There’s a very interesting article over on Riskology where Mr. Tervooren talks about a little bit of the history of the Vietnam War. Apparently there was a lot of concern, back in the day, about the number of troops addicted to heroin who were coming back to the states. Nixon had a plan, though, with methadone prescriptions and treatment centers and everything.
Thing was…they weren’t actually needed. Of the 20% of troops that self-identified as addicted, only about 5% of them actually relapsed into addiction after returning to the states – if they dried out in Vietnam. By comparison, the soldiers that returned to the U.S. still addicted and then went through treatment had a recidivism rate of 90% – which is what people usually expect with something like heroin.
So what was the secret? Turns out that the environment has a lot more to do with our bad habits than we’d expect. As psychologists David Neal and Wendy Wood put it,
“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…We don’t feel sort of pushed by [it]…But, in fact, we’re very integrated with it.” – NPR
By completely changing their surroundings – coming home – the soldiers stopped having the cues that made them want to shoot up. Without any of the reinforcement and conditioning of the war, kicking the purely physical habit didn’t turn out to be much of a problem.
Both articles are well worth a read if you’re interested in why some of your bad habits may be difficult to change. Trying to stop eating ice cream on the couch? Get rid of the couch! Having a hard time taking the stairs at work? Park somewhere else!
But wait, I hear you saying. This is sounding suspiciously like a Practice Post. What’s this got to do with Life, Gray?
I’m glad you asked.
Your Life is Where You Live
I look at this not from the perspective of wanting to eliminate habits by removing the environment that supports them. Rather, I’m curious about the idea of working it the other way around: why not set up your life so that it automatically supports the things you do want more of? Try it out: pick something you wish you did more of – not something that you should do, something you want to do. Something you love and yet don’t seem to have enough “time” for – and I just realized I misplaced those quotes, because it should read don’t seem to “have enough” time for. Because we know that it’s not that we don’t have enough time – it’s that it’s not a priority.
It would be easy to just shrug and say “Well, there it is then.” But no! We are masters of our environment! Ok, that’s a bit overly optimistic. How about: “We have some influence over our environment.” And if that’s the case, to quote Mr. Connery: What…are you…prepared…to DO?
Let’s make it simple and look at simply the physical environment. It’s much easier to change the physical environment, but this time we’re not trying to take something away – leave the couch alone! Or, rather, maybe you need to move the couch, but into a place where that thing you love is more easy to do.
Here’s a good example: my friend Karl has a fun little blog called FictionURL. It’s a pretty clever hobby site, focusing on the fake websites you see portrayed on TV, such as TurboChap (from The Good Wife), just listing them and occasionally talking a little bit about them.
The thing is, like a lot of hobbies, life tends to overwhelm it. Karl is gainfully employed, has a wonderful family including the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen (sorry, daughters) and so it’s hard for him to make the hobby blog a priority. Even though he and his wife follow Neruda’s advice and are “guardians of each other’s solitude”, when he gets his “private” evenings at home the site just didn’t seem to coalesce.
Which is why, as I write this, he’s sitting across from me working on his blog. Not at home, in a coffeeshop. For the last half hour he and I have been actively anti-social, focusing on the words. Neither of us have said more than a sentence or two, because we both know we’re here to write, not to chat or catch up.
There’s no Netflix. No Facebook. No kids, no partners, nothing but the chatter of the coffeeshop (proven to be an effective boost to productivity) as we steadily perform the sacred writerly ritual of transmuting caffeine into words.
Karl found an environment where he could focus on the thing that he loved, without having to sacrifice his other environment. I would call that positive lifestyle design.
Now it’s your turn: where does that guitar need to be to make it easier to pick it up and play? How can you make your yoga mat/zabuton look more inviting for a sitting/yoga practice? Which notebook and pen makes your fingers itch to write, and can you make friends with that lonely tree out on the fringe of the parking lot so that you absolutely want to say hello before you walk into work?
I stipulate that it’s entirely possible that you can’t change enough of your environment to fully support what you love. I can, however, tell you exactly how to figure out how long an effective change would take to work:
ΔL=X+( s – n )
…where ΔL is a change in the status of that thing you love, X is the amount of time your life needs to encourage it, s is when you start trying, and n is now.
What are you waiting for?