Why changing your habits can be difficult

Habits are the repetitive patterns of activities that we unconsciously perform in our daily life. The automaticity of a response identifies it, and as humans we tend to live 47% of our life on autopilot. (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). Our habits shape our personality, revealing how social we are, how goal-oriented we are, or how we react to adversity. According to Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act but a habit.” (Covey, 1988).

Why is it Hard to Change a Habit?

From birth, our brains are designed to learn from experiences and associate environmental cues with emotions and behaviors based on rewards or punishments. Pleasant activities trigger the release of dopamine, which reinforces these connections. When life becomes uncertain, we turn to these activities for comfort, and they become ingrained in our memory and automatic responses. Breaking a habit is difficult because different parts of our brain work against each other, and our reward system craves habitual behavior therefore making it harder to break the habit. (Volkow, 2012).

Duration of Creating a New Habit and Breaking an Old Habit

Previously, it was thought that it takes just 21 days to form or break a habit. However, research from Philippa Lally’s 2009 study “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world” concludes that it takes two months for a behavior to become automatic. In fact, it may take up to 66 days to establish a fixed habit, and it can take anywhere from 18 to 250 days to break a habit entirely. While it’s easier to break a habit of behavior than to change your way of thinking, it’s essential to remember that our habits define us in many ways. (Singer, 2018).

Tips to Change a Habit:

  • Create a Plan: A proper structure makes it easier to follow and stay consistent. I suggest you follow these steps while planning. Identify what behaviors need to be changed or learned and track the amount of time and effort that it may require.

You can create an impact vs effort matrix to identify which negative and positive habits need the least effort but have the most significant positive impact on you.

  • Finding an Alternative Response: A habit cannot be changed in isolation. Whether it is the habit of practice or thought, it must be replaced with an alternative option to keep the brain busy. For example, learning a new skill that requires conscious effort.

Some healthy alternatives can be seeking comfort by doing activities you are good at or learning a skill that requires conscious effort, including cooking, stitching, and painting. To avoid falling into negative behavioral patterns, use a stress ball or fidget spinner to self-regulate and exercise or meditate to avoid cognitive overload or feeling overwhelmed.

  • Changing the Loop: Duhigg, Power of Habit (2012) explained how to form or break a habit through a neurological loop of habit. He explains how sensory information acts as a cue to stimulate the brain to respond. Often, we require immediate reactions through automatic and impromptu responses. If the response is rewarding, it becomes strengthened. Immediately rewarding behavior becomes conditioned into a habit faster than latent or delayed rewards. One way to change the habit is by replacing it with a more positive activity; and then rewarding yourself for strengthening it once that is achieved.

If you are used to procrastinating or binging on TV shows, you can make yourself consciously work on some tasks. Once the task is achieved, you can reward yourself with the show. Completion of the task will also provide a latent reward.

  • Restructuring and Analyzing: Identify the cause of developing a habit, how it was created, and why it has continued. Once you understand it, you can reengineer the loop by replacing this habit with your brain’s desires.

You may feel stressed about an exam, and your habit may be a negative coping mechanism; now that you know you are stressed, you can identify why you feel stressed. You did not perform so well in the past, or you may have doubted yourself a lot. Now that you know what is causing you to repeat the behavior, you can work towards the cause.

  • Recharge when burned out: One reason why we fall back into a habit is that when we are experiencing stress and life feels out of control or unpredictable, we seek comfort in things that are consistent or intangible. One way is to identify the triggers or maintain factors that may act as obstacles to creating a new habit. Once this has been identified, work on overcoming that triggering stimulus that activates the automatic response. Additionally, allow yourself to take a break to recharge as soon as you feel overwhelmed or triggered instead of getting burnt out.

If you have a lot of office work and know you would exceed your regular working hours, allow yourself short breaks during work or reward yourself on your way home. This will ensure that you are energized by the time you get home and can focus on the next task.

  • Anticipating a Pitfall: New behavior takes longer to turn into habits; people often return to the previous behavioral patterns after any minor inconvenience. According to research, “at least eight times out of 10, you are more likely to fall back into your old habits and patterns than you are to stick with a new behavior”. However, the minor setbacks do not affect the habit formation process as it is not all-or-nothing process. (Clear, 201). There are three causes of this pitfall,
  • Firstly, when you try to make a drastic change all at once. One way to avoid this is to start with changing one habit at a time. “Only when that has become an automatic response, shift to a new change.” (Babauta, 2009).

Your exams are near, and you must change your sleep pattern, study habits, and social/ family life. Changing everything all at once may create a feeling of uncertainty which may trigger you to feel threatened. However, you may gradually start by changing your sleep cycle and adjusting your body clock to feel fresh in the morning. Once that is achieved, you may study one subject at a time.

  • Secondly, when you try to start with a more extensive pattern. We need to take small steps and simplify the habit that we are changing so that it becomes easier to achieve and we do not feel the need to avoid it. (Babauta, 2013).

You may start by waking half an hour earlier than usual and slowly increase the time or studying only for 10 to 15 mins at first.

  • Lastly, changing a habit without changing the environment that stimulates that habit. According to Clear (2015), “If your environment does not change, you probably will not either.”

Change the study environment; you may create a spot for studying instead of studying in your bedroom, where your mind usually relaxes so you do not feel sleepy or distracted. You may customize that room by buying a planner or calendar to make notes and putting notes on the charts.

  • Publicize Goals: A support system reduces the chance of falling off or breaking the positive pattern you want to achieve. Your friends and family can point out if you may unconsciously fall back into the harmful habit. They can encourage you by appreciating the progress and may remind you why you wanted to change the habit every time you are tempted to give up.

Many people fidget, nail bite, or even pull their skin unconsciously when anxious. A friend and family can point it out every time someone does it to break the habit.

  • Track the progress: You may create a planner or use applications to create customized habit trackers.

A few applications that may be helpful include loop habit tracker by Alison S Xavier, 21 days challenge by Kati & Lama, and time planner: Schedule & Task by Oleksandr Albul.

  • Help from Books: You can take guidance from professional therapists and authors by reading renowned books on habits.

7 Habits of highly effective people by Stephen R. Covey. Atomic Habit by James Clear, Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin.

  • Action Plan: If your habit has been causing distress and impairment to you and those around you and you are struggling to break it yourself, you can also contact us at Serengeti Wellness for professional assistance. Visit our website at www.serengetiwellness.co to connect with us.


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