Habits. It’s a popular topic here on the Activated Life blog. But we usually approach the subject of habits from the perspective of someone wanting to develop and maintain good habits. Recently, however, we found ourselves looking at the topic from the other side and wondering, “Why are bad habits so easy to stick to?”
Easy is putting it lightly. Bad habits quickly become effortless, almost like a second nature. Good habits, in contrast, usually require discipline and perseverance. You have to try really hard to form a new healthy habit and you have to keep trying if you want to stick with it.
To try to answer this, we turned to scientific research on the subject. That’s the Activated Nutrients way, after all! Here’s a fascinating figure to kick things off: According to research, about 40% of your daily activities are habits. That means they’re essentially the same activity performed in the same situation, every single day.
What do habits do to your brain?
When you do something habitually, the action actually takes on a new form as far as your brain is concerned. Non-habitual actions are goal-oriented, meaning you have a specific reason for doing the thing you’re doing – there’s a desired outcome that your brain is aware of. But when you do something over and over in the same situation, it makes more of a reflex; or more precisely, it becomes a reaction to a contextual cue.
For example, let’s say you slap your hand against the doorframe of your house as you walked in the front door. The first handful of times you did it, it was just your little way of greeting the household and letting everyone know it was you and you were home. But over time, you may start doing it even if you know for a fact that no one is home. And you do it without even thinking about it. That’s because the action has gone from goal-oriented to a cue. You walk in the door, there’s the doorframe, your brain gets the cue and slap goes the hand.
Why keep doing something when you know it’s bad?
Slapping the door frame isn’t a particularly good or bad habit – it’s just one of the many things you do that make up your day. But imagine if someone told you that you couldn’t do it anymore and they wouldn’t tell you why. That would be really annoying! Even though your hand hurts a little bit every time you do it, you’d probably keep doing it. Partly out of spite but also because you’ve become a bit attached to the action and maybe you feel like it makes up just the teeniest part of your personality.
Now imagine that someone told you that you couldn’t do it anymore because every time you slapped the door frame, there was microscopic splintering in the trapezium bone in your hand and if you kept doing it, you might have to get surgery on your hand one day. Chances are, you’d stop slapping the door frame.
According to researchers at the University of Alberta (Canada), their study subjects “understood what types of behaviour are the riskiest, but that knowledge wasn't enough to motivate them to change their ways.” The researchers concluded that people have a pretty good idea about which sorts of lifestyle habits are unhealthy but their knowledge about why those habits are unhealthy just isn’t deep enough to inspire a behavioural change.
Another reason that we stick to bad habits may also be the key to forming new, healthy ones. According to the same researchers, “Factors such as the need for social acceptance and plain old human defiance play roles in persistent bad habits… We get a sense of belonging that is important to us. We can see ourselves as part of a social structure; it's very hard to change a behaviour if it is still accepted socially.”
We’re living in a time where stress is fashionable and although there’s a growing sub-culture of health conscientiousness, it’s not mainstream yet. It’s often considered cool not to care about your body and junk food is put on a pedestal. With that in mind, no wonder we have a hard time really, truly seeing the harm in unhealthy lifestyle habits.
Two-point approach to breaking bad habits
If you feel that your 40% is skewed toward unhealthy habits, we have two recommendations, informed by research published by experts on the topic. First, consider educating yourself on your health including nutrition, physiology, anything medications you’re taking, illnesses that run in your family and, of course, the hard facts on known side effects of whatever unhealthy habits you want to break. Second, try to get your family and friends on board. Forming new habits is so much easier when you do so in a group because you don’t lose the sense of belonging you get when you go with mainstream society.
And as for the rest of the habits – the one that don’t do you any harm – rest easy knowing that they’re a big part of what makes you YOU, so don’t change a thing!