Why are Bad Habits So Difficult to Change?

Why do we struggle to lose weight? Quit smoking? Or simply get into a habit of better organizing around the house? We are used to doing things one way, but we're telling ourselves it needs to be done differently. Change is especially difficult, and it takes on average 1,000 tries to successfully form a new habit. Many of us fail before we get to that stage, but understanding how habits work and why these habits are difficult to obtain can help you stick to accomplishing your goals.

How do habits develop?

By indulging in one thing often enough, our bodies become addicted to the act. It could be savoring the sugary goodness of sweets, the addictive chemicals in cigarettes, or craving the need to do something subconsciously like biting your nails. Habits can be triggered by location, time of day, smells, activities, or even the people we surround ourselves with. Although we most often associate habits with "bad" actions, good habits can form too. They just typically take longer to obtain since it's usually because we're trying to break one habit and replace it with another. Habits are broken down into three sections:

  1. The trigger: This initiates the need to indulge in your habit. It could be anything from stress to being around particular people and locations.
  2. The action: Good or bad, this is where you actually give in to the trigger and execute your habit.
  3. The reward: When you give in to a habit your brain rewards you with a dose of dopamine for completing the action. The loop continues, and eventually you form a habit that sticks.

Destructive habits, such as smoking and drinking, release significant levels of dopamine that encourage us to continue and repeat the process. But with habits like exercise and healthy eating, the rewards aren't always as obvious which is why constructive habits are usually more difficult to obtain.

How can I successfully change a bad habit?

There are two important things you need to remember when setting out to change a habit. First, you need to understand what your triggers are and how to handle them when they arise. Do you bite your nails when you're stressed? Reach for a cigarette at the same time every day right before lunch?

Next, ask yourself the reason why you want to change your habits. Then, create a plan and ease your way into it. While some of us may be able to wake up one morning and completely quit smoking, or change our diet overnight, for a majority of us it will take some getting used to. Learn to recognize your brain cravings and ways to counter them. Some people find that taking a few minutes to meditate or going for a quick walk helps clear their mind. Simple actions like standing across the room, away from the food table, will encourage you not to overeat or make your way to the exit to smoke in the parking lot.

Whenever you're struggling, remind yourself why you set out to reach your goal and how far you've come. Doubt may start to cloud your mind, but stay positive and focused. Having an accountability partner, or someone who supports you during your journey, gives you a much higher chance of succeeding to reach your goals. You will likely encounter pitfalls along the way. This person can help pick you back up to keep going. Over time, you'll be able to boost your resilience to stressful situations that may encourage you to fall back into old habits.

Remember, you need to be realistic in your goal setting. If you set your ambitions too high, you'll be more likely to quit before you reach your goal. Know yourself and what works for you and work in small steps to complete the larger picture. The wait will be worth the reward!

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