What the Vietnam War Tells us About Habits on Vacation - 52 Weeks of Habits52 Weeks of Habits


habits on vacation

After the Vietnam War, soldiers who had been stationed there should have had a drug problem. A sampling of 943 soldiers returning from Vietnam were chosen as a representative group of the entire military, and their urine was tested for opiates. Of the 943, 495 were positive for opiate use (heroin or opium) at their departure from Vietnam.

Opium and Heroin are two of the most addictive substances known. On a comparative study of different illicit substances and their degree of physical dependence, heroin scored the highest and opium was close behind it. Given this degree of addictiveness, it would be no surprise if almost all of these soldiers continued their addictions upon returning to the United States.

That didn’t happen though. In fact, while half of the sample soldiers tried opium or heroin while in Vietnam and 20% reported being addicted to one of them, less than 10% used opiates after returning to the states and less than 1% of them were addicted.

What happened?

The Power of Your Environment

What happened with the soldiers coming home from Vietnam is the same thing that happens to people who have a great diet at home but who cheat at the office. It’s the same thing that happens to people who exercise every day on vacation and then fall off then they return home. And it’s the same principle you can use to justify cheating on your diet while on a holiday. It’s the power of your environment over your habits, and it can both help and harm you.

Our environments play a huge role in our habit development regardless of what the habit is. We begin to want and expect certain things in certain environments depending on what type of stimulation our body is used to in them, and that’s exactly what happened with the soldiers in Vietnam. While they were abroad, they were constantly under threat of attack, stressed from fighting and training, and they began to seek release in opium and heroin. They became addicted as a result of their environment and the situation that they were in, not just as a result of desire and chemistry. When they returned home, suddenly the threat was gone. They weren’t fearing for their lives, they weren’t in as grueling of conditions, not to mention being in an entirely different geographic location, and suddenly their addiction was gone.

The same principle unfortunately applies to rehab facilities. It’s no uncommon for people to go through rehab, get entirely clean, and then immediately start using again when they go home. It’s easier to not feel the pull of addiction in a different environment, but as soon as you return to that environment the addiction returns.

“This doesn’t apply to me, I’m not addicted to opiates…” We’re all addicted to something though, and we all have bad habits that we want to kick. But we also have good habits that we want to develop and want to keep, and the rule can go both ways. If we have a certain good habit in an environment, it’s much easier to continue that good habit when we return to that environment than it is to continue that good habit in a different one.

And that’s why you can cheat on your diet while on vacation. Vacation is a time when you can get away and be care-free for a week or two, but anyone on a diet or exercise regime will inevitably feel guilty about breaking from that new habit they worked so hard to develop. But you shouldn’t feel bad about it–it’s okay. As long as you’re determined to get right back into the way you were before you left, you’ll have no problem re-adapting when you go home.

The Dark Side of Vacation

As I said, it’s a two way street. Any bad habit you develop on vacation will likely not stick, but the same is true for good habits. If you’ve been waiting for your vacation to start waking up early, or start exercising every day, or start eating healthy, you’re going to have your work cut out for you when you go back home. You’ll walk into your kitchen and want all the same foods as before, you’ll wake up and hit snooze as before, and you’ll put off going to the gym as before.

But all hope isn’t lost. You can develop new good habits on vacation if you set them up deliberately, and create cues aside from your environment that help you stick to your goals when you go home. I’m going to use developing a new habit of exercising as an example, and the same techniques can be used for almost anything (dieting, waking up early, etc.).

How to Start Exercising on Vacation and Make it Stick

The most important thing about developing any new habit on vacation is doing it in a way that the same cues will exist when you go home. This means not basing it on your location (“I’m going to go running because it’s so beautiful here!”) but rather basing it on something non-environmental (“I’m going to go running so I can finish that race in September).

1. Create Incentives

You want to create some sort of incentive so that you continue your new habit when you go home. If you’re starting running, you should sign up for a race sometime in the near future, and ideally sign up with a friend (who isn’t on vacation with you). That way when you go home you still have that date looming on your calendar, and a friend bugging you saying “hey, you said you were going to run this with me, let’s go practice.” If you have to put money down for the race then it’s even better because you have something on the line (sunk cost be damned).

Alternatively, if you don’t think that will be sufficient, you could go for the “stick” versus the “carrot” and try some negative reinforcement. Stickk is a great website for this. You pick a goal (not smoking, working out regularly, doing a race, waking up early, anything!), pick a referee who judges your success, and put some money on the line. Generally you want to put enough money in to make it hurt–a $5 won’t get you into the gym, but $500 will. If your referee judges that you failed your commitment, then you lose the money. With some serious cash riding on the line there’s no way you’ll fall off the horse when you go home.

Another option is Gympact which charges you per workout missed, but pays you when you succeed! The only reason I don’t recommend this one is that checking in to the gym with your phone doesn’t always work, and you could lose money unnecessarily.

2. Create a Routine

The next thing you can do to help yourself continue your new habit when you get home is create a routine independent of your environment. You could set a new alarm sound since your old alarm sound you always snoozed to. Or you could wake up, have a glass of water, and immediately go running. You can do that anywhere, so long as you think of it as “wake up, water, run” and not “I’m in the Caribbean, let’s go running.”

Even better, you can use a web or mobile application to schedule your exercises and get in the habit of just following your calendar. Runkeeper and Fitocracy both let you schedule workouts in advance, but you could even just use a Google or Outlook calendar and schedule them there. If you get used to following your appointments with yourself while on vacation, you’ll likely continue when you go back home.

 3. Have a Plan

The last thing you need to make sure the habit sticks when you go home is a clear plan of how you’re going to continue it. Just “working out” isn’t sufficient because it’s broad and unclear what you should be doing. If you have a day by day plan though, you’ll be more able to continue it because you have a detailed list of what to do. The workouts themselves don’t have to be detailed, but if you at least have a schedule for the next week then you’ll be setting yourself up for success. Try to find an exercise plan where you can easily plan what you’re doing to do weeks in advance, and you can commit yourself to it before you get home.





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