In 1971 as the Vietnam War was entering its sixteenth year, it was discovered that over 15 per cent of U.S. soldiers stationed there had become heroin addicts. Shortly after, it was discovered that around 35 per cent of troops had tried the Class A drug. When the troops returned home from the war, it was a serious worry that these veterans would continue their addiction once back on U.S. soil.
However, in a ground-breaking study by Lee Robins, one of the main researchers into the soldier’s overseas heroin addiction, it was found that of the heroin users that returned home, only 5 per cent relapsed within a year and just 12 per cent relapsed within three years. Around nine out of ten users managed to eliminate their addiction to one of the world’s most addictive drugs, seemingly overnight. After further research, Robins concluded that addictions could spontaneously disappear if there was a radical change in the user’s environment. In Vietnam, heroin was easy to access, it was a way to cope with the stress of war and many of a soldier’s friends were likely to be heroin users. Back in the United States, none of those things were true. The context changed, and so did the habit.
The Secret Sauce of Disciplined People
Soldiers are some of the most disciplined people in the world and yet, they became a slave to their environment. In Vietnam, a lot of them used heroin. On their return to a more stable country, many of them stopped. It is not hard to see how much the immediate environment – war, friends, stress, access – all played a significant role in taking up and subsequently quitting one of the world’s most addictive substances.
Whether you are a soldier or an office worker or a builder, all ‘disciplined’ people have one thing in common: they rarely have to use their willpower. The people with the best self-control are typically those who have to use it the least – their environment does all of the work for them. Most people whose self-control you admire don’t have superhuman willpower, because willpower only wins in the short-term. The secret of disciplined people is knowing that your environment always wins in the long-term.
Think about the following scenarios and decide for yourself who keeps their good habits up for the longest. Assume that both people in each scenario have a decent amount of willpower.
Person 1: Works in an office where there are biscuits and sweet treats in the break room or out on the desks all day.
Person 2: Works in an office where the biscuits and sweet treats are kept in a designated cupboard. Everyone knows where they are, but they’re out of sight.
Person 1: Keeps the tablets that they need to take every morning in a cupboard hidden away unless remembered.
Person 2: Keeps the tablets that they need to take every morning on the counter at eye-level.
Person 1: Works with her phone next to her
Person 2: Works with her phone in another room
If you’re following along, Person 2 is going to win out every time. Even though both people have the same amount of willpower, Person 1’s self-control is always being tested, whereas Person 2’s self-control (and other aspects like memory) are hardly ever being tested. It’s much easier to practise self-restraint when you don’t have to use it that often, and this comes from having the right environment.
How to Build the Environment of a Disciplined Person
We’re all humans with limited willpower and self-control. We are what we repeat and the sooner we realise that we are at the whims of our environment when it comes to things like the workplace, friends, culture, family or anything else that we interact with on a daily basis, the better off we will be.
We are copying machines that love to fit in. Even if you identify as a bit of an outsider to the norms of society, you are still identifying yourself with the ‘outsider group’. We mould to our environment and the people that we spend time with, so these things need to be working for us, and not against us.
Here are some of my favourite tips courtesy of the habits guru himself, James Clear, for creating the right environment for your success:
- For a positive habit that you want to create or maintain, make it obvious. If you want to read more, put your book on your pillow after dinner. If you want to eat more greens, give them a prominent place in your fridge. If you want to go to the gym more often, lay out your workout clothes in the evening before bed, ready to go when you wake up. Visual cues not only remind you to do the right things, but they also take away the need for any extra willpower that you might be relying on.
- For a negative habit that you want to get rid of or avoid, you simply do the inverse. Make it invisible. If you want to stop spending so much money on shoes, stop browsing the latest trends in the shoe world. If you want to stop checking your phone so often, leave it in another part of the house while you work. If you want to stop smoking, make it as difficult as possible to find or light up your cigarette when you start to crave it.
Positive habits are reinforced by making them as easy as possible to maintain. Negative habits are eliminated by making them as hard as possible to continue. Everyone slips up, but it is all about how quickly you can correct course. The secret of disciplined people is that they don’t use willpower or self-control often, they let their environment do all of the hard work for them.