Why is it so hard to break bad habits and stick to new ones?

Image by Homegrounds from Pixabay

As you know, I’ve been developing myself over the last year or so and have started to form some new habits, but they’re not second nature yet.  When faced with a menu at a restaurant and there are choices between gorgeous sounding salads and fruit options, why do I go straight for the dirty burgers and chips? 

According to an article by Claire Cantor in Platinum Magazine, 43% of our daily actions are habitual, meaning we do them without consciously thinking about them. This could be like reaching for the bag of crisps even when you’re not really hungry, or one that we’ve got into on a regular basis of having a bottle of wine with dinner on a Wednesday.

Wendy Wood, Professor of Psychology & Business in the USA described the habit loop as the cycle of cue, context, reward.  The idea is that habits are learning that is activated by a context, (its Wednesday), followed by an action (drinking the bottle of wine), and reward (the pleasure of drinking a fine red, or chilled white).  When we get the reward we’re hit with a dose of dopamine, the feel good hormone.  It’s this that helps form habit memories which trigger again when the same context occurs.

In order to break the cycle we need to change our context or environment in order to short-circuit the unwanted habit loop, replacing the bad habit with a positive, rewarding one.  Habit formation requires persistence, repetition and context manipulation. It can take on average 66 days to form a new habit and for some it can take up to 250 days!

A way of breaking bad habits is to make it more difficult by increasing the effort involved or putting obstacles in the way.  If you want to stop looking at your phone so much, put it out of reach and turn alerts off.  A way to make new habits stick is to do it with a friend, you’re more likely to enjoy it and they will hold you to account over it.  Try mentoring someone else who’s trying to stick to the same habit as you, it’ll help build your own confidence in your own ability, and you wouldn’t want to be seen as a hypocrite.  You could try rewarding another behaviour, make your new habit enticing.

Its important to have a clear plan for successfully changing habits.  Ask yourself what new habit do you want to establish? How are you going to do it?  Making smaller, more achievable changes are a lot easier to stick to and can set off a chain reaction of positive changes. Don’t rely on willpower; this will only get you so far.  Believing that change is possible is crucial to success. If you do a simple task each day, like making your bed, you start to embody the traits of an organised person, or if you write every day, you identify with being a creative person. 

Wendy set out five tips on how to help make good habits stick:

  1. Create the right environment to make life easier for yourself
  2. Understand your cues
  3. Reduce or add friction
  4. Enjoy what you are doing and set rewards
  5. Start with small, easily achievable goals and follow a plan

Over the last year, some good habits that have stuck have been writing this blog, introducing fruit into my diet on a daily basis, being more mindful of my interactions with others.  What I still can’t get out of is choosing the dirty burger and chips from a pub menu.

In 2022 I want to start forming some new habits around interactions with others to break existing patterns and create new, positive ones. 

What bad habits do you want to ditch?  What new ones are you trying to stick to?


One thought on “Why is it so hard to break bad habits and stick to new ones?

  1. Rewarding myself with chocolate🍫 or biscuits 🍪just because I’ve managed to get through another day 🤣


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