Forming a new habit seems so simple: “just” set our alarm clock for one hour earlier each morning and go for a jog, “just” turn off the television and take 10 minutes to meditate in the evenings, “just” drink more water, “just,” “just,” “just.” But, if you’re part of the vast majority, forming a new habit—or breaking an old one—is not nearly as easy as we think it should be.
How are habits formed, and why are they so hard to break?
Before getting into the tips and tricks of making habit formation easier, let’s first talk about what makes it so difficult. Habits are, by definition, “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary” (Merriam-Webster, 2022). We engage in our habits automatically, without having to think about it or put much—if any—energy into choosing to do the thing, whatever it may be. This means it is easiest, psychologically and at the moment, for us to engage in habits that we have already developed and established. Going off-course and doing something new, no matter how healthy the new behavior is or how badly you want to incorporate it into your routine, is therefore going to be inherently more difficult at first—it is expected, it is normal, and it will not be forever (I promise).
Habits are initially formed over time, through repetition, and with some sort of reward associated with them. As habits are repeated, becoming more and more automatic each time, they are associated with a cue or trigger that indicates to your brain to begin the behavior without you having to put much effort into thinking about doing it. For instance, you walk through the front door and into a dark foyer of a home you’ve lived in for over a year and immediately reach for the light switch (without even looking, because you know exactly where it is) to illuminate the entrance, making it easier for you to see. The cue was a dark foyer, the behavior was reaching for the light switch and turning on the lights, and the reward was being able to see better.
The automatic nature of habits is not only something that can be observed (have you ever rearranged your closet and spent the following few weeks looking for your sweaters in the wrong spot?) but is also something that can be studied in the brain. Neuroscientists studying the nature of habits have found that engaging in habitual or routine behaviors—such as turning on that light switch or brushing your teeth—activates a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the regulation of movement (voluntary and involuntary), emotions, and pattern recognition. However, when making decisions—such as how to word that email to your boss—we use a different part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is primarily responsible for executive functioning, i.e., our working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. Things like planning towards a future goal, deciding between good and bad or right verse wrong, managing conflicting thoughts, and thinking through the potential consequences of our actions before we act upon the urge to do something all happen in this part of the brain.
Despite being the most evolved part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex can only do so much at once. So, when behaviors become repetitive, the brain “outsources” to the basal ganglia—a smart move on the brain’s part because it means that the prefrontal cortex can use that mental energy on other things. It does make breaking bad habits a bit trickier for us, though.
On breaking bad habits and creating new ones.
One thing we know: understanding the structure of habits (i.e., the cue, behavior, and the reward) is a powerful tool in breaking old habits and creating new ones because it provides the know-how to make meaningful changes and challenges the notion that we are defenseless against habitual behaviors developed over time. So, paired with the information above, here are a few tips and tricks for breaking old habits:
- Become aware of your bad habits. Because habits are so automatic, people are often unaware of what the habit actually entails or what it feels like. Next time you find yourself an hour into scrolling endlessly on your phone, try to become aware of what this experience is like for you. How is it making you feel, emotionally and mentally? How does your body feel? Are your eyes hurting? Have you experienced anything in the last hour that would make continuing to scroll a worthy endeavor? For more on mindfulness, check out “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy,” written by John P. Carnesecchi, GTS Founder.
- Change up the context in which you normally perform the habitual behavior. A change in environment can go a long way in kick-starting the process of breaking an old habit. A new environment means new cues and, therefore, less chance of an automatic start of habitual behaviors. For instance, if you find yourself sitting down with a book on your living room couch but notice yourself getting distracted by your phone each time, switch up the location. Try finding a different room or seat to sit in while reading your book and keep your phone out of arm’s reach (or in another room completely), and you’ll likely run into less difficulty staying on task.
- Lower your stress levels. It is important to recognize just how many habits are cued by stress. Smoking a cigarette, watching TV for hours on end, overeating, biting your nails, impulse shopping, and so on. If you can lower the amount of stress experienced each day, the cue for many of your bad habits simply disappears.
- Know your cues. Beyond stress—a nearly universal cue for bad habits—gaining insight into what triggers a bad habit for you specifically is essential in making the process of breaking a bad habit easier. Since cues trigger an automatic habitual response, knowing the cue will give you the power to challenge that habitual response while becoming mindful in that moment of what you want to do next instead.
- Start small; stay committed. Habits are hard to break. It takes brainpower, repetition, and a lot of patience, so go easy on yourself. Start small. If your goal is to go to the gym four times a week, start with just once; if you want to spend an hour reading each evening, begin with 15 minutes. And, as a reminder, this shift back into “decision-making mode” (using the prefrontal cortex part of the brain) will feel more difficult than just staying the course. This may feel frustrating and defeating, but with each repetition, you are weakening the association between a cue and an old, bad habit while simultaneously strengthening the association between that cue and a new, healthier habit.
At Gateway to Solutions, we believe “it takes a person to help a person,” and changing your habits is no small feat. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with just the thought of it or don’t know where to begin, getting support from others or a professional can make a world of a difference.