More Ways to Scratch More Itches
Applying lessons learned from quitting nicotine to other vices. Plus: The Barnum Effect, and how to choose a good password.
In the last issue, I shared the most important lesson I learned from my painful journey of quitting nicotine: that you can kick bad habits by replacing them with slightly better habits. It’s one of the most personal and important things I’ve put online, and I’m very proud of how it turned out. If you haven’t yet, give it a read.
As promised, here are a few examples of other ways I’ve substituted bad habits for better ones.
I love cocktails, but I wanted to reduce my alcohol and calorie intake. Instead of cutting cocktails out of my life entirely, I switched to mocktails with non-alcoholic spirits, such as Lyre's, Monday Gin, and Ghia. These concoctions are just as delicious and still give me that satisfying feeling of unwinding at the end of the workday, with almost no calories and zero regret the morning after. Similarly, when I crave craft beer, I often drink non-alcoholic beers from Athletic Brewing, which are quite delicious and scratch the itch perfectly.
My sweet tooth is legendary and has been one of my most significant barriers to losing weight in the past.
I love soda, candy, ice cream, all of it. One by one, I'm replacing each of these with more benign alternatives that use alternative sweeteners like Allulose, which tastes exactly like sugar but isn't absorbed by the body, and Aspartame, one of the most exhaustively studied food ingredients in existence, which is unambiguously and utterly safe. People talk about alternative sweeteners like they're "just as bad as sugar." Yet, if you look into it, that is clearly and unequivocally false. Artificial sweeteners are way better for you than sugar, and it's not even close. I now drink Diet Coke and eat sugar-free Jello without a second thought. Usually, that’s enough to satisfy my craving for something sweet, but if I really want candy or ice cream, I've started favoring Smart Sweets candy and Enlightened ice cream, respectively, both of which are sweetened with Allulose.
I've picked at my fingers for as long as I can remember. I tried to quit many times, but nothing worked until I found Acupressure Rings. They are little textured rings that you roll on your finger to get a slight feeling of pressure, almost like a light massage. I bring one with me wherever I go, and I use it whenever I feel the urge to fidget or pick.
I love these rings so much (and they’re so ridiculously cheap) that I usually carry around extras to give out to anyone I meet who fidgets, picks, or has ADHD.
(If you personally struggle with skin-picking or other body-focused repetitive behaviors, I recommend this article by Scott Alexander. He is a brilliant psychiatrist and writer, as well as the author of my two favorite blogs: Slate Star Codex and Astral Codex Ten.)
There are many very strong reasons to eat less meat, but it's hard, and burgers are delicious. The easiest way I've found to reduce my meat consumption is to order an Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger whenever I have the opportunity. I don't notice the difference anymore, and over time more and more of my meals include meat alternatives.
I'll acknowledge that for most of these habits, it is healthier to quit entirely, as the substitute vice may involve consuming some chemicals that are (potentially) not great for you.
Again, however, it's vital to avoid black-or-white thinking. If you're finding it impossible to quit a bad habit cold-turkey, switching to something less-harmful is strictly better than doing nothing.
In the worst case, you will now have a slightly healthier habit or regress back to where you already are. In the best case, the improvement you see from that micro-change may be enough to inspire further transitions to healthier and healthier alternatives.
As I mentioned in the last essay, I switched from cigarettes to e-cigarettes to nicotine-free e-cigarettes and, finally, to inhaling through a hollow wooden tube with a little essential oil in it called a Füm.
Had I skipped the intermediate steps of vaping, it’s unlikely that I would have found this wooden tube thing sufficiently satisfying, as evidenced by the raised eyebrows I get from smokers when they ask what it is that I’m breathing through, then try it themselves exactly once before handing it back, baffled. However, after I had already gotten used to nicotine-free vapes, the Füm felt like a perfectly reasonable substitute. For me, the secret to quitting nicotine was to trade one less-bad habit for the next until I arrived at something utterly harmless.
A Wikipedia page that everyone should read
The Barnum Effect describes our tendency to believe that generic statements such as "You have a tendency to be critical of yourself" uniquely describe us, even though they actually apply to almost everyone.
It is the psychological quirk that enables us to fall for horoscopes, astrology, fortune cookies, psychics, and even pseudoscientific personality tests like Myers-Briggs.
I am as susceptible to this fallacy as anyone. Even though I know that (like Myers-Briggs) the Enneagram personality test is widely discredited by the scientists who actually study personality, I feel very seen when I read my results. "Wow, I do have a strong sense of right and wrong. And I am afraid of making a mistake!"
In fact, these are generic descriptions that apply to most people, but, I'll be damned, they really feel personal to me.
The Barnum Effect is a useful concept because now, when I hear someone say something about me, I remember to question it through the lens of "does this description in fact apply to a significant fraction of all humans?" If the answer is yes, I put a lot less weight into their observation.
So does that mean you have to ignore the results of personality tests? Of course not! If you find Myers-Briggs a useful tool for understanding yourself, then by all means, keep on telling people you’re an ENTJ.
But just know that the Barnum Effect exists. And when someone makes an observation about “who you are,” be sure to ask yourself if what they’re describing is actually a facet of universal human nature.
The world is full of hucksters who build credibility by making seemingly insightful observations about the characters of the people upon which they prey. And sadly, our innate narcissism makes it easy to fall into their traps. Do not assume you are too good to fall for this trick yourself, even if “you’re an independent thinker who does not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.”
What makes for a good password?
To stay safe online, you have to choose good passwords. Unfortunately, the common password requirements on most sites (e.g., “use at least one symbol, one number, and one capital letter!”) are generally misguided and can lead to low-quality, easy-to-crack passwords. But fret not: there is a better way.
I was discussing better alternatives with my good friend Tam Pham, and he found my advice valuable enough that he decided to summarize it in a recent issue of his newsletter. Give it a read if you don’t want to get hacked!
To learn more, check out my article The absolute minimum you need to do to stay secure online.
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