2019-03-27
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Being unable to break a bad habit is maddening. You are trapped continuing a pattern of behavior you know is bad for you, and you assume it is because you lack the willpower necessary to break the habit. In reality, though, it is not a lack of willpower that is keeping you from breaking bad habits. Your body and brain are hardwired to keep you practicing habitual patterns of behavior. This can be an advantage at times, but when those patterns of behavior are unhealthy, it becomes a serious liability. So, why is it that it is so hard to break bad habits?

Habits literally bypass conscious thought.

Did you lock the front door when you left today? Did you remember to put your toothbrush back in its holder? Did you flush the toilet when you last went to the bathroom? Are you sure? Can you remember doing it? The answer is honestly that you assume you did those things because you always do them, but you cannot actually remember taking that specific action. This is because habitual actions bypass your conscious mind and memory. They are actions you literally do not think about; you simply do them.

This quirk of habits is handy when the habit is something useful. After all, it is nice not to have to worry about remembering to brush your teeth in the morning when you are still bleary eyed. This tendency, however, makes breaking bad habits difficult. You do not even consciously register that you are doing something, so there is no point where you can make a different choice. There is no choice to make because choices require thought, and habits bypass that. This is why breaking a habit requires there to be something that jolts you out of your preexisting pattern. If you are trying to get out of the habit of checking your social media first thing in the morning, store your phone somewhere new. When you automatically reach for your phone in the morning, your hand will hit empty air. This can be enough to push habitual actions back into the realm of conscious decisions.

The habit originally had some benefit for you.

You do not form habits that do not bring you some sort of benefit. That is not how the human brain is wired. The problems associated with the habit may come to outweigh the benefits eventually, but the benefit is still there. This means that the habit is reinforced every time you do it. People do not continue to do things that hurt them, but something that is of some benefit will be repeated even if it is simultaneously causing harm. Smokers, for example, get the benefit of calming a nicotine craving. The drawbacks of smoking, of course, are monumentally higher than a brief cessation of a craving. The fact that the craving stops, however, is the benefit which subconsciously reinforces the smoking habit. On the other hand, simply putting up with the cravings is deeply unpleasant. It is the far better choice, but the brain and body shy away from things that are disagreeable even when those things are healthier.

Other habits people may struggle with are overeating and staying up too late. Both of these are bad for your health, but they did originally offer you a benefit. Overeating sates hunger, addresses food cravings and helped you cope with stress. Going to bed too late, on the other hand, may have originally been born out of a desire to have more time to yourself after work. Staying up gave you that time. It came at a terrible price, but you enjoyed what you did with that time. So, subconsciously, you are reluctant to change that habit because it means giving up that benefit.

Replacing habits takes time, effort and patience.

People today are not terribly patient. They want a quick fix for everything. Rather than losing weight through healthy eating and exercise over a course of months, they want a 10 day cleanse that will let them drop 15 pounds. Instead of building strength or flexibility gradually, they want a single exercise class that will leave them ripped and capable of dropping into the splits immediately. Sometimes, you can trick your body into at least giving the illusion of instant results. A starvation diet, after all, will allow you to shed a lot of weight very quickly. You will appear to have achieved your goal quickly, but you will have done serious and perhaps irreversible damage to your metabolism, muscles, bones and digestive organs.

Habits irk people because there is no quick fix or even an unhealthy way to create the illusion of instant success. Instead, you have to go through the process of identifying what need the habit is actually meeting, such as finding social interaction on Facebook or stress relief in unhealthy foods, before you can even begin addressing the habit itself. Identifying the need and what triggers the habit may take days or may take weeks. Then, you need to replace the old habit with a new one consistently for at least a month in order for it to take hold. Many people need longer than that. As such, breaking a habit cannot be done in a few days. It is likely to take at least two months, a fact that infuriates people and drives away those who want a quick fix.

If you are having trouble breaking a habit, it is not a lack of willpower that is keeping you from achieving your goals. Your brain is wired to keep you practicing habits you have already created. That does not mean, however, that you should surrender to bad habits. Willpower alone may not be enough to break a habit, but it is willpower you need to keep working toward better habits even in the face of temptation. Breaking habits takes perseverance, and it is there that your willpower shines.