Overcoming Willpower

The Polymath's Pill (27/05/2020) by Project Impero — Pill #6

“The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least.” — James Clear


The War on Drugs

Heroin is one of the most addictive substances known to man.

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. Just last year, more than 15.000 people died from a heroin overdose. Imagine that, every month, two to three Boeing 747’s filled with passengers crashed and left no survivors. That’s how bad it is. The numbers are even worse than during the infamous Vietnam War.

At the time, it is estimated that around 20% of soldiers were addicted to the substance. This was a catastrophe. Heroin addiction was then considered to be incurable, as 9 out of 10 patients who visited a rehab clinic relapsed within a year. Worryingly, one of the military officers said ‘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 to help soldiers get back to their daily lives and keep an eye on those who succumbed to the temptation.

Shockingly, the committee discovered that only 5% of soldiers became re-addicted to heroin within their first year back home. How the hell could this be the case?

The Deadliest Habit

At its core, heroin abuse is a habit. According to habit guru and bestselling author James Clear, the pattern behind it 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 — he calls them The Habit Loop:

  1. Cue

  2. Craving

  3. Response

  4. Reward

In a nutshell, when we are exposed to a certain cue (i.e. a spark), it triggers a craving. The craving calls for a response in the hopes of getting a reward. These four phases loop because the reward eventually becomes directly associated with the cue.

In Vietnam, it went a bit like this: a firefight acted as a cue that triggered anxiety and a craving for escapism from the war. Soldiers responded to that craving by injecting heroin and were rewarded with intense exogenous pleasure and relaxation. Just like that, the habit loop was formed: they now directly associated the rush of pleasure from getting high to daily combat. So, every time bullets flew, they craved heroin.

But have you noticed how the entire Habit Loop depends on simply being exposed to the cue? That’s where the magic lies: if you get rid of the spark, you get rid of the fire.

This is the reason why US soldiers had a much easier time quitting heroin when they came back home: they left all the triggering cues back in Vietnam. Incidentally, that’s also why 90% of people coming back from rehab fall back into addiction: they always come home to the same environment — and therefore, to the same cues.

Environment Engineering

What lessons can we extract from all of this?

Discipline and self-control are barely necessary when your environment is designed to force you to achieve new habits. The rule of thumb is simple: 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 ones, 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 — by far. It is the most efficient way to alter your habits. Minimum input; maximum output.

Here are some basic ideas on how to do it:

  • Want to eat healthier? Throw away all the junk food you keep in your pantry.

  • Want to spend less? Leave all your credit cards at home and carry a limited amount of cash on you.

  • Want to avoid checking your phone? Turn it off and put it at the very opposite end of your house, or give it to a colleague during work hours.

  • Want to read more? Place the book you want to read on your pillow every morning, you can even open it on the page you are supposed to keep reading on.

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 and be devoid of all the cues that trigger bad ones.


Whether or not you shape your surroundings, they will always shape you. If you want to create a life worth looking back on, start by creating an environment worthy of it. That is the secret to overcoming willpower: rarely ever needing it.


As always, thank you all for being here,
Santiago

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