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How do you stop a bad habit?

Are you struggling with motivation for that New Year’s resolution? Did you fall back into a bad habit that you were determined to quit? Have you tried several times to change something in your life?

You might be surprised to know that at about this time of year — a few weeks after millions of people make their New Year’s resolutions — things tend to get unstuck. In fact, mid-January is apparently the ‘peak’ for breaking resolutions.

If you happen to be one of those millions of people who right about now may be feeling a bit guilty about slacking off, then don’t be discouraged. You are not the only person coming to terms with the fact that change is harder than you imagined.

That’s because it’s not just New Year’s resolutions that can be challenging. Change in itself can be difficult. Why is that?

Why is change so hard?

Throughout history human beings have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to difficult and changing circumstances. Think of seafaring folk who travelled immense distances on wooden boats, or of people who even today survive in sub-arctic or desert conditions.

While their achievements may seem incredible, you need to remember that these deeds often came about out of necessity. Specifically, the need for survival.

Most of us are not usually faced with everyday life-and-death situations, which means we don’t need to go to extreme lengths to adapt or change to the situation.

That’s because we humans find change, by its very nature, to be very difficult.

If it weren’t, why do so many of us engage in bad behaviours and habits? And why do we keep doing it, even though we’re fully aware that they’re unhealthy — and not just smoking, drinking too much, eating junk food or nail picking, but also recurring negative feelings like excessive anger, impulsiveness and procrastination?

We love routine and comfort

When contemplating change, keep in mind that there are several things which are universal to almost all people: we naturally prefer routine and familiarity, and we like comforts and rewards.

It helps to understand how bad habits start. Many times this behaviour began as something we do to reward ourselves. Often, it was to counter something stressful, boring or unpleasant.

One scenario that most of us are familiar with is the temptation of takeaway and junk food.

Not only is it very tasty, but you don’t have to cook, clean up, plan ahead or shop. After a long day it’s so easy (particularly with so many food delivery services now available) to simply place an order — and when the food arrives, you’re rewarded with an enjoyable meal.

When you do that often enough — when you get into the habit of ordering takeaway — it’s easy to see how easy it is to keep doing it each time you’re faced with the prospect of cooking a meal after a long day.

This means that when you’re trying to change that habit by cutting down on takeaway, you’re actually depriving yourself of a comfort that may have become a routine. Routine, by the way, can also mean a routine way of responding to stressful situations.

Since stress and deprivation is something most of us try and avoid, it’s no wonder that change becomes hard. We are ‘exposed’ to the source of stress and our natural desire is to reward ourselves. This is despite the fact that we know that too many large pizzas and soft drink are both unhealthy and expensive.

The same can apply to other bad habits. Procrastinating and avoidance, for example, are short-term responses that we throw up to avoid dealing with an immediate situation that we don’t like. It could be a boring task or a conversation that’s confronting or unpleasant. Of course, we know that putting things off can cause further difficulty later on. However, if that response has become routine, breaking it could be difficult.

Our behaviour is closely bound to expectations

This previous CREinMIND post about getting on top of your New Year’s resolutions explains why gyms make so much money from people who don’t attend:


“Very often it has to do with expectations. You want to go to the gym four times a week, but right now you don’t go at all. It is — unfortunately — a trait of human psychology that change is more likely to occur if our expectations are realistic.


The reason for this very often has a lot to do with expectation. Repeated exercise isn’t just physically strenuous — it can also be very emotionally draining and difficult.

Although physical exercise does have many well-established health benefits, exercise still subjects your body to stress. If you’re not a gym regular, that means it is possible to feel overwhelmed or unmotivated if, say, you’re feeling tired and are faced with the thought of even more physically strenuous activity.

As mentioned previously, most people naturally try to avoid feelings of stress. So, if you’re already feeling some kind of stress, it’s understandably difficult to get motivated to experience even more stress.

A large body of psychology (along with many philosophers) believes that much of the distress and negative emotions we feel comes from expectations not meeting reality.

Consider a fictitious example of two people faced with the prospect of taking up daily walks as a way to improve fitness and wellbeing.

One of them doesn’t give it any further thought and so doesn’t go on any daily walks. The other decides it’s a great idea and is determined to take up daily walks. They think about it a lot, end up buying walking shoes and tell their friends and family. However, they soon lose motivation and stop going for daily walks.

For both people, the end result is the same: neither went for a daily walk. Yet the second person feels far more emotional distress, ‘guilt’ or even a sense of failure.

Our sense of expectation can substantially affect how we feel about any given situation. This can be especially true if it’s an emotionally charged one, such as something we desperately need to change, like our health or mental state.

The more we decide we want to change something, and the more we perceive we fall short, the greater the disconnect between expectation and reality, and therefore the greater the likelihood of feeling emotional distress.

Making the change

An ideal way to change then is to set ourselves expectations that are realistic and attainable. If you’re not a regular gym-goer, consider starting with two moderate sessions a week, rather than trying to smash out four days a week at full intensity.

If you’re concerned about putting off important or difficult decisions, start by taking prompt action a few times, rather than telling yourself you will act each time. And if you’ve fallen off the wagon after trying to quit smoking, remember that most people do not manage it first time.

It is a normal part of human behaviour to not succeed at every challenge, every time. However, the key to overcoming difficulty is to not let individual setbacks define your self-worth.

If you weren’t able to quit smokes, you can have another try. If you stopped going to the gym, you can start going again. And if you’ve still put off that decision, what’s to stop you making it now?

You shouldn’t plan to fail. However, you should plan for the possibility that something may happen where your expectations may not be met (if you like, think of it as a contingency plan).

Quite simply, if your plan for success includes how to deal with setbacks, your capacity to change for the better will likely be greater.


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The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.