I can't seem to quit smoking weed. I want to quit. I need to quit. I hate how I feel when I smoke, especially the next day. My life would be much better if I didn't smoke - I'd be more productive. But I can't seem to do quit. Can decision science help with that?
- Anonymous in Texas
Weed seems relatively harmless, especially compared to harder drugs. But being a slave to any substance can reduce your quality of life, especially by negatively impacting the way you make decisions.
And although weed hasn't been known to directly kill anyone, addiction to other substances can be deadly. If you're not convinced, check out this map from RehabAid on overdose deaths in the United States, by state.
Some say addictions are an illness - a mental health condition or a brain disease. Behavioral scientists take a different view. I get that physiology matters - drugs, alcohol, and nicotine create a neurochemical reaction that reinforces the use of these substances. However, there are ways to stop bad habits with decision science.
Here are some things to try.
First, change your friends.
Painful, I know, but your environment influences your decision-making. One study examined the impact of friends and relatives on drinking behavior and found that as those you're close to drink more, you're likely to drink more too.
If your friends are all smoking weed, then you need to purposefully seek out friends who never smoke. It's hard to cut ties with people you're close to. But if they're dragging you down into a bad habit, well, as your mom might say, "They're not really your friends anyway."
And if you look around, you'll see a ton of other great people out there waiting to know you.
Second, visualize alternate decision paths.
According to Shahram Heshmat, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, addiction and bad habits can be due in part to delay discounting. This occurs when people value short-term rewards for their decisions too much and value long-term rewards too little. You might like the idea of being weed-free in the long run, but you could be biased to value the short-term high way more than it deserves.
One thing you could do is constantly remind yourself of the long-term rewards, and one way to do this is to imagine the different possible paths you'd be going down if you chose each of your different options. Visualize your life in 2-5 years if you continued to smoke weed. Describe it in your journal. Draw it. I'm not big on vision boards, but maybe arts-and-crafts your visualization. The point is to express it outside of your mind, so you can bring it to life and look at it.
Then visualize your future if you quit smoking weed right now. And put that in a vision board or describe it in writing.
Next, put your visualizations some place near your typical weed stash (assuming you've gotten rid of that weed by now). That way, you'll be reminded of the long term rewards you're striving for, and you'll be less likely to engage in that bad habit which would create a worse future with you - a future you can see right in front of your eyes.
Third, make the short-term rewards seem less great.
Over the past three years, I've been eating like crap. Junk food, sugar, alcohol... I didn't care. I gained a ton of weight, but that didn't stop me. The short term enjoyment I got seemed much more valuable than my long-term health.
Until I developed acid reflux. Now, every time I put something greasy, fatty, sugary, or boozy in my gut, I feel a really intense burn in my chest. I mean, it really sucks.
Suddenly, the short-term rewards of eating foods I enjoy are no match for the very immediate pain I feel. I might crave pizza, but what will happen if I do is enough to turn me off to the idea.
To quit a bad habit, try creating your version of my acid reflux: an immediate, high stakes, credible threat that will make smoking weed feel awful, not good. If delay discounting is happening, and you're living in the short-term, then an immediate, definite, and harsh punishment might just do the trick.
Here are some short-term, high-stakes credible threats that could work:
Write a check in the amount of everything in your savings account and give that check to someone you know. Instruct them to cash the check and keep the money if you smoke.
Take pictures of yourself naked, print them out, and put them in a sealed envelope. Then hand them to someone who you don't want to see you naked and tell them that if you smoke, they get to see the pictures.
Tell someone an embarrassing secret about yourself, one that you want no one to know. If you smoke, that person must share your secret on social media, for everyone to see.
Purposefully make friends only with people who you know would shame you if they found out you smoked. You don't have to keep them forever. Just until you've kicked the habit. Just don't surround yourself with weed smokers. If you choose friends who are successful in life, you're more likely to be successful too.
How badly do you want it, though?
Doing these things may not be easy. But they have a good chance of working. Ultimately, the choice is yours.
Many people fail at kicking bad habits or addictions because they haven't truly decided that they want the outcome they'll get. It's why it often takes many tries before quitting sticks. You don't only have to choose to quit. You have to make a conscious choice to want to quit. If the idea of kicking weed is only an idea, a thought, a preference, or a desire, then you might not be ready. Or you may not have your priorities straightened out yet.
So start with a clear understanding of what it is you really want. If you don't really care about having the awesome life you say you want, or if you don't feel you're deserving, then you probably have other work to do first. You may be making choices based on identity rather than rationality, on meaning-making rather than objectivity. Decision science can help with that too.