Making and Breaking Habits

Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to break a bad habit and so easy to break a good one? And the flipside, so easy to fall into a bad habit and so hard to establish a good one? Of course, I may be extrapolating a personal challenge onto the broader population, but an informal poll of colleagues and friends suggests I’m not alone in this conundrum.

Image by BK, Flickr

I once heard Jim Rohn speak on the topic of habits and their ability to impact our lives. In this case, he was talking about the old adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” He didn’t claim to have any proof of its validity, he simply asked the question “What if it’s true?” Since there is no real downside to eating an apple a day, and potentially significant upside – why doesn’t everyone develop the habit of eating an apple every day? His conclusion about why people don’t turn easy-to-do, positive actions into part of their everyday routine was this:  while these things are easy to do, they are even easier not to do.

Is that what it comes down to? Are habit forming and habit breaking simply a reflection of the path of least resistance?

Not exactly.

The Dormant Habit

According to research from MIT, bad habits are hard to break because they never really go away, they just hibernate. The habit itself creates patterns in the brain. Even when these patterns are replaced with new patterns (e.g. a “good” habit), old triggers cause the dormant pattern to reassert itself and voila—we’re right back in the grip of a bad habit!

This explains a lot. I remember being dumbfounded when my father started smoking again after a six year hiatus. Apparently, he was reading a book over lunch when a co-worker offered him a cigarette. Without thinking, he took it and the proffered light. Just like that, he was smoking again. And the groove felt just as “right” and comforting as it always had. Yikes!

Habit Forming and Habit Breaking

Behavioral psychologists have been studying habit forming and habit breaking behaviors for a long time. Here is what they do know; habits are formed on the basis of a simple cycle made up of three parts:

  • a stimulus or trigger that initiates the behavior,
  • the action or behavior itself, and
  • the benefit or reward gained from doing the behavior.

The repetition of this cycle until it becomes a regular routine is what creates a habit. The reason it’s so hard to stop doing something once it’s become a habit, is that the repetitive process actually becomes etched in our neurons.

So why are good habits often harder to develop and easier to break? Consider it from the perspective of the three parts of the cycle described above:

  • Maybe the stimulus for the good habit is less obvious, less effective or simply absent.
  • Maybe the action or behavior itself is difficult or challenging in some way.
  • Maybe the benefit or reward is weaker, less important, less immediate, less addictive, etc.

Changing Habits

The good news is that bad habits can be broken. Relapses can be avoided by being aware of and avoiding triggers and by defining a clear “Plan B” response should a trigger catch you off-guard. It’s also important to remind yourself of the many benefits of not doing the bad habit. This will help motivate you to make the desired change. In the end, though, the best way to break a bad habit is by overwriting it with a new habit.

Fortunately, new habits can be established and reinforced by using the same three step cycle that underlies all habit formation.

  1. Think of triggers as reminders that cause you to follow a routine behavior. You can then consciously create triggers to help you establish your new habit (routine behavior). For example, if your desired habit is to take a run every morning, you might place your running shoes in front of the bathroom door where you’re bound to see them every morning.
  2. Clearly define the action or behavior that you want to turn into a habit. Write it down. Visualize yourself doing that action on a regular basis. Describe why it’s important to you and why it’s a better option than your current reality. And then start doing it.
  3. Think about and write down the benefits you’ll gain from your new habit. Identify in advance how you will reward yourself for success and then reward success early and often. Understanding and experiencing the benefits of a new habit is critical to success since our brains are wired to seek reward. Make sure you create a compelling case for change to keep you on track long enough to etch your new mental maps.

No doubt some habits will always be tougher than others to establish and to break. And while it’s true that our established neural patterns dictate much of what we do, those patterns were originally drawn by our behavior and that is something we can choose to take bake control of.


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