Health & Wellness

It’s Hard to Break a Habit | Create New Ones Instead

Health & Wellness

The human brain is a strange thing. On the one hand, it gives us the ability to make choices. Every day, you make choices about what you wear, what you eat, who you talk to, etc.

The choices we make define who we are and when we continue to make the same choices on a regular basis, it becomes etched into our personality. This works well when we make choices that benefit us in some way. 

Sometimes though, the choice that initially benefited us turns out to not have been a good long-term decision. Eating sugary cereal for breakfast was awesome as a kid, but for some people, it had the effect of gaining unwanted weight.

Procrastinating because you don’t feel like studying for your exam because there’s something better on YouTube to watch is one way to relieve the boredom you feel, but it also means you just lost 10 minutes you could have used to prepare and could lead to you failing your exam. 

When faced with these consequences, some people see the error of their ways. The thought of making that bad choice fills them with dread. The thought of experiencing that bad situation again is enough to stop the behavior. 

However, for others, they have been trapped. They know the right choice to make, but they don’t choose it. For these people, they’ve developed bad habits and as well all know, it’s hard to break a habit.

The correct choice to make is not within their ability. But that’s not how they see it. It’s a different choice: do something you don’t want to do that is hard and uncomfortable, or do something that is easy and feels great. 

In a way, it’s almost irrational not to take the easy path. 

At least, until the consequences start getting more severe. 

It’s difficult to face the idea that you have to do something you don’t want to do, but if you want to break that bad habit, that is what you must do. This almost never works though.

The irony is this: If you had the willpower to break that bad habit, you would have never developed the habit in the first place. Being able to resist the sugary wiles of a candy breakfast or the lure of easy-access entertainment is the very reason you would still have the ability to choose to stop cold turkey when things started to get bad. 

But you don’t … and it seems you never needed them to begin with.

Here’s What Rarely Works

The conventional wisdom is this: If you want to change your habits, stop the bad habit entirely and replace it with the better habit. If you feel temptation to go back to the old habit, use your willpower to power through it and continue the new habit. 

Essentially, it’s hard to break a habit because you don’t have enough willpower.

But perhaps the reason it’s hard to break a habit is because you’re trying to break it all at once. 

What if the conventional wisdom was this: If you want to change your habit, do the good habit 1% more than you did the previous day for one year. 

This is what James Clear (@james_clear), the author of the book Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results, would recommend.

Clear likens changing habits to compound interest. At first, you don’t really notice the behavior. It’s like you’re not really doing anything. But that is the brilliance of this method: what would be overwhelming if you did it all at once seems trivial when you gradually do it.

It’s hard to break a habit but if you can commit to doing the good habit 1% more each day for a year, you can minimize (or even bypass entirely) the intensity that made it difficult to do in the first place. 

Don’t Break The Chain

Everybody knows Jerry Seinfeld for his humor, but almost nobody knows about his anti-procrastination strategy. 

In his book, Clear talks about a simple strategy the famous comedian used: Get a wall calendar that has the entire year on one page. Then, for every day that you start writing, simply place an “X” on the calendar. After a while, you’ll see that long string of “X”’s and you’ll feel good about it. The goal is to not break the chain. 

That’s it. Again, it is something simple, but it works because the focus is on small, consistent efforts.

A key reason it’s hard to break a habit is that too many people have an all-or-nothing approach: If you fail, it’s over and you should just give up.

However, keeping the winning streak going is in itself an easy task to do. You don’t need to succeed or fail at what you do just yet. You only need to show up and try. That is the short-term goal: consistency, not results. 

No Motivation? No Problem!

A lack of motivation to start something is a well-known productivity killer. If a person is struggling to build a new habit, conventional wisdom would say something like: just do it.

While it’s possible to bypass motivation if you have the will to force yourself to do it, the reality is that not everybody has that kind of willpower, so it appears that many people are out of luck when it comes to doing things without being properly motivated. 

Clear, however, has a different perspective. The solution to starting a new habit is deceptively simple: make it so easy you can’t say no.

Instead of trying to create impossible-to-reach goals when you’re first starting out, make a goal that is easy to reach, and celebrate that. For example, if you’re learning a new language, instead of spending several hours trying to learn 30 new vocabulary words, focus on 2 or 3 a day.

It might not seem like you’re learning much at first, but the goal is to commit to an easy, yet consistent, habit. At 2-3 words a day, you will have learned between 730-1095 words in one year with very little effort. 

Or maybe you need to exercise more but have no motivation. Instead of walking around for a half hour, try walking around for 1 minute each day. When that becomes easy, do it for 2 minutes each day, then 3, 4, etc. Again, it doesn’t matter that you aren’t doing as much yet because you will get there eventually. 

It’s hard to break a habit of making excuses when you have no motivation. The trick to get around that is to do something ridiculously easy consistently and with a gradual increase in difficulty. 

Habit Stacking

Everybody has habits they do all the time, such as: eating a meal, brushing their teeth, taking a shower, checking email, checking social media, etc. According to Clear, a great way of creating a habit is to “stack” habits together. 

The process is straightforward: first, initiate the habit you normally would; then  perform the new habit immediately after or during the regular habit. 

The reason this tends to work is that the current habits you do are already wired into your brain. You don’t think about doing them, they automatically occur. So what better way and time to introduce a new habit you want to include in your life than at the end of a habit that already is a part of your life?

Using the vocabulary example again, there are a number of ways you could introduce this new habit into your life.

For instance, if you have three meals a day, you can learn one new word during the course of your meal. When you wake up and just before you go to bed, you could learn one word during the time that you brush your teeth.

During your commute to and from work, you can also learn one word during that time. While you’re walking to and from your class, you can learn one word during that time. 

Create Better Habits Instead of Trying to Break Them

Many people unsuccessfully try to change their behavior by trying to break a bad habit cold turkey. This is usually due to a lack of willpower.

Not surprisingly, people quickly learn it’s hard to break a habit and so they give up and put up with the long-term negative consequences which not only hurt their life but also discourage them from even trying to change. 

The solution is threefold: first, increase the chance you will engage in the habit by doing it during or at the end of a daily habit you already have; second, make the initial barrier to success so simple that it takes no motivation to succeed while gradually increasing the difficulty over time; finally, view success as engaging in the habit consistently instead of unrealistic goals that require intense willpower and drive to succeed.  

If you can commit to those three things, you will have a rewarding behavior that will last a lifetime.