had trigger moments, but when previously they would have reached for a cigarette, now they were allowing that moment to pass. They’d learned that the distress they were feeling was temporary. They breathed and waited, and the result was that they smoked less.

Quick test

If you want to try a quick distress tolerance test on yourself, here’s one to have a go with, as long as you are in good health and it’s not risky for you:

      1. Get a timer ready and set it for 15 seconds.
      2. Breathe in, breathe out, and start the timer.
      3. Don’t breathe in again until the 15 seconds are up.
      4. Notice how you feel during the 15 seconds before you breathe in again.
      5. For some people, distress may kick in a little sooner than 15 seconds, for others, it may be longer.
      6. Just notice the urge to breathe in, and experiment with not giving in to the urge.
      7. You can then move on to the ‘surfing the urge’ steps outlined above, or if you prefer, experiment with guided ‘surfing the urge’ videos you can find online.

Surfing the Urge is a tool you can use for changing habits, such as adopting the new behaviours you’ll learn in a productivity course. You can also use it for coping with difficult feelings and emotions.

The more you practice urge surfing, the easier it gets to sit with the distress. You’re training your brain so it learns that it doesn’t have to react to its impulses.

This makes you more likely to make better choices for what you do with your time, so you’re more likely to be able to look back and be pleased with having accomplished your goals and enjoyed the journey.”

As a sea-swimmer, Sally has found that learning techniques for working with the waves is a better way to live life. “I wouldn’t have half as much fun if I only went swimming on calm days,” she says.

At Then Somehow, we teach productivity systems and tools, and help you understand how to take more control of your own behaviour so that the changes you make are more likely to last.

For details of our NEW series of productivity workshops: Be the Boss of Your Email, Get Sorted and Stay Sorted, Prioritisation, and Saying No – check out our Eventbrite page for details.

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