The Psychology Behind The Good Habit/Bad Habit Anomaly

4 tips for building good habits & why bad habits are so tough to break.

Annie Tanasugarn, PhD
Apr 6 · 8 min read
Gfrauzao/Shutterstock

“Real freedom is the ability to pause between stimulus and response, and in that pause, choose.” — Rollo May

you think you’re a creature of habit? Most of us probably don’t. And if we do consider ourselves a creature of habit, chances are we’re looking at it from a positive angle and through rose-colored lenses.

Maybe we’ve become a creature of habit for hitting the gym four days a week. If it’s become part of our daily schedule, then we’re simply going through the motions without investing much awareness or effort into maintaining the habit.

We don’t ask questions.

We just do it.

Why? Because we’ve been conditioned into believing if we don’t get our 4 miles in daily, we’re digging an early grave.

Or, we might be a creature of habit for cashing in on a solid eight hours of sleep every night because if not, our productivity suffers. Or our attitude suffers.

So, our sleep routine gets flipped onto autopilot where there’s not much room for deviation. Again, we’re not asking questions — we’re just keeping to the schedule.

We stay on autopilot, rarely veering too far off course in one direction or the other because the rut we’re in is familiar and predictable.

This rut constitutes our Comfort Zone.

And, our Comfort Zone is home to our habits…

…both good and bad.

If we’re a pack-a-day smoker, that will null and void our workout routine. Or, if we’re having a few drinks each night to unwind, that’s bound to affect the quality of our sleep, even if we cash in on those eight hours.

Our Comfort Zone is a two-way street. One side of the street is forward-focused towards growth; the other side is a U-turn, back to where we started.

The trick is to recognize what route we’re on and to change direction if needed.

The Good Habit/Bad Habit Anomaly

Why is it that it seems so much easier to build a healthy habit than it is to quit a bad habit?

…Or, is it?

Existing research suggests that “on average”, a new habit can take 66 days to become automatic. For example, a study by Lally et al. (2009) examined the average length of time for a group of participants to automatically perform a new habit.

However, the study was replete with limitations. Out of 96 participants, only 82 (85%) provided enough data to run the study, and of those 85%, the model fit 76%, of which only 48% showed a good fit with the model.

Of those who were a good fit, they had significant variability between 18–254 days for a new habit to become automatic — approximately 3 weeks to 8.5 months of variability with a new habit becoming automatic.

Other limitations include choice of extrinsic versus intrinsic reward, situational versus time-based cues, the habit in question to be established (is it even functional to the person engaging in it?), and perhaps most importantly — the person’s motivation surrounding the habit.

In a world where everything has been sped up for instant gratification, we’ve become accustomed to living in the moment and not as concerned about its aftermath. The problem with instant gratification is that it breeds complacency. Few want to put in the time or effort to change the habits that aren’t helping them or to create habits that can help them.

It’s just easier to ignore why you’re stuck going in the wrong direction in your Comfort Zone.

And while there are a lot of creative ideas out there to help us maximize healthy habits and minimize the bad ones, a lot of the time it’s easier said than done.

Things can get complicated when you’re stuck in a habit and may not be aware of it. Or worse yet, you are aware of it but don’t have a clue how to get unstuck, so your pride keeps you stuck in the habit loop while your happiness gets tossed out the window.

To challenge a habit, we have to check our motivations on why it’s there or why we keep it there.

Making the Habit

Creating or changing habits requires many steps. In other words, in order to get healthy habits to stick, and unhealthy ones to unstick, the habits you’re choosing should replace the ones you’re wanting to eliminate.

Seems simple enough, right?

But, there’s a step that comes first and is the overarching theme on whether or not your healthy habits will increase, and your unhealthy habits will decrease.

Motivation. In Behavior Analysis, we look at motivation a little different. We’re watching behavior — and what’s either motivating you towards something, or motivating you away from it.

Just like you switch up your gym routine with leg days, arms days, cardio and core, all habits in our lives need monitoring, or you risk getting stuck in the same routine and not reaching your overall goal.

Creating any habit is a process which starts with motivation.

Motivation will come easier for some than others, and it will come more naturally for some. This is based on intrinsic value — in other words, it’s inborn.

Others will require extrinsic motivation such as constantly rewarding their efforts in order to keep them on track.

Consistency. Once you recognize whether you’re intrinsically or extrinsically motivated in building a new habit, it requires consistency in monitoring it. In Behavior Analysis, we consider many factors, not just the behavior or habit itself we’re looking to build, improve, change or reduce.

Consistency is key for building a new habit or reducing an unwanted one. A new habit needs to be practiced consistently until it becomes, well, habit. Meaningful and measurable improvement doesn’t happen by chance.

It happens with consistency.

To create healthy habits that stick, you have to get in the habit of monitoring your habits.

And, you have to be willing to do the gruntwork of changing what’s not working by modifying your routine, so you can reach your ultimate goals.

Start Small. When we first start a new habit, we’re totally on-board and psyched about it. For example, when we try a new diet, we’re all about seeing results, doing our meal prep, tracking our progress, or reading books.

Then, after the first couple weeks, we’re over it.

Why is that?

One word: motivation.

That’s why I posted motivation as the first tip. It is the #1 factor on whether you’ll meet your goals, and how quickly you can.

You have to find ways of keeping yourself motivated once the initial excitement of a new routine wears off. By starting small, you’re keeping your goals attainable, and they’re easier to consistently monitor…which also means it should be easier sticking to the habit.

Be Realistic. It’s easy for us to aim high with our goals in building healthy habits. But, back to point #1 — motivation — is key here, too. If our goals are too big or haven’t been properly structured or tracked, our motivation is going to dip before we’re able to make a new habit stick.

And, before reaching the ultimate goal we’ve set for ourselves.

When we set the bar too high for ourselves, we can be inadvertently setting ourselves up for failure.

It’s important to have an ultimate goal but it’s even more important to structure your progress, to be consistent and to keep track of your motivation, and to keep your goals realistic.

Breaking the Habit

The biggest obstacle in breaking a bad habit happens to be the same #1 roadblock in building a new habit: your Comfort Zone. To build a new habit, or to walk away from a bad one both require stepping outside of your Comfort Zone.

There are several key reasons that bad habits are often tougher to break than starting a new, healthy habit. Three of the biggest reasons include operant conditioning, modeling and imitation and biochemical addiction.

B.F. Skinner coined operant conditioning with his animal studies that generalized to human behavior. Through a mixture of conditioning — based on positive and negative reinforcement, and/or positive and negative punishment — habits can be established, shaped, maintained or reduced.

For example, a drug habit often starts because it’s positively reinforcing to the person. Maybe they feel a sense of confidence or feel more attractive when engaging in the habit.

However, there’s often underlying reasons they continue the habit, such as to emotionally tune out or to temporarily escape feeling depressed which can create and maintain a toxic habit that keeps a person stuck in a loop; the proverbial chasing the dragon…

Or, let’s say you have a bad habit of always checking and rechecking your phone throughout your work day which has negatively impacted your productivity. You could keep your phone in your car, but realistically most of us would become even more distracted obsessing on our phone.

One solution, The Pomodoro Technique uses behaviorism to break time into structured times of productivity (for example, 25 minutes of work), followed by a quick 5-minute break — to check your phone. This helps increase productivity and reduce the habit of always checking your phone except during structured times. A goal could be to increase productivity time to 90 minutes, then a 5-minute break.

Another example of why habits may be tough to break can be examined through modeling and imitation (Bandura, 1963). This is a powerful way kids often learn “right from wrong” growing up.

A problem may begin if what is being taught is toxic to that kid, such as generational trauma, self-preservation or survival mode. In these examples, the kid is only learning what is seen as “acceptable”, even if that mindset or habit can cause that child more pain down the road.

Lastly, is biochemical reward which can be a powerful payout for maintaining a bad habit. For example, sex, food, video gaming or even shopping can trigger the feel-good dopamine rush in our brain. Over time, the behavior can become an addiction, even if it comes with a rash of negative consequences — anything from relationship loss, job loss, or weight problems.

Breaking any bad habit starts with…motivation in wanting better. However, another key factor in eliminating a bad habit is: accountability.

This ties into motivation, meaning you need to be motivated to accept accountability for breaking a habit. It also means you’re chances of long term success are increased when motivation + accountability are your secret weapon for growth.

References

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 601–607.

Bandura, A., & Walters, R.H. (1963). Social learning and personality development. Holt Rinehart and Winston: New York.

Lally, P., et al. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998–1009.

Silverman, K., et al. (2008). Introduction to the special issue on the behavior analysis and treatment of drug addiction. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 41, 471–480.

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

Annie Tanasugarn, PhD

Written by

Psychologist. Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Certified Trauma & Addictions Specialist. Follow my tips on IG: https://www.instagram.com/xx_thebehaviordoc_xx/

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

Annie Tanasugarn, PhD

Written by

Psychologist. Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Certified Trauma & Addictions Specialist. Follow my tips on IG: https://www.instagram.com/xx_thebehaviordoc_xx/

Hello, Love

Love changes us. Love makes us human.

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