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Why Are Bad Habits So Hard to Break?

Posted Sep 11 2012 4:04am

Oh, habits.

Bad ones are really easy to pick up, and ridiculously hard to quit. And good ones, predictably, are quite the g’damn opposite.

Here’s a few examples from my own experience: grabbing a sausage sandwich and a can of full-fat coke as consolation for Monday morning (boo…) And doing the same thing as a celebration because it’s Friday (woo!) And possibly again on Saturday morning, to ease the ol’ Friday night hangover (eww…)

Let’s compare that with, say, leaving for work early enough to pick up some fresh fruit and salad on the walk in. That’s a good habit – but for some reason, one which has taken considerably longer to become routine, and even now, two years into my journey, I could drop them pretty easily if I wanted to.

Now, I would like to ask – why, oh why, is that? Why are bad habits so sticky? And why are the good ones so much trickier to master?

This is some pretty old research (from way back in 1999, I believe) – but it does shed an interesting bit of light on the whole idea of where bad habits hide when you give them up, and why they’re so easy to return to, months, or even years later:

Habitual activity–smoking, eating fatty foods, gambling–changes neural activity patterns in a specific region of the brain when habits are formed. These neural patterns created by habit can be changed or altered. But when a stimulus from the old days returns, the dormant pattern can reassert itself, according to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, putting an individual in a neural state akin to being on autopilot.

“It is as though, somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back,” Ann Graybiel, the Walter A. Rosenblith professor of neuroscience in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, said in a statement. “This situation is familiar to anyone who is trying to lose weight or to control a well-engrained habit. Just the sight of a piece of chocolate can reset all those good intentions,” Graybiel said.

Source: MIT explains why bad habits are hard to break (CNET)

So these bad habits – they’re basically lying in wait for their cue to come right back up and interrupt your progress. They’re not eternally beaten. They’re waiting on sights, smells, feelings – little things that you might not even clock yourself noticing – so that they can pounce. These habit cues Graybiel refers to, then, are relying on the fact that once you’ve given in once, you’ll do it again… And again, and again, until they’re habitual. You know, like habits tend to be.

The psychological side of habit and addiction – not only in relation to food, but to all habits – really fascinates me. I know, for instance, that when I’ve got a big writing project to do, I suddenly want a Danish, an latte and – gulp – a cigarette. That’s psychology in action, because you know who enjoys these three things?

Stereotypes. Stereotypes of busy, stressed-but-successful people. Stereotypes of busy, stressed-but-successful people that I tried to imitate, before I realised that these things weren’t the route to success, and that these busy, stressed-but-successful people only existed on TV, or in annoying little bubbles that I didn’t care to be in. But because over the course of my university and working life so far, I’ve made these things a habit, they still pop into my head as things I want when I’m busy, stressed, and attempting to be successful.

And it’s not even because I want these things for themselves – I’m not craving the nicotine, or the sugar. I’m craving the ‘look how busy and stressed I am’ signals to myself and others that come with rushing into a coffee shop, grabbing a latte and a pastry, and dashing outside for a smoke. Bearing in mind I quit smoking (and pastries, as it goes) about six months ago, this is something of an inconvenience – and goes to show how insidious these bad habits are.

Good habits, on the other hand – they are almost comically easy to let slide.

I remember when I used to walk to work (before my 9 month hiatus) until one day… I got the bus. And then, the next day, that Evil Demon Bus of Temptation rolled past and… I jumped on again. And again. Until eventually, I had myself convinced that it was a really long walk to work, and I got the bus every single day.

Needless to say, these were not my most productive months on the weight loss front. Because once you’ve dropped one good habit, the others seem to fall more easily too. Suddenly, you think ‘well, since I didn’t walk to work I might as well have a sausage sandwich, since it’s clearly not a good day’ and the next thing you know, you’re smoking three cigarettes simultaneously whilst clutching a bottle of vodka, standing in line at McDonalds at 11:17am.

Okay, maybe it’s not that severe with you, but you can see what I mean. I’m just illustrating a point.

Good habits take a lot of work to maintain; bad habits take a lot of work to avoid. It’s a constant tug o’war, and one that requires you to have serious think about your reasons for keeping them in your life. Your bad habits might offer instant gratification; they might give you that sense of self like my cigarette-pastry-latte combo did; but these things don’t come without a cost.

They’re like those ‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ things you see in furniture stores. Right now, you might have an awesome sofa. But in a year’s time, that sofa’s going to be all covered in stains, and suddenly, you’re paying through the nose for it Whereas good habits are rather more like mail order happiness. Pay up front, get a surprise in the post a few days later.

Okay, I’m sorry – I have a cold. I’m feeling a bit flimsy on the metaphor front. But again, you get it. You’ve got to think long-term.

The thing is though, there can be a middle ground. I don’t advocate a life of all work and no play – because I advocate having a life. Usually, part of the reason bad habits are so attractive is because they offer us something beyond the ‘thing’ itself. A cigarette, for instance, used to offer me five minutes of peace, staring into the middle distance and focusing only on myself.

Turns out I don’t need a cigarette for that. I can stare into the middle distance whilst being completely self-absorbed just fine, thanks.

Or, sitting in front of the TV, watching some dodgy medical drama and eating ice cream, too, used to offer me a bit of escapism from the working life. As it turns out, I’d actually rather go for a walk, and then reward myself with a nice bowl of fruit salad and a mug of green tea. Or if I’m really tired, put on some Tom Waits and have a long, hot bath. Escapism done.

And the whole ‘stereotypes’ thing? I’ll admit it – I haven’t changed on that front. I’m still attempting to imitate a ‘successful’ person – but this time, it’s that healthy, glowing person that goes for a workout and a yoga class to cope with their busy, stressful-but-successful life. And while I haven’t got the successful bit quite down (or the glowing bit, for that matter) yet – I’m working on it.

And I’m pretty sure these habits are ones I really don’t mind having in my life.

So… What bad habits can you break? And how can you adapt them to be good?


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