Why Is Breaking Bad Habits So Hard
I was organizing my closet today for the 3rd time this month and something struck me. Why does my closet constantly get disorganized? I don’t consider myself a disorganized person. I like to keep my stuff tidy and organized but at the same time, I also can let something go to the point where if something is out of place it doesn’t bother me.
If I just moved my coat hangers to the end of the rack every time I grabbed clothes, I wouldn’t find random coat hangers everywhere in my closet. If I would put my laundry away and had a place to put clothes that weren’t dirty but that I could re-wear, I would be more organized.
My tupperware drawer is a perfect example, of this concept. It will go from looking like a Marie Kondo drawer to a shit pile in only a week.
I’ve been telling myself that I should develop a habit to keep it tidy as I go along, so I would always know where everything is. That habit never comes to fruition.
Why Is It So Hard To Break Bad Habits?
Our brains are constantly looking for shortcuts. Anything we can do where we can put ourselves on autopilot, our brains already have their hand on the lever. The basal ganglia is the part of the brain where habits form. Habits like brushing your teeth or knowing how to drive can be a crucial part of the brain. It frees up mental bandwidth so we can pay attention to other things in our environment.
What Can We Do About It?
To break bad habits, it's important to understand the cues and rewards that trigger them. Once you identify these, you can work on replacing the bad habit with a healthier one that still satisfies the same cue and provides a similar reward. It's also important to be patient with yourself, as breaking a habit takes time and effort. Consistency is key, so focus on small changes that you can maintain over time rather than trying to make drastic changes all at once.
It’s important to focus on forming one habit at a time and go at it fully. If you consistently try to uproot your entire lifestyle, you will fail.
How do you know when your habit has been successfully formed? You shouldn’t be thinking about it anymore. Once that moment comes where this isn’t mental friction anymore, you know that this has become easier. However, even after it’s formed, it’s important to keep paying attention to it. People can slip back into old habits easily even after a new one has been formed.
How Long Does It Take Before The Habit Becomes Autopilot?
The amount of time it takes for a habit to become autopilot varies depending on the person and the habit. Some studies suggest that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a new habit to become automatic, with an average of around 66 days.
However, it's important to note that this is just an estimate and the time it takes can vary widely. It's also essential to maintain consistency in practicing the habit in order for it to become automatic.
The old saying, “it takes 30 days to form a habit” is bullshit. I have built up a habit of consistently running but I will tell you that if I took a few weeks off, that habit would be easily broken.
It’s easier to form a new habit that’s a shortcut than a habit that we know is better but requires more effort. For example, if you are someone who buys coffee at a coffee shop every day but wants to save that extra $200/month on coffee. Breaking that habit of going to the coffee shop every day is hard. It’s more than the caffeine hook as well. It’s more than the ritual of going to the coffee shop every morning. It’s the fact that you don’t have to make coffee for yourself in the morning that is hard. You could easily make a cup of coffee at home that is good if not better than your local coffee shop with some fairly cheap equipment. The extra friction is why you don’t want to do it.
Friction In The Mind
When it comes to mental friction, we want to do everything we can to smooth it out. Think of your mind as a stream that flows into rivers that flow into the body of water that are you. Redirecting a simple stream is hard but not impossible. It requires building a blockage or a dam, maintaining it, and making sure that the new pathway is forming properly. The old path will always be there and open for water to flow when a big storm hits. That is why it's important to keep the dam maintained.
Redirecting a river is extremely difficult but is also possible. It requires a ton of help and probably will require the help and support of others. Making changes like this can take years to form properly and needs to be consistently maintained. When we do finally succeed in rerouting the river, we understand how important this is, so we tend to pay more attention to it.
Personally, I find it harder to form smaller habits than ones that are perceived as larger. It becomes easier to put off forming a smaller habit since it's perceived as easy.
Instead of perceiving the habit as easy, perceive it as a challenge. Running 1 mile a day is a 10-15 minute commitment once you factor in changing clothes and a shower. The smallest steps that you may need to take to form the habit can add to the friction in your mind.
"I have to shower afterward, I don't want to do that."
"It's winter, I don't want to put winter clothes on."
These little things may seem ridiculous when you're not in the moment, but they are real.
The mind is clever and looks for every little excuse it can to reduce any mental friction. Learning to lean into that friction is the quickest way to reduce it and keep the good habits going.
Forming new habits is hard. I recently formed a new habit of waking up at 5:00 am to work out and write. I've been doing it for about 11 weeks now, and I still find it difficult. The mental friction is still there, and it may always be there.
The mental friction is certainly a lot lower than it used to be. However, I know that if I slip up for more than a few days, I will fall right back into my old habits of sleeping in and getting nothing of personal value done during the day.
Learning to make decisions quickly is the key to forming new habits. As soon as you hesitate to take action, the friction amplifies. Rip the band-aid off instead of trying to peel it off slowly.