The Life Changing Magic of Blocking Things

A long, long time ago, in a distant land, there were humans. These humans were not very interested in browsing the internet because there was no such thing at all. In fact, it was such a long time ago, that there was no electricity, either. There were no engines, no printed books. There was just survival, and nothing else. The main activities of the day were hunting moving objects and looking for not poisonous non-moving objects. That, dear reader, was the era of scarcity.

After a successful hunt and a nutritious dinner, there was never a guarantee at all that the next hunt will be successful as well. That could very well be the last dinner for some poor ancient fellow, because, let’s face it – hunting is not an easy thing to do. What if the animals migrate to another territory? What if it’s too cold to go outside? What if we get lost or eaten by a giant talking mammoth with a sloth friend? All right, but we still got the gathering thing going on, right? Sure. Unless we eat all the berries and mushrooms and fruits in the area. Or some new intern accidentally brings home a bag of non-edible berries and ends up killing half of the population. Living used to be tough, and we had to survive somehow. Keeping all that in mind, our good friend Mr. Brain one day had enough of this crap and designed a great strategy to go as long as possible without putting things in the mouth. That strategy we now know as binging.

Jump to the current day and we obviously no longer live in a world of scarcity. We can have as many one dollar burgers as your heart desires, we don’t need to be cautious of any tigers or lions or wolves or anything of that sort, and most importantly we have the the good ol’ internet to keep us entertained. Unfortunately for us though, we still have the scarcity mentality thingy going on, and instead of having two one dollar burgers, we order seven, consume five and bring the two ones left home for dinner. Sure, we now have the consciousness thing too, but can it really compete with a calorie-filled, greasy cow meat with carbs on top (and bottom)? Maybe, on a good day. Most of the time, it’s not even close. Clever placement of ads and delicious chocolates near the checkout doesn’t help either. And so, we binge. We give in to our subconscious urges about potentially starving to death and end up buying a big bag of chips instead of a cucumber. A Pepsi instead of water. Something we want instead of something we need. In addition to all that, food is not the only thing we binge on. We binge on anything that gives us pleasure, and oh boy do we have a few of those type of activities in our current world.

The basic mechanism behind binging itself is quite simple: we see a thing that our brains like (e.g. food), we do a things (eat the food), we feel good. That is known as the habit loop – seeing a cue, indulging in a routine, getting a reward. Our brains remember where this pleasant feeling came from and next time we want to stop feeling bad about something (maybe not buying a cucumber?) we say to ourselves ‘Hey, I felt good when I had a Snickers. Feeling good is good, hence I will now have another Snickers.’ Then you high five yourself and live a happy life, the end. Or you die of type 2 diabetes, whichever comes first. The simplistic process described above is known as positive reinforcement, and is one of the major components in creating our current binge-loving society, of which I too am indubitably a part of. In today’s consumerist world, it’s really rather difficult to get out of this binging trap, as after a while of repeating the same behaviour, It becomes, what is referred to as, a habit.

Habit is a straightforward concept that you if perform an action enough number of times, it gets engrained in your brain and becomes automatic. That is because of neuroplasticity – after some time of repeating the same behaviour, your brain will literally create new neural connections for that particular action which make it easier to perform later on. That, of course, is to save energy in case there’s a famine and all that. Each time you perform the same action, the connection gets stronger, thus making the task easier the next time. For instance, a habit could be that every time you get back home after a long day, you turn on your computer. Here the cue is getting home, the routine is pressing the ON button, the reward is watching How I met Your Mother for 3 hours. You don’t consciously say to yourself ‘I will now proceed to press the ON button on my computer’, you just do it without thinking. Similarly, binge-eating can also be a habit. Having a slow day? Let’s open the fridge to cheer yourself up. Having a excellent day? Let’s open the fridge to celebrate! Hooray for habits!

Luckily, as author Charles Duhigg describes in his book ‘The Power of Habit’, there is a brilliant way of breaking free of your habit chains, and that is simply to remove the cue. As it turns out, people who used to visit the same restaurant every day would stop eating fast food altogether if that restaurant, for whatever reason, closed. Likewise, a possible solution to your button-pressing addiction could be to simply move your computer to a different location, say, another room. Of course, breaking a strongly engrained habit such as binge eating won’t be as easy as simply moving the fridge, but it can surely be a great start. As the saying goes: work smart, not hard (though I would go so far as to say that the most successful strategy involves doing both).

I myself have had a long-time running addiction of browsing the internet instead of doing literally anything else. I have spent two years of university not studying, not joining incredibly fun societies or hanging out with friends, but browsing Reddit and looking at funny dog pictures. That was literally what I did all day. I would get up in the morning, instantly grab my phone and lay in my bed looking at cats standing on two legs for the next 3 hours, until I got hungry enough to get some food. I would skip lectures, put off studying, avoid human interactions or exciting events just to see some more funny pictures. Unsurprisingly, I dropped out. However, what I learned is that all I needed, was simply to remove the cue. I deleted my Reddit phone app, and as for the PC – there is great free application called ColdTurkey, which blocks the websites of your choice for a set amount of time. For me, that time was twenty years. And by the way – you can’t unblock it. It’s impossible, I tried, I really tried. Today I can proudly say that I am Reddit free and it’s been an incredibly long time since I’ve been in as good a state as this one. I even started a blog, who would’ve thought?..

Habits aren’t good or bad, habits just are. You can cultivate productive ones, just like you can indulge in destructive ones. That, dear reader, is up to you. Sometimes, it can feel like you are not in control, like you have no choice and there’s nothing you can do, but that’s a lie. This helplessness is a feeling, and feelings come and go, like the weather. After a while, the sun always comes out, and when it does, it’s time to move the fridge.