There are certain things, at certain times, that I start to acutely crave. These cravings are programmed behaviors that always execute in the same mechanical, linear way.
I’d like this to not happen. So I spent a bunch of time closely observing how these programs execute. And developing approaches that help rewrite them.
I have been able to completely and permanently get myself un-addicted to social media. To arguing with people online. To playing poker. I am close to doing the same for sugar, netflix and videogames.
Why hack yourself?
There is a lot of (uninformed) talk about how Instagram/Facebook is hacking you. Usually accompanied by outrage at reality. Or denial, despite overwhelming evidence.
A more constructive approach is to embrace reality for what it is. And embrace yourself for what you are — a biorobot, following a set of programs.
Find ways to observe how the programs execute. Hack yourself in service of your own goals. The way Instagram is trying to hack you in service of theirs.
What do I mean by “cravings”?
Basically “programs that execute at certain moments in time when something I know is bad for me becomes intensely desirable and hard to resist.”
I think “addictions” is a very similar concept.
What I crave, when:
There are 3 things I currently crave: to eat sugar, to watch Netflix, and to play videogames.
This only happens in evenings when certain triggers arise and willpower is lower.
Why do I want to get rid of these?
- Sugar is very bad for you. In any amount. For many reasons. This is an undisputed fact in the world today. Just like “cigarettes are bad for you.”
- Netflix/videogames still take 1–2 hours a day that I would like to spend on more useful types of rest. Time with friends, meditation, reading, sleeping, listening to podcasts, going to the spa etc. If I were able to replace the former with the latter permanently it would be a big win for my life.
More generally I enjoy personal growth. I want to reprogram and change myself more easily. It is clear that the ability to reprogram habits is a “muscle.” It can itself be trained.
So every time I change a habit there are second-order consequences. Reprogramming other habits becomes easier.
That last bit is extremely valuable.
What are the symptoms of a of a craving program executing?
My cravings are a consistent, precise program. It always executes in the same way:
- Trigger that launches the program. Usually eating dinner, winding down before sleep, or simply coming home in the evening. I eliminated the more obvious triggers like having bad food around. Situational triggers above cannot be easily removed.
- Fantasizing about physically acting the craving out. My mind starts constructing scenarios of me going and ordering some dessert. Booting up Steam and playing a game. This seems to be a hallmark of various desires. e.g. if I meditate for a long time, I start to fantasize about standing up and getting red of the pain in my legs. I was discussing this with Paul Conti, my therapist. It appears that this is a very common way such programs execute. The motor centers of the brain actually switch on. Signal the body to act out the program physically.
- Inventing rationalizations for why I should do it. As in “I am in this hotel with a michelin star restaurant, I can have dessert from there, it is a unique dessert that i can’t get elsewhere” or “I just had a 2 hour workout in the gym, Peter Attia says this is when glycogen reserves are depleted and sugar is less harmful because it does not stay in the bloodstream and gets taken up into muscle/liver fast so I should eat it now” or “my genius co-founder plays video games! fucking Elon Musk plays video games, I want to be like that guy so I should play them!” It is hilarious how actively my mind searches for rationalizations here.
If you read such (highly recommended) books as The Elephant in The Brain, The Happiness Hypothesis or The Righteous Mind, you will remember that this is something we do all the fucking time. First decide what we want to be the conclusion. Then look for arguments to support it. We think we are being rational independent thinkers. In fact we are robots executing confirmation-bias programs.
- A feeling of acute emotional annoyance at arguments against acting on the craving. I feel upset at the very idea that after a 2 hour gym workout I don’t let myself have some small session of watching Rick and Morty. Just 20 minutes! (even though of course it never is 20 minutes).
Craving programs are highly dependent on whether I acted on them the day before. As a result, I have multi-day streaks of relapsing or resisting.
If for the last several days I have given in to craving programs, they are intensely strong and usually win. Unless there is some strong external factor driving me to resist.
If for the last several days I have resisted, the craving programs are weaker or disappear. Until there is some strong external factor driving me to give in and relapse.
As a result I tend to have multi-week periods of relapsing intermixed with multi-week periods of resisting.
What “strong factors” drive switches from one streak to another?
Things that make me relapse and start a new streak of acting on the craving program:
- things that acutely deplete willpower — stress, jetlag, flu etc.
- powerful situational cues — e.g. i am in an amazing restaurant with a unique dessert and it becomes an excuse to relapse. or on LSD food tastes spectacularly fucking good. A piece of chocolate on acid is a symphony of the best taste imaginable. It is actually a shame to not eat it. Once I do, I relapse.
On an unrelated note, it is a miracle that LSD is not addictive.
Things that make me resist and start a new streak of ignoring the craving programs:
- powerful situational cues — e.g. I just spent time with my grandma (who sadly has Alzheimers) and also just spoke with my doc Peter Attia about how sugar appears to be a major contributor to Alzheimers. or I just read this very complicated but wonderful paper on the breakdown of willpower. It compellingly argues that if you decide to eat that sugar today, you will always make the same choice and thus eat it forever. And you will also have lower willpower all your life on all other dimensions. Which i find truly fucking unacceptable.
- meditation. Observing the cravings for 5 minutes makes them disappear. although in the moment cravings seem eternal and extremely important. they just vanish.
So what is the conclusion of all this? How do we hack cravings?
My most successful craving hack — social media
I used to be extremely addicted to Facebook.
I fixed it by banning it for a long time. Edited the mac hosts file, changed passwords/2FA and gave them to other people, deleted the apps etc.
For the first couple weeks it felt almost painful. I would constantly start typing “facebook” into the browser and be annoyed when it would not resolve. I also just wasn’t sure what to do with all this newfound free time I have.
After a year of not using it, I felt zero attachment to it. I feel similarly about Instagram etc.
I used a similar set of hacks to reduce reactivity to arguing with people online and in comments to my articles. It becomes easier and easier.
Same with an addiction to online poker I used to have.
More general thoughts on hacking cravings
You have to observe yourself. Notice patterns in your own behavior. They might be different from mine. But the patterns are there.
Again: you are a hackable, programmable biorobot constructed by evolution. You are just executing programs. Embrace the reality of what you are. Instagram is hacking you to get what they want. So you must hack yourself to get what you want.
For patterns similar to mine, the following things work:
- Remove triggers that can be removed. My home screen on my phone is designed to minimize bad triggers (messengers, instagram etc.) and maximize good triggers (books, podcasts). Unfortunately it isn’t possible to filter the world for sugar the way I can filter my devices for Instagram.
- Learn to notice the start of a craving. It is a very obvious program that you can observe getting executed. Meditate on it for 5 minutes once symptoms of its execution appear. It will go away.
- Put artificial barriers to acting on the cravings in place. Delete accounts, delete games, tell hotels to remove sweets from your rooms, ban yourself from online casinos.
- Observe past situational behavior as a guide to future behavior. Sometimes people say “oh so you just have to be extra cautious when you are jetlagged with the flu to not do these things!” Truly fucking stupid idea. You are a different person in a jetlagged sick state vs. a healthy well-rested state. If you try to just rationalize from your state now to your future state, you will miserably fail. Do not deny the reality of how your brain executes its programs with fantasies about being an independent free-willed entity.
- Observe what cues drive resistance. Surround yourself with these cues. Example crazy idea: have some paintings of cancer cells on the kitchen wall along with an article about the Warburg effect (that sugar preferentially feeds cancer cells). Here the main challenge are everyday logistics of life. In my case, I travel a lot and live in hotel rooms, so there isn’t a way to pre-decorate them with weird art.
- Recognize situations that drive relapses. Preemptively act to prevent them. As in start that 3 michelin star dinner by saying to the waiter and the table “Do not bring bread for me. I also do not eat sugar, pls replace my dessert with some cheese/nuts/berries.” Then if you give in afterwards, the waiter / your friends see that you are a douchebag weak hypocrite. That usually is a powerful motivator to not give in.
I guess I should also remove all bad food and just leave some veggies around when I take LSD. That becomes hard because other people object. Again: everyday logistics of life make some of this challenging. So come up with ideas that work in the context of your life.
And of course observe and iterate!
There is a ton of upside to learning to rewrite your programs. Especially in enhancing the meta-program of rewriting programs.
Happy growth and self-hacking, fellow biorobots!
Some of my other articles below. If you like them — pls share and follow me, your feedback helps me write more :)
Other deep-dive articles by Serge:hackernoon.com
Other deep-dive articles by Serge:hackernoon.com