Bad Habits Die Hard (But You Can Break Them)

bad habitsBad habits are disgusting little buggers.

Come to think of it, so are good habits when you’re trying to develop them.

Nothing is more frustrating than setting a goal to break a bad habit or build a good one, only to find you’re not self controlled enough to follow through.

But is that really it? We just don’t possess the willpower it takes to get it done? Or is there something deeper going on here?

See if this situation sounds familiar…

You have two goals; to lose weight and get out of debt. You know that in order to accomplish these goals, you’re going to have to replace your old habits with some healthy new ones.

In the beginning, you are a poster child for these habits; you’re full of enthusiasm and you’re temptation free. But then, as obstacles are thrown in your path and your motivation disintegrates, you realize that creating new habits and breaking the old is a daily grind. It’s grunt work and it just plain sucks.

Then you start slipping.

First it’s just a cupcake at your niece’s birthday party, (bad for your health). Then you get invited to go out to eat for your best friend’s birthday (bad for your finances and your health). Then your kid gets sick and the energy you dedicated to developing your new habits is the first to go.  Before you know it, you’ve gone 2 weeks without working toward your goals.


So you pump yourself up for yet another round of mission impossible, while the devil on your shoulder reminds you how many times you’ve tried this and failed.

 How bad habits are formed.

When there is a behavior you keep repeating and want to break, it is always easier to know why you keep repeating this behavior. If you can identify the why, it gives you power over the habit and increases your chances of beating it.

Habit expert, Charles Duhigg, says,

 “What we know from lab studies is that it’s never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure…” (1).

So, let’s delve into how bad habits are formed.

First things first, there are the obvious reasons bad habits form.

  1. Bad habits give us a source of pleasure.
  2. Bad habits are easier and more convenient than the alternative.

But there are deeper, psychological reasons as well.

1.) We make the mistake of thinking that a new decision is only a one time decision, and we fail to recognize the potential for a “one time” decision to become a habit.

Think about it.

Your bad habit had to start somewhere.

Most likely, you knew it wasn’t a great choice when you did it the first time.

Take your goal of getting out of debt for example.

Most likely, the first time you went into debt, you knew it wasn’t a great idea. You knew you’d pay for it later and that you’d have interest rates on top of the initial expense.

But in your own clever way, you justified it.

You might have even told yourself it was a one time thing.

But then, the next time an expense came along that you didn’t have the money for, it was a lot easier to go into more debt because you made that decision once already.

Stop there.

At this stage in your debt accumulation, did you think that you would be in the debt cycle you’re in today?

Of course not.

The reason being, you had your blinders on.

You didn’t see that these 2 decisions would lead to countless others just like it.

In the words of Dan Ariely, in his fantastic book, Predictably Irrational,  “You’ve already made this decision many times in the past, so you now assume that this is the way you want to spend your money.”

So, in order to take over the bad habit you want to break and to find a starting point for a new habit you want to develop, pay close attention to the very first time you make a choice.

Ariely continues to explain,

 “..We should also pay particular attention to the first decision we make in what is going to be a long stream of decisions…When we face such a decision, it might seem to us that this is just one decision, without large consequences; but in fact the power of the first decision can have such a long-lasting effect that it will percolate into our future decisions for years to come. Given this effect, the first decision is crucial, and we should give it an appropriate amount of attention.

2.) A habit is more complex than a simple behavior. It’s flanked on either side by a “cue” and a “reward.” The cue and the reward are what makes the behavior occur without thought, which is the glaring characteristic of a habit. 

Again Duhigg explains this idea in an interview on NPR,

“The habit loop is a three-part process. First, ‘there’s a cue, which is kind of a trigger for an automatic behavior to start unfolding…There’s a routine, which is the behavior itself … and then there’s a reward, which tells our brain whether we should store this habit for future use or not…The reason why these cues and rewards are so important is because over time, people begin craving the reward whenever they see the cue, and that craving makes a habit occur automatically'” (2).

So, perhaps if you can figure out how a habit is triggered and the reward your brain associates with completing the habit, you’ll be in a much more powerful position to change the habit altogether.

3.) Habits are addictive because they fulfill internal needs.

Zoë Chance, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Yale School of Management gave a TED talk where she discussed how to make a behavior addictive.

She starts off talking about how she was addicted to her pedometer. Although humorous, the illustration is effective.

She references Tony Robbins’ 6 Basic Human Needs:

1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure.

2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli.

3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed.

4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something.

5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding.

6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others.

She then explains why components of these basic needs are included in every addiction and challenges you to implement these 6 basic needs into the habit you’re trying to develop.

This concept is fascinating because it further delves into the psychological role of habits.

Habits aren’t just behaviors on auto-pilot. They are also fulfilling a need within us, otherwise we would not keep repeating the habit.

For example, let’s take the bad habit of eating out too frequently.

1. Certainty: You know that when you go to a restaurant, you’ll be satisfied. You have the certainty that if the restaurant is open, you’ll go home full tonight.

2. Variety: You know that you don’t have to go home and eat the same pot of soup you’ve been working on this week. You can choose something completely different than your palate has been tasting lately.

3. Significance: When you eat out, you can associate yourself with those that can afford to eat out. You feel significant because you appear to have money.

4. Connection: You usually don’t dine alone. Even if you do, there are other people dining in the same restaurant as you, so you feel socially connected to either your dinner date or the other diners in the restaurant.

5. Growth: (Bahaha, no pun intended here.) Yes, your belly will grow, but you also will walk away feeling as if you grew culturally. Either by trying a new food, or continuing to keep a relationship with the culture you already ascribe to.

6. Contribution: You feel as if you’re contributing to the company, the restaurant, your community and the economy when you spend money at a restaurant. It’s a normal part of a first world lifestyle.

Now, going out to eat too much is a bad habit, and the 6 basic needs illustrate why you can’t seem to shake the habit. You can use this information as power over you bad habit.

Now, take it a step further and use these 6 needs to make a desired habit more addictive. Ready? Set. GO!

So, now that you’ve heard from 3 different experts on the origin and structure of habits, which do you think gives you the most insight into your own habits? Which aspect do you think gives you the most power over your bad habits?

If you enjoyed this article, join 100,000 monthly readers


  1. Reply

    • By Jacob


  2. Reply

  3. Reply

  4. Reply

  5. Reply

  6. Reply

  7. By Meghan


    • By de la


  8. Reply

  9. By Alexa


  10. Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *