Failing to Create New Habits Doesn’t Mean You Lack Willpower

What we learned from heroin-addicted Vietnam War veterans and then promptly forgot.

On May 16, 1971, a headline on the front page of the New York Times read, “G.I. Heroin Addiction Epidemic in Vietnam.” This wasn’t an exaggeration. According to a report from the Department of Defense, 51% of soldiers had smoked marijuana, 31% had used psychedelics, and 28% had done hard drugs, like cocaine and heroin.

Naturally, the U.S. Government was concerned. They feared these soldiers would continue to abuse drugs when they returned home. This kickstarted a program for the rehabilitation of service members, which included tracking addicted members.

The fear, however, turned out to be misplaced. And what we learned from this ordeal is one of the most useful facts about human psychology that we’ve ever discovered.

What happened to these soldiers?

When the soldiers returned home, they didn’t become the raging junkies that everyone feared they’d become. Even though many of them had been addicted to hard drugs, like heroin, that addiction virtually ceased upon them returning to America. Only 5% of service members who were addicted to heroin remained addicted after one year. After three years, 12% had relapsed.

Considering that heroin is highly addictive, this is remarkable. How could thousands of soldiers just suddenly kick the habit?

We tend to think of habit creation as being composed almost entirely of discipline and willpower. So, we imagine that these soldiers simply “toughed it out” — that they willed themselves to get through the worst of their addiction and then it was smooth sailing from there.

But, this is where we get things wrong and do ourselves a grave disservice. We have a natural disposition to place discipline and willpower on pedestals and admire whoever seems to have them. And, when we perceive these qualities as lacking within us, we feel weak, undeserving, and pathetic.

But, what if habit change has little to do with discipline or willpower at all? What if failing to change a habit doesn’t mean we’re bad people, it just means we’re using a bad strategy? What if we’re beating ourselves up for nothing?

What discipline and willpower can’t do

What’s the first thing you think when your colleague tells you she gets up at 5 AM every morning to go for a run? You think, Damn, I wish I had that kind of discipline, right? Well, what if your colleague didn’t need to use any willpower at all to get herself moving?

To understand why the soldiers were able to stop abusing drugs, you need to consider how their lives suddenly changed. In Vietnam, bored, stressed by war, and thousands of miles from home, they found an outlet — they took easily accessible drugs to get high and pass the time.

When they returned home, however, all those environmental cues were gone. They were no longer bored. They were no longer stressed by the pressures of war. They weren’t surrounded by other people constantly getting high. They had lives to start building. Instantly, all the reasons they had to take the drugs disappeared.

This is why so many soldiers were able to kick the habit. It’s not that they all had tremendous willpower and discipline — it’s just that when their environment changed, their habits changed along with it.

In the decades since the Vietnam War, what we’ve learned is that discipline and willpower aren’t what we think they are. They aren’t tools that only “strong and morally upstanding” people use to get what they want from life. When we see people behaving in a disciplined manner, they probably aren’t using any willpower at all.

And this is the secret. Just like the soldiers were able to stop using highly addictive drugs when they returned home, other people have found ways of manipulating their environments to improve their lives. It’s not about having or creating more discipline and willpower, it’s about designing your environment so you don’t have to use them in the first place.

Design your life for laziness

You might bristle when you hear this, but it must be said— humans are lazy. And rightly so! We wouldn’t have survived as a species if we expended energy for no good reason.

This is a truth each of us needs to accept and then incorporate into our lives. If you don’t — if you create a life strategy based on the assumption that humans are brimming with zest and zeal — chances are your strategy will suck.

This is why we need to design our lives for laziness. What does that mean? It means that if we want to do certain things, we need to make it as easy as possible for ourselves to do them. It also means that if we don’t want to do other things, we need to make it harder to do them.

Here are some examples:

  • Are you tired of being distracted by your phone? Then keep it out of reach and out of sight.
  • Are you tired of snacking on junk food every night? Then put it somewhere inconvenient, like in the garage or on a top-shelf.
  • Do you want to go for a run first thing in the morning? Then sleep in your workout clothes and keep your runners by the front door.
  • Do you want to stop using social media so frequently? Then delete those apps from your phone and have a different password for each one that is impossible to remember.
  • Do you want to eat more healthy foods? Then find some healthy, go-to recipes that are quick to prepare and that you enjoy eating. And always keep the ingredients on hand.

By making it harder to do something you don’t want to do, you are making it relatively easier to do the thing you do want to do. Studies have shown we tend to simply do what’s easier, even when it comes to a minimal amount of effort.

For example, if given the option, which would you choose — apple slices or buttery popcorn? Obviously, you’d choose the buttery popcorn, right? But, what if the apple slices were slightly closer to you, do you think that would make a difference?

It turns out that it would! Participants were more likely to choose apple slices over buttery popcorn when the apple slices required slightly less effort to reach.

So, instead of beating yourself up for your “lack of discipline and willpower”, start to design your life in ways that make it easier for you to perform the behaviors that will benefit you.

If you’re skeptical, test it out for yourself. If you work from home, put your phone out of reach and place it under a pillow or book. Once you get over the anxiety of not having your phone constantly accessible, you’ll be less distracted and more productive.

In time, your repeated efforts will turn into habits, and then you won’t even need to think about them anymore. You’ll perform the desired behaviors without using willpower or discipline at all. And then people will look at you and think, That person has amazing discipline! But, you’ll know that what they call “discipline” is nothing more than a realized habit. It’s not magic and it doesn’t take a heroic amount of willpower to achieve.

What tiny change are you going to make to your environment to encourage positive behaviors? Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks for reading!

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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