Why Breaking Habits Is So Hard (And What You Can Do About It)
Updated: Mar 4
Have you ever tried to kick a bad habit or create healthier ones? It’s not so easy, is it? Ask anyone who is on their millionth New Years resolution that has tried to stop eating junk food, or vowed to work out at the gym regularly (no shade- we've been there!). Creating true long-term change is difficult, but not impossible, so if you want to form habits that actually stick this New Year, keep reading as we dive into why habits are so hard to break and how you can improve your chances of success when working to make better ones.
How Do We Form Habits?
Did you know that our thoughts and actions, and everything we learn throughout life, are all tied to our brain cells (aka neurons)? Recent estimates suggest that we have about 86 billion neurons that are intricately connected to one another and communicate within the brain through the release of neurotransmitters (aka brain chemicals).
So how does this relate to forming habits? Well, whenever you learn something new, these neurons form new pathways in the brain, kind of like a map, that are connected to that specific behaviour or thought. At first these new connections may be weak and easily broken. But as you continue to activate that map (aka neural pathway) by engaging in that same action, they create stronger and stronger neural connections. And the more ingrained these pathways become, the more likely you are to continue those habits in the future.
Think of it like hiking trails in the forest. When you first create a walking trail, it may be difficult. There could be bushes and other obstacles in the way to slow you down the first few times. But as the same trail is used more and more often, it becomes cleared away and easier to hike. Eventually, you can hike that trail with your eyes closed it's so easy for you! Neural networks and habits act in the same way; the more you do something, the easier it becomes. This is why they say practice makes perfect!
The downside is that on a neural level, your brain can’t tell the difference between helpful and unhelpful behaviours; whatever network is activated (i.e., whatever action is performed) will become stronger, and then this reinforces it's engagement and becomes a dominant pattern within your brain. It literally becomes hard to "turn off" these patterns because they are so strong. So if we are not careful and intentional in our actions, “bad” habits can form just as easily as “good” habits.
The Habit Cycle
Now that we know a little bit about how habits form in the brain, it’s also useful to outline a cycle that impacts the formation of habits. Habits consist of three basic parts: the cue or trigger, the behaviour, and the reward.
The cue or trigger refers to something that comes before the habit itself and acts to initiate the habitual behaviour. This could be anything like a place, a time of day, an emotional state, a physical sensation, another action or behaviour, an event, or even a particular person.
Then comes the habit or repeated behaviour itself. Once something has been cued, you will often find you are conducting the behaviour automatically and may not even notice you’re doing it! These habits don’t always begin as an unconscious action, but as you repeat the behaviour more and more, you start to think about it less and less. For example, learning to drive a car is difficult at first but with practice it becomes easier to perform and becomes more automatic.
The last aspect of habit formation is the reward, which refers to the benefit the behaviour has to you either physically or emotionally. Depending on what the habit is, the reward can vary widely and acts to reinforce the habitual behaviour.
Unfortunately, not all rewards are healthy for you. Bad habits form much more easily because they are often reinforced quickly through instant gratification. For instance, eating junk food can make you feel satisfied as you’re eating it because it tastes good and releases endorphins and dopamine. But these “bad” habits can have a delayed negative impact. In this case, eating junk food might leave you feeling sick or ruining your diet and overall health.
On the other hand, what we consider “good” habits often involve some form of delayed gratification. This means that to create these habits, you need to put in more effort without seeing results immediately. For instance, if you’re trying to lose weight, you may not see results very quickly, which can lead to giving up before reaching your goal.
Pro Tip #1: With this premise in mind (some "bad" habits tend to form easily due to instant gratification whereas "good" habits are harder to form because their rewards are delayed), when looking to develop "good" habits, we want to make it easier to achieve and the "bad" habits harder. For example, do not buy a plethora of junk food but rather keep healthy items on-hand. It'll be much easier to reach for the apple than to go to the store to buy the chips. And similarly, move your Uber Eats or Skip The Dishes app to the very last page or in one of those folders on your phone to make it harder to get to (versus your home screen). And don't save your credit card information so you'll be forced to go get it and type it in (and for you clever folks who have it memorized, do yourself a favour and try to forget it)! Remember, good things = make easier, bad things = make harder.
Pro Tip #2: You can also work on changing your perspective and intervene at the level of the reward. In this way, we want to make the rewards for "good" habits better than they are for "bad" habits. Keeping with the junk food example, you could remind yourself of how good you'll feel after eating something healthy compared to something unhealthy; do a sort of meditation where you imagine feeling icky after eating those chips and feeling refreshed after eating the apple- this will help motivate you and make the reward of the apple seem better. Not only is there a physiological reward, but there is also an emotional reward of "yes- I stayed on track!" that can induce positive feelings and reinforce the behaviour.
What Issues Make Changing Habits More Difficult?
So what do these neural pathways and habit cycles mean for us? Are we doomed to eat junk food forever, or is it actually possible to change our habits? The answer is “yes”, we can change our habits! But as we try to change those well-established neural pathways, which is a challenge in itself, there are some other common issues that often prevent us from making permanent change.
We Get Discouraged By Failure
The fact is, no matter how badly you want to change and how hard you work at it, you are probably going to fail at least some of the time as you work towards a long-term goal. Unfortunately, even though setbacks are a natural part of change, it can often lead to us getting discouraged quickly and giving up on our goals prematurely.
We Try Changing Too Much Too Fast
When we decide to change a habit, we often want to change it fast with full force. For instance, if you wanted to start working out, you might decide you want to go from never working out at all to working out for two hours every day. While it is admirable to want to make significant changes to your life and yourself, creating goals that aren’t realistic will just leave you struggling without much success and could leave you feeling defeated and give up altogether.
Habits Are Familiar And Feel Safe
Habits can also be tough to change because routine and familiarity make us feel safe. It’s easier and takes much less effort to continue with what you know, even if it’s unhealthy or not what you really want to do. They don’t call it staying in our “comfort zone” for nothing! Change can be stressful, tiring, and scary. Unfortunately, this can become a huge motivator to avoid change rather than strive for it.
"Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change." - Tony Robbins
How To Change Habits For Good
After learning more about why habits are so hard to change, you might be wondering whether there’s any point in even trying to change your habits. It can seem like everything is working against you sometimes, but don’t get discouraged! There are effective ways to improve your chances of success and not be another failed New Years resolution statistic.
Below are 4 tips to making lasting changes to your habits.
1. Choose Which Habit You Want To Work On Carefully
When you’re choosing a habit to change, not all habits are created equal. Maybe you want to change your work habits because you’re feeling burnt out, or maybe you want to stop being a people-pleaser and set better boundaries. Depending on things like your lifestyle, family situation, career, and time constraints, some habits may be much more difficult to change.
First, try to choose a habit that you’re truly motivated to change. If it’s something that you don’t really want to change or care about, chances are you won’t find the motivation needed to make the change permanent. Also consider how much time you can dedicate to changing your habit, as well as whether it seems feasible for your lifestyle.
2. Create A Step By Step Plan
If you want to establish lasting change when it comes to your habits, try creating a clear plan! A plan can help ensure your goal is clear and outline what you need to do to accomplish it. It could include things like defining a specific goal, identifying triggers or cues tied to your habit, replacement habits, a plan for stressful days to reduce the chance of relapse, and keeping in mind your motivations for inspiration.
Writing your plan down can help keep you focused; don’t forget to make it detailed and specific to improve your chances of success! For other tips on what to include in your habit changing plan read our post here.
3. Be Persistent
Changing your habits takes time and effort, but it is possible. The brain is actually able to create new neural pathways for repeated thoughts and behaviours, but it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to establish with consistent effort.
It’s natural to have setbacks when trying to change a well ingrained habit; that doesn’t mean you’re failing! Progress isn’t linear and small steps still mean you’re headed in the right direction. Try to not get discouraged by short-term setbacks, remind yourself of the reasons you chose to change your habits, and keep pushing towards your goal. Remember, nothing valuable in life comes easy or quickly.
4. Track Your Progress
If you are trying to achieve a goal like changing a habit, research suggests that the more you monitor your progress, the greater chances are that you will succeed. Recording and sharing progress creates a sense of accountability and helps keep you motivated. So if you want to increase your chances of changing a habit for good, try getting a journal or goal planner to record your progress, or even start a support group with others looking to change habits of their own.
The Bottom Line
No matter how big or small a habit is, changing is tough! Remember that change doesn't happen overnight and you truly have to plan and work at it to succeed. Celebrate your victories and give yourself a compassionate "push" forward when you have setbacks.
Whatever habits you’re trying to change, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help! If you’re struggling, need advice, or even just want help creating an action plan for changing your habits, consider talking to a therapist in Barrie. Contact us if you’d like to book a free 15 minute consultation or an appointment—we would love to help!
Our team of online and Barrie therapists provides quality and effective counselling & psychotherapy services in Barrie and virtually across Ontario to individuals (6+), couples and families. We also offer an Affordable Therapy Program that provides counselling services in Barrie to individuals (12+) who are facing financial challenges that need mental health support.