Breaking bad habits isn’t easy to do…but why?
I remember when I first started doing self-development, I felt pulled like a magnet – towards the path of least resistance. This was especially exaggerated when I was doing something that I found slightly beyond my comfort zone.
As you can imagine, this cycle is incredibly frustrating. I can wager that you’ve gone through this cycle of agony and despair many times, leading you to believe that breaking bad habits is impossible.
Turns out, it’s not entirely your fault. There are subtle and sly forces in our environment that prevent us from breaking bad habits and quitting them for good.
I’ve highlighted them in this article.
In this article I’m going to talk about:
- Why relapses into bad habits happen
- The three forces that work against you when developing discipline and breaking bad habits
- Ways you can prevent yourself from being sucked back into your bad habit patterns
I definitely don’t have all the answers but these are what I’ve found to be true in my own life.
First thing’s first:
What Is a “Bad Habit”?
Here’s my definition of a bad habit:
Any habit that limits or entirely prevents productivity and the accomplishment of certain objectives.
Right off the bat, we can consider these to be bad habits:
- Being chronically late
- Sleeping in
There’s many more but these relate to the sphere of work, where a large amount of our time is spent.
The inability of breaking bad habits is the reason why there is so much human error in our world.
Why Relapses Happen
I’ve explained in detail how a habit is formed.
But I didn’t really talk about “backsliding”. Backsliding is when you find yourself gravitating back to the old bad habits you were trying to give up.
Think of a magnet exerting force on an object many feet away. Originally, the pull is very weak. As the object gets closer and closer, the pull becomes even stronger.
This is you when it comes to breaking bad habits.
In that article on how habits are formed, I talk about how bad habits are reinforced by your brain’s automatic rationalization system.
It feels good, so why not do it, right?
This creates “grooves” in your brain that are self-reinforcing.
Even if you manage to break away for a couple of days, weeks, and months – you will find that it’s still easy to relapse.
Your neural circuitry is still “there”, but it is dormant. If you give up on breaking bad habits, you’ll find that soon after, you’re back to your old ways. It then becomes incredibly hard to quit.
This system of “reward centered bad behavior” is backed up by three mental rationalizations. These act as “green lights” to just “go ahead” and slip back into your bad behavior.
The following three reasons for relapses have the following things in common:
- Not seeing the “entire picture”
- Lack of long-term perspective
- Fills the desire for instant gratification
All three of these are the mental equivalent of looking down the wrong end of a telescope. They are all extremely shortsighted.
Here’s one that will absolutely ensure you never break bad habits:
1st Deterrent to Breaking Bad Habits – “What the Hell” Effect
The “what the hell” effect is easily the single greatest deterrent from getting over a bad habit pattern.
Two diet researchers (Janet Polivy and Peter Herman) wanted to see what was the biggest determining factor determining success or failure in dieting. So, they brought in some people who were on diets and fed them a small milkshake, a large milkshake, or no milkshake.
The results? Eating a good amount of something “off-diet” caused them to forfeit the whole thing. Even if they had stuck perfect the rest of the week, month, or even YEAR…they said:
“What the hell, my diet’s already broken, so I might as well eat everything in sight.”
You would think that someone would say: “Ah shit, I ate like a pig today. Need to get back on track ASAP.” NOPE.
The “what the hell” effect has taken me for a ride several times when I wanted to create a new habit and develop discipline.
This “what the hell” effect alone makes you feel as if you’re trapped in some sort of purgatorial existence where you keep taking one step forward and two steps back.
Breaking bad habits become little more than a pipe dream during this phase.
Not good.The “what the hell” effect is easily the single greatest deterrent from getting over a bad habit… Click To Tweet
2nd Deterrent to Breaking Bad Habits – Lack of Immediate Feedback
If you’ve spent any time at all studying our hunter-gatherer ancestors, you’ll probably get the sense that they were incredibly “present to the moment”.
They had to be. They lived in an environment where rival tribes, hungry animals, and all sorts of other dangers presented themselves on a daily basis.
Get distracted for even one moment and you could lose out on killing an animal for food or you could even be killed yourself.
As I talked about in the article on social intelligence, we are still “them” just living in a modern world. Evolution isn’t that fast to catch up to all the advancements that we’ve made in society.
As a result, we still think like them.
When you take humanity as a whole, we enjoy instant gratification. We want whatever feels good right now. That means that we will take the quickest path to get whatever we need to get – now. This is known as “the expediency factor”.
Our ancestors had no concept of time with the exception of the seasons, so they couldn’t help but think the present.
When it comes to building new habits and breaking bad habits though, instant gratification is largely absent from the picture.
Since your bad habit pattern is already “locked in”, if you go through with it, you’ll get instant gratification. This means you’ll get a reward in the form of dopamine. This means you feel good, this means all is right in the world. Supposedly.
Since you’re not seeing any results you start to doubt and question if you’re really going down the right path.
Your brain is looking and searching desperately for that next dopamine hit. A compliment. A 5 pound increase in the gym. A better mood. SOMETHING.
The world we live in today gives us an incredible amount of feedback. Notifications. Likes. Comments.
All of these play on our deep-seated tendency for instant gratification. This is even more prevalent in our millennial generation whose brains have been trained for instant gratification.
Instant gratification is why social media, video games, drugs, and porn are so addictive. It’s also why we hate things that take a long time, like building a business, reading a book, or pursuing a relationship.
3rd Deterrent to Breaking Bad Habits – Comparison to a Reference Group
We humans have the uncanny ability to clothe ourselves in the mannerisms and mindsets of people we hang around frequently.
Again, this is a leftover from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Group cohesion was the difference between life or death for the individual and the group, so everyone had to fall in line.
Simply put: if they’re doing it, I guess it’s alright that I do it too.
This is why environment is a critical factor in behavior, especially when it comes to changing habits. If your friends are killing it in life, you’re going to pick up on that energy and be inspired to do it too.
This is also why people often encourage starting an exercise program with a buddy or a group of buddies because “Two heads are better than one.”
In the chapter on the Master Mind in his book Think and Grow Rich, this is what Napoleon Hill was referring to (not far-out fantasies of communicating with dead people).
I’d argue that if you have a supportive group of peers who encourage good habits, this can supersede many other factors. Part of it is encouragement, the other part is “I can’t let these people down.”
These are both very powerful motivators.
How to strengthen your willpower
Your ability to overcome all of these factors and breaking bad habit patterns comes down to willpower.
Willpower originates from your prefrontal cortex; the rational, conscious portion of your brain. The prefrontal cortex makes you…you. If you want to banish bad habit patterns for good, exercising and using this part of your brain is essential.
But the thing about willpower is…
- You have a limited amount per day
- It diminishes every time you use it
It’s like a muscle. You can go to the gym to exercise and strengthen it, but it will still tire. The following are some ways you can strengthen your willpower so you can exercise more control over your mind.
Deprive yourself – Things such as fasting from food (or technology) for a certain period of time exercise your willpower. You naturally gravitate towards tasty things and shiny objects. When you deny yourself these pleasures for a certain period of time, you are exercising self-discipline. Self-discipline is how you overcome the lure of instant gratification.
Do things you don’t want to do – Overcoming procrastination is another way you exercise your willpower. We all have things that we don’t want to do. So what happens? We push them off to the side hoping they’ll magically go away. When you decide to “do it now”, you will overcome that unfortunate human tendency.
Meditation – Meditation by far is one of the easiest ways to strengthen your prefrontal cortex. Meditation trains your mind to not attach to thoughts and desires.
I personally find that when I regularly meditate, it is much easier for me to cut through my day with precision and avoid “friction”. If you find it easy to sit still for 30 minutes to an hour, you’ll find it easy to reroute your thought processes.
Deep Work – I’ve talked about deep work and how it can change your life. Deep work is being able to concentrate on a cognitively demanding task for a long period of time. Many people cannot do this because we live in a society where focus is not rewarded.
If you spend 2 hours in deep work, you take away two hours that you could have spent in idle daydreaming and lapsing back into bad habit patterns. It’s simple time management, really. So not only are you strengthening your powers of concentration, you’re spending time on something valuable as well.
Become incredibly task-oriented – Every night before you go to sleep, you should write down what you’re going to do the next day. This gives you a predetermined track to run on.
You should spend the majority of your day accomplishing those tasks. When you’re incredibly busy, you’ll find it hard to relapse into your bad habit patterns. Your brain is simply preoccupied with something else. I personally find that when I am not task-oriented, is is very easy for me to indulge in a bad habit.
Persist in the face of pain – Pain comes in many forms. I’m not talking about the type of going to the hospital if you break a leg (definitely do that). I’m talking about the mental strain you feel when you are pushing on the limits of your capabilities. You feel a burning sensation in your head when you’re fighting cravings for a bad habit. It’s almost like going insane. Push through it.
This is an aspect of deliberate practice and it’s how you get better at any skill. There are no “hacks”, there are no “techniques”, this is simply biting the bullet and putting up with it.
Stop lollygagging on the Internet – Many people are finding it hard to disengage from checking their smartphone, going on Facebook, etc… When you constantly browse on the Internet with no specific purpose, you are training your mind to become stimulated by junk.
This will make it hard to break bad habit patterns and develop daily self-discipline. Infotainment sites like Twitter, Buzzfeed, Business Insider are basically shit wrapped up in a sparkly package. They’re designed to keep you clicking and clicking and clicking, going down an endless hole of novelty. Even this site, if you’re not taking action on it…stop going to it.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll come to find that breaking bad habits is a matter of distracting yourself from yourself.
This is one reason (of many) why it is so essential to set goals. A goal often requires the best that you have. It requires that you be alert, active, and take action. With a goal, you’ll find it harder to fall into bad habit patterns or relapse.
Avoiding and preventing a relapse into bad habits is doable…but it’s not often easy. It all comes down to yet again, the essential question: how badly do you want to succeed? If you want to banish a bad habit as badly as you want to indulge in it, you will do whatever it takes to exterminate it from your life. There is no mountain high enough, no valley deep enough to stop you from where you want to go.
I want to hear from you. What are you doing to stop from falling into bad habits? Let me know in the comments.