Breaking Habits: Why is it So Hard?

When we think about habit formation and how to break them, we need to investigate the process of the formation.

Ashley Coon


March 21, 2022

Do you often find yourself wishing you could break a bad habit, but nothing seems to be working? Well, you’re not alone. Habit breaking from the surface appears to be difficult, time consuming, and stressful, but understanding how habit-forming works will give you the insight needed to provoke positive change.

Habits play major roles in our lives, there’s simply just no getting around it. Understanding how we can replace negative habits with positive ones gives us a huge advantage in life. Luckily, you hold the key to changing your habits and you can create a more fulfilling, satisfying, and healthy life for yourself by learning how to change your habits.

Understanding How Habits Are Formed

The Habit Loop

To be able to change our habits, we first need to understand how habit-forming works. Habits can be thought of as a process that is composed of four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.

Starting with the cue, this is what triggers your brain to participate in a behavior. Our brains initiate behaviors in expectation of a reward. Our minds use learned, stored information to predict rewards in a variety of domains like money, friendship, and personal satisfaction. Our brains are always on the lookout for stimuli that hints towards rewards.

Cues naturally lead to cravings, which act as the motivational force behind our behavior. When we think about cravings, it is important to note that we don’t crave the behavior itself, we crave the feelings that come along with said behavior. Cravings come into play once our minds interpret cues and cues/cravings can look different for different people. They are personal to the individual based on learned behaviors and experiences.

Moving on to the response stage, this is where we perform the habit itself. Keep in mind that habits can appear as actions and thoughts. How dedicated we are to performing the habit plays into the performance. Put simply, we don’t partake in behaviors that will require more effort than we are willing to put in. It is also important to remember that limitations play into performance and there are things that we just can’t do based on our current abilities.

The final stage, reward, is delivered by the response. Rewards are the ultimate goal of our habits, and they serve us two purposes: satisfaction and teaching. When we act on a habit and reap the reward, we experience satisfaction and relief. Remember, craving is all about the feelings we experience by partaking in the habit. Participating in habits is also a learning experience. After receiving the reward of a habit, we assess and determine which actions are worth repeating.

This process is a continuous loop that is always occurring in your life. Our habits are automatic responses to our perceived stimuli, always scanning for information and predicting outcomes. We are always learning from the results of our behaviors and thoughts.

Behavioral Psychology

As mentioned above, habits are formed upon learned experiences. Behavioral Psychology is the study of our behavior based on learning and memory. We have different types of memory classification, but procedural memory is the most pervasive in habit formation. Procedural memory is long-term memory of how to perform actions and skills.

There are three primary types of learning associated with Behavioral Psychology: operant conditioning, classical conditioning, and observational learning and all three plays into our habits.

Operant conditioning focuses on behavior that is influenced by reinforcement. Reinforcement can be positive or negative and this conditioning is based upon encouraging or discouraging behavior based on a reward and punishment system.

Classical conditioning focuses on behavior that is learned through association. If you have ever heard of Pavlov bell, then you have heard of classical conditioning. This conditioning is based upon the idea that you can link an association of reward to a neutral stimulus.

Observational learning focuses on learning by others’ behavior, attitudes, and emotions. This learning, also referred to as shaping or modeling, occurs by watching a targeted behavior, memorizing it, and mimicking it.

Behavioral Psychology shows us how our brains learn and store information over time and how that plays into our active habit formation.

Reasons Breaking Habits is So Hard

As mentioned above, breaking habits can seem difficult and overwhelming. Now that we understand how habits are formed,let’s look at some common reasons why breaking habits can feel so hard.

·     Lack of Awareness

This is a big one. If we are unaware of our bad habits, then we won’t be able to work towards adjusting them and replacing them with healthier habits.

·     No Perceived Alternative

Remember how we perform habits in prospect of a reward for the good feelings it gives us? Breaking a habit without providing an alternative to produce the same feeling of reward can be extremely difficult.

·     Stress

Unfortunately, stress can cause us to create unhealthy habits because our mental health is notable to promote positive ones.

Luckily, you can address and combat these perceived obstacles to produce healthier habits into your life.

How To Change Our Habits

Understanding how habits are formed, the responses they produce in our brains, and the importance of the feeling associated with the anticipated reward is the first step into being able to change our habits for the better. Below are some tips on creating healthy habitsfor yourself.

Four Laws of Behavior Change

This framework is focused on engaging in 4 steps to create new habits and eliminate unhealthy ones. The 4 steps increating new habits include: make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, and make it satisfactory. The 4 steps of eliminating unwanted habits are theopposite of creating new habits and includes: make it invisible, make it unattractive, make it difficult, and make it unsatisfactory. Both methods tie into the habit loop mentioned above.

Become Familiar With Your Habits

Start paying attention to the habits you engage in during your daily life. As mentioned above, it is extremely difficult to adjust a habit if we are unaware of it. Awareness is deeper than just noticing the habit itself, we want to understand why we are engaging in the habit. This method is about focusing on the cue, craving, response, and reward that we discussed earlier. By noticing these things, we can start assessing which habits are healthy and which are unhealthy.

Breaking bad habits and developing new, healthier ones requires an understanding of how our habits are formed based upon learned experiences. When we understand how habits work, we are then able to examine our current behaviors, adjust them when needed, and develop new habits.