To your brain, the numbers 3:30 on the clock taste like vending-machine candy bars. The sight of the door at work feels like nicotine hitting the back of your throat. The sound of your car door closing smells like drive-thru fries. Hearing the familiar sizzle of the HBO logo tastes like four hours of ice cream flowing to your mouth on the couch while you binge and re-binge-watch The Wire.
These are your brain’s survival skills. And they’re killing you. It’s not that you have a “sitting desk” at work. Or your travel schedule requires that you eat filth at the airport kiosks. You and your dumb, untrained brain are doing these things. It’s actually so dumb that the fix is even dumber: Your life is a series of habits; gain control of your habits, gain control of your life.
A change in environment can completely unwire an addiction.
In May of 1971, two congressmen came back from Vietnam and reported that 15% of the American military over there was addicted to heroin. Fifteen percent! Those are CBGBs numbers. Further study brought that number to 20% self-reporting as addicts. Even more dabbled. But President Nixon took an unorthodox approach: He commanded that all addicted soldiers stay in Vietnam until they dried out.
Final success rate? Five percent. Meaning 20 out of 100 were addicted at the end of duty. And only 1 in 100 relapsed back in the states. And make no mistake—that’s 1 out of 100 people who survived and witnessed Vietnam. (I’ll get to what this means for your snack breaks in a minute). Ninety-nine out of 100 people who saw their friends die, who know what an ear-necklace is, who slept in the jungle, who lost limbs and who knew how to find a cheap pain-numbing drug walked away from it. Just by changing one part of their habit.
The numbers were so unbelievable that further studies were ordered. That’s when they discovered the missing piece: a change in environment can completely unwire an addiction.
“People, when they perform a behavior a lot—especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting—outsource the control of the behavior to the environment,” says David Neal, a behavioral psychologist familiar with the study.
If life has outsourced your self-control, here’s how to disrupt your habits and conquer your impulses:
1. Snack or otherwise partake with your nondominant hand.
Don’t start a shame cycle. Don’t throw out perfectly good food. Don’t buy a fucking diet book. Try this just-enough challenge to keep you from going into autopilot. As a benefit: you’ll build, strengthen and create new neural pathways to your brain. (You can also substitute lighting a cigarette/masturbating/scrolling through your phone/channel surfing.)
When your body whines, do your best Gene Hackman: “I am the captain of this boat!”
2. Curb your web browsing habit by disrupting your web browser with the Language Immersion Extension for Chrome.
This will just change one or dos palabras in a sentence to your target language. Browsing will look like a bad Hemingway short story. Bonus: you’ll build your vocabulary.
3. Jesus said, ‘If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.’
So if one or two websites drag you down, block them during specific work hours on Stay Focusd. I had this one running to give me five minutes of Facebook or Gawker a day before 6pm. Then I weaned off it. But I left it on for Wednesdays. Every Wednesday, I’m shocked when I’ve already used up my allowance by lunch.
4. Next time you finish cleaning the bathroom, arrange a booty call.
Seriously. Try it. In that order. Clean bathroom. Get texting. Have some company. You will be psyched next time you scrub that sink.
5. Pick whatever you do when you get home from a stressful day—shopping, smoking weed, ordering takeout—and just go to the damn movies.
When your body whines about it. do your best Gene Hackman: “I am the captain of this boat!”
6. Don’t ‘Keep Me Signed In.’
True on your phone. True on your browser. When you have to say, “I am going to remember my password, sign in, then see who from high school just had a baby,” your brain reacts differently than the mindless scroll of Twitter and Facebook.
7. Delete apps once in a while.
They aren’t going anywhere. Even the paid ones. You still have accounts. The only thing disappearing is your time. Take a week off Facebook and Twitter.
8. Before every first date, delete all of your dating apps.
Serial dating can be just as bad of a habit as any other. These apps are criminal because they waste our time and steal our hearts. Here’s the saddest 21st-century breakup I’ve heard: “‘What happened?’; ‘Are you okay?’; and ‘Have you turned Tinder back on?’ Sometimes the last answer suffices for all three: ‘I never turned it off,’ a newly single man once confessed.”
9. Set your notifications to zero.
Discover who thinks you’re a pretty little snowflake on Tinder when you go into Tinder. Find out who liked your comment when you find out the next bit of thrilling information. Don’t interrupt your flow of day, nor your appreciation of the calm winter skies. Same to you, Instagram.
10. Use the polite little iPhone moon icon for ‘Do Not Disturb.’
It’s my favorite. Texts, Tinder, Instagram, Facebook, NPR updates and Snapchat will all come directly to your lock screen, but they don’t light up or make a peep. You can elect to check them at any time. Phone calls, however, come right in.
11. Studies show that locational habits have social elements. So if you have one friend at work who is always asking if you want to go for a cigarette: murder him quietly.
And just to play it cool. Remember that exact amount of time he spent. Take the entire time it takes him to walk out, smoke and get back to do whichever one of these bad habits on the clock that you want.
After all, he did.