Know Your Addictions

What are you unable to stop after you start? Do you:

  • Tell yourself you’ll eat just a few chips, then eat the whole bag?
  • Watch funny YouTube videos “for a few minutes”, and then notice that an hour has passed?
  • Choose to have “one drink”, and end up having five?
  • Decide to play video games “for an hour” and then later discover you’ve been at it the entire night?
  • Tell yourself you’ll check your stock portfolio “just once more” today, and then check it three more times?

Regardless of whether an activity is considered physically addictive, if you can’t stop doing it when you know you should, that activity is addictive (to you) in a meaningful sense.

Wikipedia’s description of addiction is enlightening:

Classic hallmarks of addiction include: impaired control over the behavior, preoccupation with the behavior, continuation despite consequences, and denial. Habits and patterns associated with addiction are typically characterized by immediate gratification (short-term reward), coupled with delayed deleterious effects (long-term costs).

The way some people drink coffee, read wikipedia, refresh email, post to comment threads, eat unhealthy foods, and check Facebook satisfy most of these criteria.

Not found in the ancestral environment.

Suppose someone tells you that the last five times he’s gone to McDonald’s he’s eaten more food than intended. He says that even noticing his overeating didn’t curb this behavior. What do you think will happen the next time he goes to McDonald’s? If willpower, and a conscious desire to eat less didn’t work for him the last five times, why would it work for him the next time?

Now suppose that this person who overeats at McDonald’s is you. You may be convinced that you have a choice as to whether to eat too much at McDonald’s, that you are in control of yourself. But if every time you’ve been placed in that situation you failed to stop, why should next time be any different? If your willpower failed before, why would it succeed this time? As long as you are not different than you were, and the environment is not different either, you should not expect to get different results.

The ideal rate of an activity that is addictive to you is not necessarily zero. Just because you can’t stop when you start doesn’t mean you should never start. Perhaps spending an entire saturday playing video games once every three months is actually worth it to you. But the fact that you find an activity addictive implies that you should be much more cautious about starting in the first place. The choice you are making is not between eating zero chips and eating five. It is between eating zero chips and eating the entire bag. Stop telling yourself lies: if you couldn’t stop at five chips in the past, you very likely can’t stop at five this time either.

Once you accept that if you buy the chips you’ll be eating the whole bag, then you’re more likely to buy them at a more appropriate rate. If you cling to the idea that you are in control, and can stop whenever you want, then you’ll buy as though you can stop at five chips, even though you’ll eat as though you can’t.

There are certain cases where the right rate of a pleasurable activity is actually zero. If five chips is worth it, but an entire bag never is, and you always end up eating the entire bag, you probably shouldn’t ever be buying chips. Fortunately, cravings tend to fade. Cutting something out of your life may at first lead to increased cravings, but for most things those cravings will diminish. As long as you can avoid situations which re-trigger your desire, you may even forget that the object of your addiction exists. So you definitely shouldn’t hang around smokers when you’re trying to quit smoking.

Sometimes, the right choice is not cutting an activity out, but changing its form. Perhaps you can’t stop playing World of Warcraft once you log on, but there may be other games you enjoy that you don’t have nearly as much trouble stopping. So switch to one of those. Or maybe there is a certain type of chip that you find you always over consume, but another snack you enjoy almost as much that you can eat in reasonable quantities.

Most people in America are addicted to something. Food, TV, drugs, the internet, and games are common culprits. Companies have a profit motive to make these products addictive. They balance the fat, sugar, and salt in foods to try to make them maximally delicious, maximally difficult to stop eating. Foods today are far more difficult to stop eating than anything your ancestors from a hundred thousand years ago would have encountered. Likewise, online gaming companies fine tune game parameters to maximize the time that you play. They know that if you find treasure chests too often the game lacks excitement, and if you find them too infrequently, the game is frustrating. So they experiment on millions of users to figure out the optimal rate of treasure chests to keep people playing.

Want to reduce your addictions? Start right now by answering these four questions:

1. What activities do you have trouble stopping once you’ve started (or start more frequently than you should), even past the point when you know you should stop?


  • Checking Facebook
  • Playing console games
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Eating too much bread

2. What situations lead to you engaging in these activities?


  • While surfing the internet you find yourself logging into Facebook
  • You feel bored and sit down in font of your game console
  • Friends invite you to a bar, or you remember the bottle of vodka in your freezer and open the freezer door
  • You’re at a restaurant and the server brings bread to the table

3. What could you do to avoid getting into these situations where your addictions are activated?


  • Lock yourself out of Facebook or other time-wasting sites during certain hours of the day (or limit your usage to a certain amount of time per day) using software such as WasteNoTime (Safari & Chrome), Nanny (Chrome),  LeechBlock (Firefox), Eclipse (Windows), Freedom (Mac & Windows), Anti-Social (Mac), or Concentrate (Mac).
  • Sell your game console (or cancel your World of Warcraft subscription). Only play at friend’s houses, which will put a natural cap on how much gaming you can do.
  • Suggest to your friends that you meet at a coffee shop instead of a bar. Don’t keep alcohol in your house, for any reason (even if you resist drinking 95% of the times you notice the alcohol in your fridge, you’ll still find yourself drinking the other times).
  • As soon as you sit down at the restaurant, tell the server you don’t want bread (if the bread is sitting in front of you, you’re probably going to eat it).

4. What can you do right now to help make sure you carry out these strategies?


  • Download and setup one of the previously mentioned website blockers
  • Immediately go post your game console on ebay
  • Add repeated weekly reminders to your calendar to remind you never to keep alcohol at home
  • Set a timer that will go off just before you reach the restaurant tomorrow, reminding you to tell the server you don’t want bread

You’ve got strategies now. Go implement them!

6 thoughts on “Know Your Addictions

  1. Rusty Ashbaugh says:

    I think you are right on the money with this one. I do much better with dieting if there are no “bad” foods in the house.

    I am also working on telling myself that “unnecessary hunger” is just my body telling me that it is burning off unnecessary fat (my gut!). So “hunger” is a good thing and doesn’t have to be “satisfied.” Obviously I don’t want to get carried away with this “programming.” I guess I like quotation marks too.

  2. Leo says:

    I’ve controlled the diet by going to a regular sesion with a dietist, once every week to prepare a weekly regime. I do this regime perfect most of the time so it works. Exersice avoidance is something big for me now, I’ve used the same strategy and when the instructors are availiable it works, the problem is that right now both of them are very unreliable (a boxing instructor Wendsday and Friday and a swimming instructor thuesday, thursday and saturday) they keep moving classes and I’ve allready paid them. This irregularity (by understandable motives of both instructors have to say) is messing with my plan. So I will have to wait the sessions end and then get new instructors, reliable one this time.

    Facebook, Youtube and Google Reader are causing me troubles too. I’ll see if I can install this program you give.

    Eclipse’s link doesn’t work, and a search in Google gives me results for another eclipse. Can you fix that?

  3. Emaleah says:

    I didn’t even know these website blockers existed, what a great idea, thanks! One of the main examples of addiction I see all the time is addiction to a destructive relationship. I have friends who are in perpetual cycles of “cutting themselves off” a bad partner, then being “unable to resist” when s/he calls, are briefly happy when they’re getting the attention they want, and finally lapse into a desperate, sad state of withdrawal between liaisons (and so on, ad nauseam). It’s one thing to be realistic about chips or WoW, harder to make healthy choices where the heart (and loins) are concerned!

    1. Spencer Spencer says:

      Nice example!

  4. Francelle says:

    I know some people have a hard time with this because of a hesitancy to “waste” food, but should the bread-avoiding patron forget to ask the server to not bring bread, or should the patron remember to request that the server not bring bread, but the busy server forgets and ends up setting bread down on the table, the patron has not forfeited his / her chance to have the bread removed. (We don’t help starving children by eating excess food ourselves. Of course people recognize this, but they don’t always act as though they do.)

  5. Grognor says:

    I already knew LeechBlock was a good idea, but this article finally got me to install it. It hasn’t solved my problem, but it helps.

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