Healthy Mind

Why are some habits difficult to break?

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Written by Healthy Living

Better self-awareness might do the trick.

Story: Stephen Humphreys

You want to change, develop, be a better version of yourself. There are some things you’d like to stop doing, yet somehow you can’t. Whether it’s procrastination, negativity, spending too much time on social media, or staying up too late, some bad habits seem almost impossible to break. Understanding why that happens can be the difference between achieving your goals or staying in a rut.

First, it’s important to work out what’s a habit and what’s an addiction. A habit is a way of thinking or behaving you’re no longer consciously aware of; it seems to happen automatically. An addiction is a behavior that gives you a reward; maybe it makes you feel good or maybe it just stops you from feeling bad. Habitual actions are ones that you often don’t realize you’re doing until it’s too late, like biting your fingernails. You don’t decide to chew your nails, but suddenly you realize you’re doing it. An addiction is something that you might think about, even might decide not to do, but then feel compelled to do it anyway.

All kinds of things can be addictions as well as the obvious ones like drugs and alcohol. You can become addicted to anything that gives you a sense of pleasure. Smartphone apps are deliberately designed to give you a little hit of dopamine so you feel good. Before you know it, you start to feel bad when you haven’t looked at your phone, and you feel an almost irresistible urge to get it out of your pocket and check the screen.

Addiction can be conquered, but it’s not the same as breaking a habit. There are two reasons why some habits can be hard to break. They are the mindless nature of habitual actions, and the tendency to think of them out of context.

You may have tried mindfulness techniques as a form of relaxation or meditation. Mindfulness simply means being completely immersed in the present moment. Most people are either thinking about the past or the future rather than being fully aware of the present. This tendency for your mind to be elsewhere enables your bad habits. Habits happen when, instead of mindfulness, you’re in a state of mindlessness; you’re paying little or no attention to the present moment. This is why bad habits often involve you crossly saying to yourself, “Oh! I’ve done it again!” Habits happen when conscious attention is elsewhere.

Habits are also resistant to change because you think of your bad habit as happening by itself. If you were asked to name some bad habits you’d like to address, you could probably come up with a list without much trouble. But that list of bad habits makes it seem as though they’re isolated events; it says nothing about the context in which they happen.

As an example, maybe you habitually focus on the negative. Someone asks about your day and you start with the worst part, or you’ve been on holiday but the first thing you tell your work colleagues is that the weather was awful. But this doesn’t happen in isolation; it’s affected by the way other people behave, by the kind of response you get, by the culture in which you live and work.

Asking questions about context can help you find ways of breaking bad habits. Instead of thinking of a bad habit as a standalone event, ask what prompts your behavior, what kind of response you get, whether other people around you do the same thing, whether you witnessed that kind of behavior when you were young. 

What are the places and times you’re most likely to slip into your bad habit? Who are you with? All these questions help you see your habit not as a single occurrence, but as part of a web of interconnected events. These contextual factors might support your habit, and you may need to change them in order to break it.

Habits are different from addictions, but both are difficult to stop. Many habits are resistant to change because you’re not paying enough attention to the present and because you try to break the habit without considering the context. Becoming more mindful and thinking of other things that you may need to change will make a huge difference in breaking bad habits and achieving your goals.

About the writer:

Stephen Humphreys lives in the United Kingdom and is a freelance writer, lifelong learner, and loves researching new topics.

About the author

Healthy Living

Healthy Living is unique in a sea of health magazines that only present information on nutrition and exercise. Published by Akers Media Group, Healthy Living goes much farther by focusing on the four pillars of a true wellness — physical, mental, spiritual and financial health.

Healthy Living promotes a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle with easy-to-read features, try-it-at-home exercise programs, and expert advice from financial planners, mental health professionals, and a variety of other leaders in their respective fields.

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