‘Tis the season of habits. January is almost over, and with the first month almost done it’s time to check in on those New Year’s resolutions – that is if they haven’t already been forgotten. Whether breaking old habits or adding new ones, it’s the time of year where everyone wants to turn over a new leaf, begin a new chapter, and rewrite routine. But we are all too familiar with how this ends: we start out strong, and then life gets in the way. We run out of time, motivation, or both and slip back into our old ways.
So what makes habits so hard to change?
To understand this question we must first understand what habits are and why they are formed.
The first part of this equation includes a cue or trigger that tells your brain to do a particular action or routine. This can be as simple as the tiredness that makes you crave junk food or the opening of your laptop that prompts you to sign into Facebook.
The second stage of the habit loop is the routine or behavior itself. This is the action that we usually think of when we think of habits, such as stopping your internet addiction or going for a run after work.
And finally, the third part of the habit loop is the reward or incentive that we receive in return for doing the action that incentivizes our brain to remember the habit and keep doing it. This can be the gratification received from people liking your pictures on Facebook, or the socialization from a smoke break.
Why do we need to form habits?
Why can’t we just decide to do what we want, when we want, for as long as we want? Well, part of the problem with this logic is that decision-making is mentally taxing for most of us. Much of the decision-making process takes place in the front of our brains in a part known as the prefrontal cortex. While actively deciding to do something, much of our mental energy will become focused on the task of deciding, when it could be used elsewhere.
Habits are extremely useful in this way, because when something is a habit, it’s automatic – it no longer requires the mental energy of decision-making – it becomes like a “background process” on a computer or phone. This helps to explain why when we learned to drive, our shoulders may have been sore after from the tension and concentration needed during the taxing activity, but why after a few years of practice we have no trouble following a story on the radio, or talking to another person while driving. The action of driving that once required a lot of decision-making is now an automatic habit.
So how do you make changes to your habits that last longer than three weeks?
Too often we forget that there are two parts to creating new habits. We try to remove a bad habit without replacing it with another or we add a new habit without removing anything from our old routine. This leaves us overwhelmed and unhappy, with either more to do in a day or craving the reward we once received from our bad habits.
In order to successfully change your habits, you have to find a healthier routine that yields the same rewards as the unhealthy habit. For example, if you want to give up your bad habit of procrastination via Facebook or messenger, don’t just try to stop logging in or deactivating your account. This will likely leave you unhappy and unmotivated as your brain is being deprived of the reward it loved – socialization, or the thrill of those BuzzFeed quizzes. Instead, try to find a healthier habit that can replace the old one, that still yields the same rewards.
For example, create a routine where you work for 30 minutes and then give yourself a 5-minute break to exclusively catch up on notifications, emails, and messages. Whether you use an anti-procrastination app or a new work routine, the key is the act of replacing the habit you want to lose with something else. Or if you want to start exercising before work, reward yourself with your favorite healthy breakfast.
Aristotle once said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” In order to live a life that we can be proud of, we have to form healthy and productive habits. The process of change can be trying and tedious, but by replacing bad habits with better ones that yield similar rewards, one can ease the process and create change that can be maintained for a lifetime.