Why Bad Habits Are Hard to Break
“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” —Warren Buffett
I start my morning every day with a bottle of Diet Mountain Dew. I love the taste, the bubbles, the surge of energy, and the mental sharpness I feel from the caffeine. I know it’s unhealthy, but it’s a ritual I enjoy. And, so far, I haven’t felt the consequences.
Habits, whether good (yoga!) or bad (my soda habit), are difficult to break. They are timesavers for your brain. “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in the decision making,” writes Charles Duhigg, award-winning author of The Power of Habit. “It stops working so hard or diverts focus to other tasks.” Unless you fight a habit, the pattern will unfold automatically. But by understanding the cycle of habits, you can find them easier to control.
The life cycle of a habit
A habit, as Duhigg explains, is a three-loop process: cue, routine, reward.
In the cue stage, your mind recognizes a pattern and switches into autopilot. In the routine phase, you carry out the habit. In the reward phase, your brain determines if the cycle is worth remembering.
Over time, this cycle becomes more automatic. The cue and reward phases become intertwined, and a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. A habit is born.
Why bad habits feel good
Life is hard when you have bad habits. They can jeopardize your health, your financial security, your chances to advance in your career, and your ability to engage in healthy relationships. But we don’t always notice how much our habits affect our lives.
Dr. Russell Poldrack, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Austin in an article for the National Institutes of Health, states that your brain can release a pleasure-seeking chemical called dopamine for both good and bad habits. This craving encourages a person to perform the same habit to gain desirable results. “In a sense,” he states, “parts of our brains are working against us when we try to overcome bad habits.”
How to break bad habits
There’s no specific one-size-fits-all strategy for breaking bad habits. But one way to fight them is to mindfully start new routines. For example, when late afternoon fatigue settles in, you may automatically find yourself in front of the vending machine. Instead, insert a new routine, like walking around the building, grabbing a drink of water, or doing a quick session of chair yoga.
Another way to break them is to write down your progress. “Getting real, hard evidence on how you spend your life is the best way to improve,” writes Lukas Schwekendiek. “You may think you have a generally good idea in what areas you are struggling and where you could easily improve, but unless you keep an exact record of it all, you will never truly know.”
By being mindful of the habits we carry and believing that we can change those debilitating habits, we can transform our health, career, security, relationships, and our communities for the better.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” the great Aristotle wrote. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”