Addictive behavior patterns are characterized by an increasing desire to do an activity after doing the activity. This increase in desire can be immediate, in the case of someone who can’t stop eating junk food, or it can have a delay, like in the case of porn or drugs. Once the desire grows intense enough it starts affecting the time spent not engaging in that activity, especially if the person hasn’t engaged in that activity in a while.
Addictions and drives are similar in many ways except that drives don’t increase in intensity with each subsequent satiation. People don’t drink more water with every passing day because their desire to drink water has a relatively fixed satiation point. In most cases, drives are triggered by a physical need and have satiation points that are dictated by physical constraints. There’s only so much water my body can absorb in a day and there’s only so much sleep I can get in a day. Addictions, on the other hand, don’t have to be triggered by a physical need and don’t have such tight satiation constraints. Sure, there’s a limit to the number of hours I can watch Netflix in a day, but that’s very high.
In common speech a pattern of behavior is only called an addiction when it is harmful or unproductive. In the post the word “addiction” isn’t meant to have a negative connotation, it’s only meant to label a pattern of behavior regardless of the productivity or harmfulness of the behavior. Addiction is one of fundamental drivers of human behavior. Learning how to manage your addictions will give you greater control over what you do and save you energy you would’ve otherwise spent fighting the addiction. “Managing” in this context primarily involves either decreasing the severity of the addiction or redirecting it in a more productive direction.
There are three main ways (off the top of my head) to deal with addictive behavior patterns that you want to change. Think of an addiction as a vector, which is a line in space that has both magnitude and direction. Take the following vector in 3-dimensional space as an example:
If that vector represents an addictive behavior pattern, we can say the magnitude of the vector represents the intensity of the addiction and the direction represents where you are directing your time and energy. The simplest way to change the addiction is to change either of these two properties.
If you want to decrease the intensity of an addiction, you can go cold turkey or slowly wean yourself off said activity. In some instances cold turkey works better, but in most instances it’s best to wean yourself off using less-potent substitutes and/or slowly decreasing your intake / participation over time. With things like cigarettes and nicotine, this would mean slowly smoking fewer cigarettes per day and maybe transitioning to patches or gum until you finally kick it.
Changing the direction of an addition follows the same principles. You can either switch all at once or slowly move the vector over time. For example, some former addicts substitute their substance addiction for a gym addiction, which most likely is an all-at-once move (cold turkey alcohol, start going to the gym). A slow move would be the same sort of thing over a longer period of time and with a large overlap between the two activities. For example, slowly decreasing your alcohol intake while slowly increasing your gym time. A slow move might also involve intermediate activities, each less harmful than the previous, until the desired activity is reached. For example, if you have a Netflix addiction, you could transition from four hours of Netflix a day to two hours of Netflix and two hours of educational YouTube videos to four hours of educational YouTube videos to Khan Academy to a Coding Bootcamp.
The magnitude and direction of an addiction are closely related, and in practice you changing one will necessitate or result in changing the other. Changing the intensity of an addiction takes time because of the inertia involved — the pathways in your brain have already been strengthened by dopamine over time, and to undo this you have to put in a proportionate amount of time undoing this pathway.
Changing magnitude and direction are relatively intuitive, well-known ways of dealing with addictive behavior patterns. These is another way to redirect an addiction that is more advanced than the slow substitution method above. The advantage of this method is its speed — if done correctly, it could be an order of magnitude faster.
This advanced redirection technique is something I’ll call “reframing”. Reframing requires a period of observation and introspection during which you observe yourself doing the activity in question and figure out, at a the most fundamental level, what you are addicted to. With the Netflix example, someone might be addicted to Netflix, but at a more fundamental level, they might be addicted to the sense of closeness they feel with the characters in the show. So it’s actually the lack of connection in their life that causes them to binge watch Netflix and they’re using Netflix as a substitute for that connection. In this case the underlying addiction isn’t actually an addiction, it’s an unfulfilled need — the need to relate with others. In other cases there is an underlying addiction, and that addiction is going to be some sort of feeling 99 times out of 100. For adrenaline junkies, it might be the adrenaline rush, for others, it might be the sense of satisfaction they get when they finish something.
If the fundamental driver of the addictive behavior pattern is actually an unfulfilled need, then you need to address that need. Otherwise, if it’s an addiction to a feeling, you have to figure out a way to transition from old activity X that gives you the feeling to new activity Y and still trigger the same feelings. This requires creativity on your part since most of the time it won’t be obvious at all how activity Y will trigger these feelings (which is precisely why you weren’t doing activity Y in the first place). That’s where the reframing comes in — you have to frame activity Y in such a way that it gives you the same high as activity X even if it’s completely different in every aspect. The most straightforward way of doing this is drawing direct analogies between activity Y and activity X, i.e. when I do <this_Y> it actually is the like doing <this_X>, so it’s pretty much the same thing. And when I accomplish <Y> this is just like accomplishing <X> in these ways, so it’s essentially the same thing. Etc, etc.
Let me give you an example. Let’s assume you’re a salesperson who does very well for yourself. You’re addicted to your work and you work 12 hours a day, but now your wife is threatening divorce so you have to cut that back and spend more time with her and the kids. The problem is that you’re addicted the the rush you feel after you close a sale, and it isn’t obvious how you’re going to get that same rush at home, so you decide to reframe the situation. Instead of thinking about it as “I have to come home early and spend time with my family instead of closing sales” you can think of it as “I’m going to come home early and start trying to sell my kids on doing their homework and other productive things instead of doing drugs.” By framing this time as an additional sale opportunity, you can make the transition more quickly than if you had done vanilla redirection.
In the vector analogy, the x, y, and z axes are the “frame” that is used to interpret where things are in three dimensional space. Reframing is analogous to redefining the axes, which changes the direction of the vector in space but doesn’t change your subjective perception of the vector, since in your head, the vector is still (2,3,5) in accordance with the axes that you defined.
For those more mathematically inclined, I’ll give an example. Let’s say your addiction is represented by the vector (2,3,5) = doing sales all day, with unit axes x = (1,0,0), y=(0,1,0), z=(0,0,1). You reframe by redefining the axes to
Your vector is still (2,3,5) in your new space, but with the original axes, it is now (7,5,8) * sqrt(2)/2 = spending time with your wife and kids after 5pm. Ta-da! Magic.