In the book Judaism and Psychology by Rabbi Abraham Amsel he tries to link Jewish thought to the prevailing Freudian psychology of his time. To summarise his point which is central to his analysis in each chapter: Jewish thought believes strongly that our neurosis (non-biological mental problems) are deeply rooted in habits.
Are we free to change our predisposition?
First, he establishes that Jewish philosophy emphasises the existence of as I would paraphrase it a ‘bounded free will’. Even though “all human affairs are in the hands of the Creator”, he continues “Man should certainly strive to improve his human condition in any way he can”. But: “whether he is successful or not in doing so is not within his control, but G’ds.”
He reconciles the dilemma ‘are we in control or not’ by citing from TB Shabbath 156B:
And from that which transpired to Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak as well, it can be derived that there is no constellation for the Jewish people, As Chaldean astrologers told Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak’s mother: Your son will be a thief. She did not allow him to uncover his head. She said to her son: Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and pray for Divine mercy. He did not know why she said this to him. One day he was sitting and studying beneath a palm tree that did not belong to him, and the cloak fell off of his head. He lifted his eyes and saw the palm tree. He was overcome by impulse and he climbed up and detached a bunch of dates with his teeth. Apparently, he had an inborn inclination to steal but was able to overcome that inclination with proper education and prayer.
As the commentary within the translation indicates, so also does Rabbi Amsel conclude:
“Insoluble as this may seem at first glance […] if we equate “fate” in this instance with a predisposition to steal […] it is the actuation of this predisposition which Rabbi Nachman’s mother feared, and against which she sought protective measures.”.
Three parts to our inclination
The book builds on this theme, which is summarised in three major determinants of behaviour which are, according to Rabbi Amsel, central to Jewish thought about habit formation:
- A predisposition towards certain character traits
- The two inclinations (the evil and good inclination), which represent the choice between two distinct paths in life, and
- One’s environment – his family, friends, neighbours, peers and countrymen – all of whom may influence him in the direction of good or evil.
To keep my answer to-the-point I will try to resist summarising the entire book. The above is how Rabbi Amsel contrasts psycho-analytic theory (more commonly known as Freudian psychology) with Jewish thought. Psychoanalysis is a theory that at its core is a ‘drive’ or ‘instinct’ theory. People have urges (for procreation, the Eros, and for survival, the Thanatos) and these form our hidden motives, hidden from ourselves firstly and mostly. These urges are neutral; psychoanalytic thought does away with any moral judgement on the manifestation of any of these urges. Jewish thought, in contrast, agrees that we have urges, but does not only distinguish between good and ‘bad’ (evil) urges but also considers that we (can) know in which moral domain our urges lie. We are not slaves to our urges, but possess a unique power to rise above them, and one of our tools is engineering our environment.
Realising most things are habits, and habits can be changed
The power of habit formation, either good or bad is demonstrated in TB Yoma 38B:
Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Once most of a person’s years have passed and he did not sin, he will never sin, as it is stated: “He will keep the feet of His pious ones” (I Samuel 2:9). Once a person has established himself as righteous, God will keep him from failing thereafter. In the school of Rabbi Sheila they say: Once the opportunity to perform a sinful act presents itself to a person a first time and a second, and he does not sin, he will never sin, as it is stated: “He will keep the feet of His pious ones” (I Samuel 2:9). Once he has refrained from sin several times, he has established himself as pious and God will protect him thereafter.
TB Yoma 86B underscores how we have the power to stop bad habits (or, as the example illustrates, how bad habits start or are maintained):
It was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yosei bar Yehuda says: When a person commits a transgression the first time, he is forgiven; a second time, he is forgiven; a third time, he is forgiven; but the fourth time, he is not forgiven, as it is stated: “Thus said the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, but for four I will not reverse it” (Amos 2:6). And it says: “All these things does God do twice or three times with a man” (Job 33:29).
The Gemara asks: What is: And it says? Why did he need to bring an additional biblical proof when the first verse seems to suffice? The Gemara explains: Lest you say that this statement that the Holy One, Blessed be He, forgives easily the first three times applies to a community but not to an individual, come and hear proof from another verse that states: “All these things does God do twice or three times with a man,” implying that this so even for an individual. From this point onward, he is not forgiven, as it is stated: “For three transgressions of Israel, but for four I will not reverse it.”.
This seems to form the basis of Rabbi Amsel’s analysis of Jewish thought on habit formation. I believe his following Talmud-paraphrase (which I can’t trace to a source) is his own paraphrase of the two above paragraphs in Yoma 86B:
Rabbi Huna stated: as soon as a man transgresses a certain transgression and he repeats it, it becomes permissible to him [The Talmud asks] How could you think that he thinks it becomes permissible [when he really knows it is forbidden]? Only say he makes believe; he deludes himself into believing it is permissible.
So these passages form the crux of Jewish thought on habit formation: not only does a habit become second nature, but the habit also changes our views as to the permissibility of the act.
How to change bad habits?
The rest of the book basically builds on this core concept by first providing ample additional sources, such as Maimonides, Luzzato, Cheshbon Hanefesh, etc., to support his thesis that Jewish thought believes that bad habits are not the results of unconscious thought foremost, but rather the result of engaging in bad habits in the first place. Do it twice, and you have basically decided that it is okay to do the thing you state you don’t want to do. The Jewish philosophy is that the habit starts of as self-deception, and becomes part of your nature, your predisposition.
Rabbi Amsel translates Maimonides potential cure to change bad habits as such (I don’t know the source; it is probably the Introduction to The Eight Chapters:
And how may their cure be? He who is of a hot temperament should be taught to demean himself this wise: If he be smitten and cursed, he must not feel the insult at all and follow this way a long time until anger will be completely rooted out from his heart. And he who was arrogant should accustom himself to a life of extreme self-abasement . . . And this line he should follow in al the rest of his tendencies; if he had distanced himself to the extreme point of one, he should remove himself to the extreme end of the other and follow it up a long time until he may return to the good way, which is the middle-standard in each and every tendency.
Conclusion: how to translate all the above to the question at hand
So, tachles, to translate all this to your specific question: sleeping on time:
- While not being able to fall asleep might be biological; browsing the internet late at night is not; that is a habit.
- There is no magic potion so to speak; train yourself (and your body) to adhere to a strict circadian rhythm: build a healthy habit, fight the yetzer hara (evil inclination) and it will become second nature eventually.
- Be very strict with your sleeping schedule. Do not allow yourself any leniencies: one time allowing yourself an excuse to sleep late is a gateway to repeating it. After the second time, you will have basically made sleeping late permissible to yourself. The very act of ‘cheating’ on your sleeping schedule reshapes your judgment about it.
- Train yourself by starting off more extreme than necessary. Do you stay awake until 03:00, whereas you need to sleep no later than 23:00? Set your new sleeping time at 21:00. Stop any new activity at 20:00 or 20:30 and start going to bed (brushing teeth, etc.) so that you go to bed at 21:00. Once you become habituated to this it is easier to relax the schedule to 22:00, which allows room for unforeseen problems going to sleep without crossing the 23:00 boundary.
- Set up your environment to prepare yourself for success. Turn phones on to flight mode (no internet, etc.), tell your friends/family that you can only be contact in case of emergency. Any shows you want to watch on TV or a streaming service of choice? Record it or save it to a ‘watch later’ list, and watch it when it does not interfere with your new sleeping schedule.