Getting Back On The Wagon

“On the wagon” is an idiom I never took the time to appreciate. For the longest time I had to ask: is it good or bad to be on the wagon? So I thought about it. If life is going from place to place, then addiction (in this metaphor) is having to go the whole way on foot. Being on a wagon is a much more desirable state of affairs. You have people to talk to, and it’s going to take you a small fraction of the time it would have taken you to get where you’re going on foot. But the wagon doesn’t stop. It’s moving at a good clip, and if you’re not ready, it will pass you by. Most people have to feel wolves snapping at their heels to be motivated to reach out to someone and hop on. It takes a lot of willpower. (It’s usually an idiom used for substance abuse, but I use it for kicking any addiction, or forming any new habit.)

Hello, everyone! Welcome back to The True Life Story of a Pioneer. I am, right now, jumping back on the wagon. I’ve been on and off the blogging wagon so many times, I placed top 8 in the blogging-wagon Olympics. You could say, I’m in the habit of jumping back on the wagon. Sometimes all I have to do is look around and see I’m in the wilderness, and I’m teleported to the nearest wagon. This is partly because my brain is used to the satisfaction of writing good blog posts. So when I feed it the idea, it says, “Oh yes, go do it!” and I use little willpower getting back into the habit.

I took a course called Learning How To Learn. If you have a couple of hours to spend each week for a month, I would highly recommend taking it. One of the things it taught me is that willpower is a limited resource. Let that sit for a second. Think about the last time you were presented with a temptation. Did you resist it? If you didn’t, did you have a stressful day? week? or just have a lot of things to do that day? Chances are something happened to deplete your willpower, so you caved (which can be a good thing, actually; more on that later).

Getting on a wagon requires immense willpower – especially if you rely on your addiction, or you’re proud of it in some perverted way. It takes the presence of mind to take a step back and say, “No, this is a terrible habit. I have to stop it,” then the herculean task of readjusting your habit. But, when you’re ON the wagon – OH! how beautiful life is! The wind is in your hair, you’re not alone, there are probably snacks…. A habit takes basically 0 willpower to maintain. One habit at a time, you can completely renovate your lifestyle. (Learning How To Learn also has some great tips on formulating good habits. It’s really a life-changing course.)

So, why is it so hard to form a new habit? It so happens that we live in a society that requires a lot of willpower to stay alive. Many of us have shitty jobs we hate. Concerns like money, other people’s opinions, whether we look good, passively sap our will. Getting home and resisting that beer, or sitting down to write, seems like way too much effort. You’re beat.

The key is extrinsic motivation. You have to give yourself an outside motivation, which in itself is totally easy. You’re basically brain-hacking.

One way is the Pavlov’s Dog method. Let’s say you’re an artist, but you have a shitty job you hate, and you drink every night to cope, but you want to draw something every day. You can take your temptation and turn it into a motivation. “I am still going to have my beer – but I’m going to have it after I draw something. Yeah!” The beer satisfies you short-term by releasing hormones in your brain that make you happy. By delaying this gratification with an aim, you are training your brain to expect the reward of beer after drawing. By doing this enough, soon the thought of drawing is enough to get your brain releasing “the good stuff” (dopamine, serotonin, etc.). Eventually, artistic fulfilment is [intrinsic] reward enough and you find you won’t even need the beer! But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

Another great way is Emulation. Emulation is defined as “the need or desire to equal or exceed others.” Being in competition with another person – preferably at or around your level – is an excellent way to motivate you (and foster a great friendship). I’ll use an example from my own life, with a friend of mine, who we’ll call Timmy.

Timmy and I first bonded over a love of Pokémon. In this video game, you train Pokémon (by battling other Pokémon) to level up (gain power) to a max level of 100. He and I had compatible games and started battling. He won. A lot. Our Pokémon at the time were only about level 60, so there was room for growth. I would train mine to higher levels, and then he his, and the balance shifted back and forth until our Pokémon reached level 100. At max level, he still won more than I did. I wanted more power! So I did some research. Turns out, there is a training technique called EV training which fosters more efficient Pokémon. I employed it, and started winning every match. He, incensed, learned about EV training and the balance began swinging again. I started learning about more techniques: natures, items, breeding, egg moves, move tutors, IVs…. I learned so much about Pokémon in those two years I am convinced I could write a whole thesis on it without any further research. I got into gruelling habits like defeating the same Pokémon over and over, or just walking back and forth to hatch eggs. I ended up spending 750 hours in a single Pokémon game. Pokémon went from an amusing game to a deep world of infinite possibility, all because Timmy and I emulated each other.

Do you have someone who is interested in the same thing you want to start doing? Get them on board. Make it competitive, or collaborative.

One last thing I promised I’d get to: caving. I am forever a student of William Blake. Some of his writings contrast wildly with typical notions of the world. For one thing, he glorifies “Hell” as an essential part of the human experience. Hell in this case has to do with the body; energy; the fulfilment of passion and desire. If you so inclined, the “Apollo vs. Dionysus” duality might be comparable. One of his short pieces reads:

Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs & flaming hair,
But Desire Gratified
Plants fruits of life & beauty there.

One of his Proverbs of Hell reads:

The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

In this quite interesting article about willpower depletion, two vital pieces of wisdom relate to Blake’s ideas. First, that willpower functions like a muscle that can be worn out. The second is that consuming sugar can replenish your willpower. This seems to suggest that the very thing that spurned the writing of this post in the first place – a date square that I rewarded myself with for writing something else – is really the perfect thing for a willpower drought.

Working the will too hard will result in a burnout. Letting it relax for a while by giving in to a craving can be quite beneficial. Are you trying to quit smoking but it seems like too much? Try having some candy first and see if you can go an extra couple of hours without nicking. I’d love to know if it works. E-mail me!

All of this is to be taken with a grain of salt however: many of these things can themselves become negatively addictive. Awareness, meditation, and listening to your body are key elements to health in general, and particularly in fostering healthy impulses. There was also a mention in that article that the knowledge your willpower can be depleted made your willpower deplete faster. I… I don’t even…. Whatever. Don’t think about it.

I hope some of the things I’ve mentioned here help you get back on your wagon, whatever that may be.

Thanks for reading! I love you ❤