Heroin is one of the most addictive substances known to man. A couple of injections can make even the most strong-willed beg for more.
In the US alone, the number of heroin addicts has gone from 400.000 to almost 1.000.000 in the last couple of decades. That’s a +530% increase. Just last year, more than 15.000 people died from heroin overdose. Imagine that, every year, 30 Boeing 747’s filled with passengers crashed and left no survivors. Two or three every month. That’s how bad it is. The numbers are even worse than during the infamous Vietnam war.
It’s no secret that many US soldiers became heroin dependent during the conflict. It’s hard to blame them. Can we judge soldiers on the battlefield who just want to escape the reality they were put into? You spend all day drowning in stress and haunted by fear. You barely sleep. You barely eat. You barely laugh. So, when one of your peers comes to you with a temporary get-away from your immediate surroundings, you give it a try. Everyone else is doing it too, so it can’t be that bad, right?
It is estimated that around 20% of soldiers were addicted to the substance. This was a catastrophe. At the time, it was more or less accepted that heroin addiction was practically incurable. The numbers backed that up quite substantially: 9 out of 10 patients who visit a rehab clinic get re-addicted when they come back home. How the hell was the US planning to deal with them when the war ended? One of the military officers tragically said that:
“Tens of thousands of soldiers are going back as walking time-bombs.”
America quickly put together a rehabilitation program to keep the monster at bay. President Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention, hoping that it would help mitigate the epidemic. The goal was to help soldiers get back to their daily lives. It was also to keep an eye on them and see who succumbed to the temptation.
Shockingly, the committee discovered that only 5% of soldiers became re-addicted to heroin within the first year.
James Clear recently published what is probably the most complete and pragmatic book on habits ever written: Atomic Habits. I will not go into detail as to why it is so good, the reviews speak for themselves.
As I went through his book, one chapter really caught my attention. At one point, James says that the difference between disciplined and undisciplined people has surprisingly little to do with willpower and self-control. You have probably heard, over and over, that you should get your act together (that’s true) and that you should get better at resisting temptations and just “doing the thing” (that’s… misleading).
Here is the key takeaway in a nutshell, as the author put it:
“The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. So, yes, perseverance, grit, and willpower are essential to success, but the way to improve these qualities is not by wishing you were a more disciplined person, but by creating a more disciplined environment.”James Clear, Atomic Habits
This is, in fact, a very simple idea, but its consequences are very sophisticated. James’ heroin example illustrates it best. At its core, heroin abuse is a habit. The underlying pattern is no different than you craving to scroll through Instagram, or really wanting to eat junk food. Your brain goes through the same four phases – what he describes as the Habit Loop:
Somewhere, something, acts as a cue (i.e. a spark). This cue triggers a craving. The craving elicits a response. The response brings a reward. The reward becomes associated with the cue. Repeat.
Picture this very simple scenario:
- You walk past the bakery and smell freshly made bread.
- You stomach mumbles and you crave some pastries.
- You go into the shop and buy a couple of doughnuts.
- You eat them and make your sugar-hungry brain happy.
The smell is the cue. It triggers a craving for pastries. You respond to that craving by buying and eating doughnuts. You are rewarded by a delicious taste and a rush of sugar. Repeat that a couple of times and you will create an association between reward and cue: every time you smell fresh bread, you will most likely crave doughnuts.
The pattern is the same for soldiers in Vietnam. If, after a stressful fire exchange, you decide to shoot up to relax and unwind, you will eventually associate the rush of pleasure from injecting heroin to shots being fired. So, every time bullets fly, you will instantly crave heroin. And that is just one single cue. There can be many more. An entire situation, context and environment can be a cue.
But, wait. The power of the Habit Loop mainly stands on one leg: the cue. It is the spark that sets the fuse on fire, right? So, what happens if you get rid of it? Well, consider this:
Because heroin usage is a habit, the war Veterans had a much easier time quitting heroin when they finally came back home. They underwent a radical change in environment – they left all the triggers back in Vietnam. Habits fall apart without cues.
It is no wonder, then, that 90% of people coming back from rehab fall back into addiction: they are coming home to the same environment – and therefore, to the same cues.
I have always considered that being lazy is not necessarily a bad thing. It has been quite useful for me in the past. Switch the tag from “I am lazy” to “I am efficient” and you are on your way to something more productive.
Whatever task I was given at work, I would usually spend a significant amount of time thinking “What is the best way for me to do this with the least amount of effort?”. This usually meant trying to see if tools that I had available (e.g. Excel) could do much of the work for me; or if people had ever had to do similar tasks, and how they carried them out. If nothing else worked, I would even try to map out the best hand position on my keyboard so that I could use as many typing shortcuts as possible.
Why is this relevant?
It was not until I read James Clear’s book that I realized I am missing out by not applying this same mindset outside of work. Trying to be as efficient as possible essentially meant trying to mold my environment to my advantage. Let the tools do the work. Find the path of least resistance. Make it as easy as possible.
Be lazy, sure, but don’t be stupid.
I started looking around to see if other people had taken advantage of their laziness in order to set habits, and I stumbled upon a wonderful video by Lefie called “Self-Discipline with Minimal Effort“. I highly recommend it. It’s very short and very witty. Give it a watch:
Done? Great. Now ask yourself this question:
How can I structure my environment such that it makes implementing good habits as easy and effortless as possible?
And then this one:
How can I structure my environment such that it makes breaking bad habits as easy and effortless as possible?
Ask them seriously. Answer them seriously. Oh, and remember these key points:
- When it comes to creating good habits, you want to construct an environment that makes it easier to engage in the action than to resist it.
- When it comes to breaking bad habits, you want to construct an environment that makes it easier to avoid the action than to engage with it.
If you do it right, you will quickly realize that investing time in engineering your environment has the greatest ROI. It is the most efficient way to alter your habits. Minimum input, maximum output.
The board (i.e. you) will be delighted with the results.
Leafie gives a couple of really good examples on how to do this. My favorite concerns budgeting.
Let’s say you want to save money, but you keep going over your daily budget. You could beat yourself up and think that you are undisciplined and unworthy (which would probably make you more anxious and increase spending) or… you could simply not carry your credit cards with you.
If, every morning, you only put $30 cash in your wallet – and leave your credit cards at home – by the end of the day you will only have spent a maximum of $30. You simply gave yourself no other option. (Obviously, if you use ApplePay or any form of phone payment, simply get rid of it.) In this case, it is easier to not spend the money than it is to get in your car, drive home, get the credit cards and drive back to the store.
James Clear also writes about practical scenarios. For instance, if you keep checking your phone when you are studying, simply put your phone at the very opposite side of your house. Once you sit down to work, you are much less likely to get up, walk, and check the phone, than you are to stay at your desk. Hell, put it in a particularly hard to reach place if you are really addicted. One you need a ladder for. Then put the ladder in a hard to reach place, too.
If this sounds stupidly simple, it’s because it is. The question is, why are you not doing it more often? You don’t need a revolutionary idea to help structure your life. The simplest ones tend to have the largest impact. If a productivity system requires that you read 3 books, listen to 2 Ted Talks and have a PhD in Getting Your Act Together to put it into practice… then it’s probably a bad system.
Start small. Do one thing. It will add up, I promise. Consider these examples for inspiration:
- If you simply have no junk food at home, you are less likely to eat junk food.
- If you are often tempted to buy junk food at the convenience store you walk past every day, take a different route home.
- If you have to go into said grocery shop, then only bring enough cash to buy real food, leave no room for junk food.
- If you watch too much TV, take it out of your room and store it in the closet.
- If you spend too much time on Instagram, delete the app, or even delete the account.
- If you struggle to read more, put the book you want to read on your pillow every morning when you make your bed. You could even open it on the page you are supposed to keep reading.
- If you struggle to make your bed, get rid of any complexity (i.e. having different layers of sheets) and simply put a thin duvet.
- If you struggle to clean your house, invite your crush for dinner.
There is no limit to how far you can take these, so take them as far as you have to. Get creative with them – make a game out of it.
Whichever changes you do, remember the bottom line: don’t trust yourself. Instead:
- Make your environment serve your desired habits on a silver platter.
- Make your environment devoid of cues that trigger bad habits.
These little changes compound surprisingly quickly. Perhaps now you will actually keep your house clean, then read a little before bed, spend less time on your phone and eat a little healthier. That’s the difference between a bad day and a good one. Keep that up for a few months and you will be miles ahead of where you are right now.
It is much easier to plan things than it is to do them – so sit down and plan… but plan them well. The doing part will come naturally. Create your own environment, don’t just live in the one you were given.
Self-control is a short-term strategy, not a long-term one. You may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it’s unlikely you can muster the willpower to override your desires every time. Instead of summoning a new dose of willpower whenever you want to do the right thing, your energy would be better spent optimizing your environment. This is the secret to self-control. Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.James Clear, Atomic Habits