Why are habits hard to break?

Generally, around this time in January, I have a pretty clear idea of which of my new year’s goals I’m likely to pull off and which I’m going to have to table.  In reflecting on that list this past week and thinking about the lists I’ve made in past years, I noticed a pattern: I’m more likely to succeed in creating a new habit than I am in breaking an old one.  While not categorically true–there are habits I’ve tried to form for years without success–it got me thinking: What makes habits so hard to break?

In poking around the internet and reading a bit, my impression is that there isn’t a simple answer.  There is a lot of very current biological and behavioral research going on around this very question.  I’m certainly not qualified my answer the question on that level, but I have some observations from my own experience that I thought might be helpful to share.

A couple of disclaimers first: 1) The path to success with such things is highly individual, so my thoughts are just meant to help inform that process, not really as a program to follow and 2) Some of my examples are habits that might involve chemical-level dependance for some people.  If your habit is actually in the addiction category instead of just the habit realm, chances are everything I’m about to say is irrelevant.  That said I’m hoping one or two of my reflections might be useful in cracking your own code if you’re struggling to put down unhealthy or just unwanted habits.

So what makes my “bad” habits so hard to break?

1) I convince myself that they’re serving me.

With the amount of time in my life I've spent with a drink in my hand, how do I not have one suitably incriminating photo?
With the amount of time in my life I’ve spent with a drink in my hand, how do I not have one suitably incriminating photo?

Here’s a great example: I’ve caught myself saying things like ‘I’ve had such a crazy day.  I need a drink when I get home!’  Now, having a drink when I get home isn’t a big deal and I’m a huge fan of not demonizing alcohol.  (Though please remember my disclaimer above about chemical dependance being a different kettle of fish entirely!)  But do you see the sneaky logic behind that pair of statements?  What I see lurking behind them is a belief that the alcohol is somehow going to help me recover from my stressful situation.

Usually the truth in the situation for me is that the drink doesn’t help anything–if I’m helped at all it’s generally by the company I’m keeping when I’m having the drink or the environment that I’m drinking in.  If I don’t have someone to talk to about my day or I’m not sitting in steaming hot water in my bath tub, chances are I’m just as stressed with a glass of wine in my hand.  That distinction matters when I decide that I want to drink less or stop drinking entirely, because if I have a stressful day, suddenly I’m self-sabotaging my efforts because I ‘need’ a drink.  If I can step back and re-examine that belief, naming the things related to the habit that are actually helping me when I’m stressed, I’ve got a better shot at following through on my goal.

2) I identify with them.

This is another case of casual statements that I think carry more power than I intend.  I’ll say things like ‘I’m a hangnail biter’ or ‘I suck at waking up in the morning.’  Making these statements, in some sense is probably perfectly normal: noticing patterns and naming them is a part of being human.  But saying ‘I bite my hangnails’ and ‘I’m a hangnail biter’ are two subtly different things.  The former is a habit pattern that I have; the latter is descriptive of who I am.  Again, I think that distinction matters when I decide that I want to stop biting my hangnails, because the first involves changing a behavior, the second involves changing who I am or at very least who I perceive myself to be.  I don’t know about you, but I find changing the second a lot more daunting than the first.  If I start by taking on my language around the habit first, often breaking the habit itself becomes somewhat easier.

3) I make breaking them a pass-fail scenario.

Races are pretty much the only thing I reliably wake up for and that's usually because I've barely slept.
Races are pretty much the only thing I reliably wake up for and that’s usually because I’ve barely slept.

So let’s say I manage to change my language around waking up in the morning and I’m ready to tackle my habit of sleeping past my alarm.  I read up on all the tips and tricks–I exercise the day before, I watch my caffeine intake, I make sure to get to bed at a reasonable time.  I set my alarm and climb into bed, thinking about how awesome tomorrow morning is going to be.  And maybe I even pull it off–I get up with the alarm!  But sometime that week, I’ll roll over or maybe even that first morning doesn’t quite go as I’d hoped.

If I set it up as a pass-fail test for every morning for the rest of my life, I’m sunk.  One failure and the whole project is a bust.  If on the other hand I look back on my week and give myself a pat on the back for the two mornings I managed not to sleep through my alarm, I can leverage that momentum to try for three mornings next week.  Or just be pleased that two mornings where I might have slept in, I didn’t, which is two more than if I hadn’t tried to break my habit of sleeping in at all.  Either of those postures toward the habit I’m trying to break are probably going to work out better for me in the long run than deciding I’ve failed the first time I hit the snooze button.

4) I rely on my will power instead of the power of habits themselves.

Habits are just that–they’re habitual.  I get to work, I take off my coat, I boot up my computer, I put my lunch in the fridge, and I pour myself a cup of coffee.  Every morning.  In that order.  So what happens when I decide to give up caffeine for a while?  I get to work,  I take off my coat, I boot up my computer, I put my lunch in the fridge, and…I stare down the coffee machine.  Chances are, some sleepy or grumpy morning, I’m going to lose that staring contest.  It’s just a matter of time.

But if I instead set up another pattern–I get to work, I take off my coat, I boot up my computer, I put my lunch in the fridge, and I pour myself hot water for a cup of decaf tea–then my attention isn’t always focused on the thing I’m trying not to do.  I’ll almost certainly still have mornings that I might want the coffee more than the tea and I’ll have to make a decision, but I haven’t left myself a void to stare down by my sheer force of will every morning. (For more thoughts about working around a lack of willpower, check out my post on Discipline vs. Care.)  I’m creating a replacement habit, one that will eventually (hopefully) be as much on autopilot as the original habit was.

5) I make it a “should” thing instead of a “want to” thing.

Here’s another bit of language subtlety that I’ve found really matters.  ‘I should quit smoking.’  (Once again, note I’m in chemical dependency territory for some, so please remember my disclaimer!)  There are a lot of reasons why I might decide that I’m obligated to quit, many of them entirely valid.  But when I say an ‘I should’ statement, there’s a layer of shame and quiet self-recrimination hiding behind it.

Here’s the problem with shame as a motivation–if I break the habit, I have no right to feel good about it, I only get to feel less badly about myself.  And chances are I won’t even catch that break, because motivating from a negative headspace has honestly never really worked for me.  If I instead mentally list off the reasons I want to quit smoking–I want stop coughing in the morning, I want my clothes to smell less like a used paperback, I want to train hard for a race, I want/need to be able to schedule that surgery, etc–I’ll both be more likely to pull it off and as a reinforcing bonus, I’ll actually get to enjoy my success.

6) I make it about who I’m not instead of about what’s in my way.

I'm actually much dangerous around chips or other fried foods, but this charming shot with a slice of birthday cake will have to stand in.
I’m actually much more dangerous around fried foods, but this charming shot with a slice of birthday cake will have to stand in.

If I had to sum this up in a self-talk statement, I would put it this way: ‘That’s great for them, but I could never do that.’  It doesn’t take a behavioral therapist to explain why this undercuts even my best efforts to change.  I’ve simply already decided that I don’t have what it takes.  Shaking self-limiting statements like those is tough, because honestly, when I say something like that, I usually just think I’m ‘being realistic’ and just ‘telling it like it is.’  I’ve got two tricks that sometimes help me when I’m in that headspace.

First, I try to make a mental list of all the things I’ve done that an older version of myself would have deemed impossible.  It doesn’t have to be huge–my teenage self would be flabbergasted by the fact that I enjoy listening to the Civil Wars–but the more recent I make the examples, the more powerfully they speak to the ‘I could never’ mentality.

Second, I try changing the statement around and say ‘I could do that, but…’  Everything that completes that sentence is a limiting factor–and dismantling them is likely to be a bit of work–but often what I discover is that none of them are inherently a part of who I am.  And as I mentioned before, for me, changing behaviors and circumstances is usually a ton less daunting than changing my entire identity.

7) I forget that not doing something isn’t any easier than doing something.

Doing takes work.  So not doing is somehow like a vacation, right?  Not really.  Maybe this is a no-brainer, but both establishing a new habit and dismantling an old one both take a lot of hard work.  I can often get derailed by trivializing the investment I’m making when I set out to break a habit.  Acknowledging to myself that what I’ve set out to do is difficult can be incredibly helpful when I start to get demoralized or discouraged.

Thoughts on what makes habits hard to shake?  Or methods that have worked for you that you’d like to share?  Drop them in a comment below!

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