Habits and why they are so hard to break

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With habit tracking apps and bullet journaling on the rise, it is clear that people are thinking more about the things they do on the day-to-day and whether these things are healthy.

Whether it is breaking a bad habit or starting a fresh one, it is so difficult to break from our usual routine.

Science tells us that we learn habits over time and our brains get so used to doing an action that it can carry out the task with very little thought processing involved.  This is efficient for the brain – the less thought about habitual tasks, the more brain power available for other (potentially more important) things.

It’s not that our brains are lazy, they are efficient and this is key to our survival.  Our early ancestors had a lot to think about just to stay alive – their basic needs of food, water and safety required a lot of thought and attention. 

Every task they performed occupied lots of brain power.  However in order to survive, they still needed to have enough brain power available to react to what was happening around them.

For example, if they spent all their brain power on how to move their bodies to run, jump or climb, they may not notice a predator heading their way.  What this means is, the more brain power they (and we) have available, the more likely we are to be able to react quickly in dangerous or urgent situations.

But what does this mean about our habits today?

Our brains have certainly come a long way since then, and predators are no longer our biggest worry.  However that doesn’t mean that our brains have stopped using these mechanisms.  In fact, we have evolved these basic mechanisms to work for us in today’s much more complex world.

An example of how these efficient processes are used in today’s world would be driving a car. Think about what is actually involved in driving, what is it that enables us to get from A to B in one piece? Not only are we operating a complex piece of machinery, we are simultaneously obeying road laws, navigating to our destination, looking out for hazards, and, most importantly, singing along to the radio. All in all, we often multitask whilst driving very successfully.

Once we have been driving for a few years, all of this just becomes second nature.  A great example of an efficient process.  However, when one of these processes changes, the whole process needs to adjust.   

For example, the first time you ever drive to a new job or a friend’s house, you have to think about the route you’re going to take; actively thinking about the turnings and lanes you need, following speed limits and looking out for traffic lights and speed cameras.  After about a week of making this journey, the route becomes more familiar and after months or years of making this journey, you can drive there without a second thought. 

But what happens if you move house?  You have to abandon that easy routine and find the way all over again.  It takes real conscious effort in those first few weeks to stay on track and it’s really easy to start thinking about something else and slip into your old habit, driving the wrong way.

So, applying this idea to trying to stop a “bad” habit, such as nail biting, if we aren’t paying conscious attention to our behaviours – maybe our brains are elsewhere, thinking about other things – we can all of a sudden find ourselves biting our nails. Most of the time there is no conscious thought to begin the habit, however because our conscious attention is elsewhere, we catch ourselves in the act.

With this in mind, it may seem that in order to never bite our nails again, we would require the ability to focus only on our body and its behaviours – forever.  Nothing else.  Never another thought about our life or the world, no wondering what to have for dinner, no chatting with a friend – nothing.  Of course, this is impossible, and I say good luck to you if that is your plan!

Thinking about it from this perspective, how could we expect ourselves to just stop doing something when we don’t have the ability to focus only on stopping a habit? Especially when the power of a habit can sweep you away the second your mind wanders.

My message to you is this.  Cut yourself some slack!  Making and breaking habits is hard, and it takes practice. Sometimes you’ll find yourself going the wrong way and that’s okay, you’re learning.

It might seem like a small thing to change, but when it’s so ingrained it’s really hard to unlearn. Take a moment to remember how hard you are working. 

I wish you the best of luck with your habits, whether that’s creating new, healthy habits, or stopping your old, unhealthy ones.

 Comment below your thoughts on habits and share your favourite tips!


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