As a brain scientist studying addiction and mindfulness, I’ve been exploring habit formation for the past 6 years. What I’ve found is that old habits are hard to break, and new habits are hard to implement.
This simple metaphor explains how this works in your brain. A field full of long, spindly grass blocks your path. You could force your way through, but it’s a big field, and the grass is over six feet high. You’re keen to get to the other side, however, so you give it a go.
Twenty minutes pass, but it’s hard work, and you don’t make much progress. You push for another twenty minutes before giving up, blaming your lack of motivation, and your inability to see things through to the end.
Feeling useless, you start to question why you even tried, when suddenly, you spot a pathway that’s already cleared. You’re not sure where it goes, but it feels like your best option. You take the easy path, but before long, you realise it was a loop, and you find yourself back where you started.
Starting a new habit is hard, and when people try and fail, the metaphor above is usually what it looks like. We revert back to our familiar habits, even when they do not serve us. Part of the problem lies in how our brains are wired, always looking to save energy, and tricking us to take the easy route.
There is good news, however. Once you make a start clearing a new pathway, positive habits are just as hard to change.
Here are 4 common reasons why people fail to create new positive habits:
They Don’t Change Their Environment
As the saying goes, if you sit in a barbershop for long enough, you’ll end up getting a haircut. You cannot underestimate the importance of your environment when creating a new habit.
It’s not rocket science. If you want to eat healthily, don’t put junk food in your fridge. If you want to reduce your phone usage, don’t leave it lying around. If you want to start reading regularly, leave a book on your pillow for when you go to bed. You can also use technology to set positive habit cues for yourself.
Most new habit plans break down because people forget about them, or if they’re busy, existing habits, which the brain loves, tend to take over. So you need to reduce these memory lapses by changing your environment.
Most importantly, you need to get rid of the environmental triggers that don’t serve you anymore, because just like the easy path in the field, they’ll pull you in the wrong direction.
They Don’t Stack Their Habits
Our brains did not evolve to recall information in isolation; instead, information is grouped together in a process called associative learning. This form of learning, where ideas and experiences can be mentally combined to reinforce one another, can also be done with habits.
When it comes to building new habits, you can use associative learning to your advantage. You simply identify an existing habit, say, brushing your teeth, and piggyback your new habit on top. This is what James Clear calls habit stacking.
For example, you could start your morning routine straight after brushing your teeth. Every time you get into your car, you could centre yourself by taking 5 deep breaths.
Most people, however, try to create new habits in isolation. This is a recipe for disaster because, at some stage, life will get in the way. And when this happens, you are likely to forget about your new habit plans.
Stacking your habits, on the other hand, not only helps you to stick to new habits, but your existing habits provide a memory cue that you won’t forget.
They Negotiate With Their Own Mind
Have you ever woken up in the morning with great plans? It might be a new meditation practice, a new gym routine, or a new journaling exercise. You were super motivated the night before, but when you open your eyes in the morning, you start negotiating with your own mind.
“I’m a little tired. Maybe I can start tomorrow.”
“Just 10 more minutes. I’ll get up and do it then.”
Once you start negotiating with yourself, you’re in trouble, and the longer the conversation goes on, your brain usually wins. Maybe you even wake up an hour later and blame the alarm for not waking you, completely disregarding the fact that you just didn’t bother.
To stop these negotiations in their tracks, you need to act quickly. Mel Robbins’s 5-second rule works great for this. When you catch yourself negotiating, simply count 5, 4, 3, 2,1 — GO, and move towards action. When this becomes a habit, you won’t want to break the chain, and you’ll become unstoppable.
They Don’t Jump Straight Back In
Life is hard, and no matter what amazing habit plans you hatch, there will be bumps along the road. This means one thing: if you are one of those people who thinks, “Sure, I lost Monday, the whole week is ruined,” then you’re in serious trouble.
Once this pattern of thinking sets in, your brain will begin scanning for all kinds of reasons to rationalize its way into familiar and easy habits.
You need to accept the fact that life will get in the way. And when you hit a bump in the road, you need to jump straight back in.
If your new gym plans are ruined by an early morning meeting, go in the evening, or make up for it throughout the week. If your new meditation routine is messed up by your kids or partner, practice in your car before work. If your new diet plans are ruined by a friend’s wedding or a dose of the flu, jump back into it as soon as you get a chance.
Even the best habit plans run into trouble. This is not a failure — it’s part of life. When this happens, avoiding old habits is crucial, and then as soon as you can, jump straight back into your new ones.
Old habits are hard to break, but the good news is, so are positive ones. Once you start pounding down the grass to make a new pathway, your old habits will start to grow over.
To create new habits, however, you need to change your environment, combine existing habits with new ones, stop negotiating with your own mind, and when you do fall off the wagon, make sure you jump straight back in.
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