Why is it Hard to Change Unhealthy Habits?

The nature of our habits is one of the largest determining factors of whether or not we reach our goals. And while habits are incredibly important, we repeat many of them day in and day out without even thinking about it. Being mindful of our habits can be life-changing. It can be helpful to regard habits like compound interest – if we can improve something we do every day even marginally, the effects over time are monumental. As a recovery coach and someone in long term recovery, I have plenty of experience improving my own habits and helping others do the same. Let’s take a closer look into how habits work, and how to change them.

Why Are Unhealthy Habits Hard to Change?

We know that maintaining good habits is important – so why is it so hard to stop doing something we know is bad for us? Unhealthy behaviors can become habitual due to the way our brain sends signals in our nervous system, and the ‘pleasure chemicals’ associated with certain behaviors.  

How Do Habits Form?

The human brain prefers the path of least resistance. When we engage in a new behavior, our brain creates a neural pathway to send signals related to that behavior. When we repeat the behavior, we use the same pathway over and over again, and our brain gets used to it. The brain defaults to the pathways it knows, which can cause us to fall back on certain behaviors, and even do them subconsciously.

Our brain is also good at making associations. For example, if we drink alcohol to feel better when we’re stressed, the brain learns to associate alcohol with relief. Or, maybe we unwind after work by watching television. The pleasure we get from doing this habit re-enforces that we should do it again at the same time the next day. Habits that bring us pleasure also release dopamine in the brain, which intensifies the association between the action and feelings of relief and reward. The combination of operating on ‘autopilot’ and the pleasure we derive from certain habits can make it really hard to break them. However, our brain is flexible and trainable, and healthier habits are within reach.

How to Change a Bad Habit

Every habit is composed of the same three-part sequence: a trigger, an action, and a reward. Understanding these components can help us change unhealthy habits.

1. Identify Habit Triggers, Actions, and Rewards

Revisiting the example from earlier, the trigger of a drinking habit could be feeling stressed. The action is drinking an alcoholic beverage, and the reward is feeling less stressed in the short-term. The first step towards changing a habit is to simply identify which triggers, actions, and rewards you associate with the habit. As we’ll explore below, labeling these components can then help you break the cycle. It can also help to reframe our unhealthy habits by focusing on the negative consequences associated with them, rather than the short-term reward. 

2. Avoid Triggers

In the early days of breaking an unhealthy habit, the best strategy for navigating triggers is to avoid them. If you’re trying to reduce your alcohol consumption, understanding your triggers is crucial. If it’s certain people or places that trigger your desire to drink, you should feel empowered to avoid them in order to honor your goals. If a triggering environment can’t be easily avoided, try creating a support plan ahead of time so you’ll be prepared to manage triggers if they do arise. If your triggers are more internal than external, like feeling lonely, bored, or anxious, there’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself to feel these emotions. The important next step is changing how you react to those feelings. 

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3. Replace Actions

We don’t get rid of our bad habits – we replace them. For me, quitting drinking was as much about rebuilding a life without alcohol as it was about putting down the drink. Once I was able to find new ways to deal with the triggers that caused me to use alcohol, it became a lot easier to live a sober life. An example of a trigger was feeling bored – so I thought of healthy activities I could do instead of drinking. Some of my go-to alcohol-free activities were playing golf, going for a run, meeting a friend for coffee, or reading a book. Everyone’s journey will look different and the activities you choose to replace drinking with ought to speak to you. Working with a therapist in alcohol therapy is a great way to better understand your own triggers and emotions, and develop healthier coping mechanisms to address them. 

4. Discover New Rewards

Our habits are often solidified by our brain’s reward system. The great news is, healthy habits can lead to relief and reward, too. If you previously received a dopamine rush from alcohol, you can get a similar chemical release by practicing healthier activities, like exercising. You can also implement your own rewards to reinforce certain behavior. For example, you could tell yourself “if I go for a run 10 times this month, I’ll buy myself a new pair of running shorts”. It’s important to remember that rewards should be in line with your overall goals – for example, if your goal is to cut back on alcohol, choosing a reward of a cocktail when you complete a certain number of sober days is counterproductive. A better option would be celebrating 30 days of sobriety with a fancy dinner or staycation.

 

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Tips for Quitting Bad Habits

Changing our habits can be hard. The following tips can help you make long-lasting behavior changes.

Increase Accountability

Peer support can have a huge impact on behavior change. Joining a support group provides a space to intentionally check in on your goals, and hear successful strategies from others on a similar journey. If you’re looking to change your relationship with alcohol, Monument offers 50+ weekly alcohol support groups, which are completely free and anonymous. One-on-one support can also provide extra accountability. Just the thought of having someone else on our team, and knowing that we’re not alone on this journey, can motivate us to choose healthier behaviors. Finding a therapist or peer mentor are great options for one-on-one support.

Change One Habit at a Time

If we try to do too many things at once, and if the results aren’t perfect, it can be tempting to give up on all of it. I wanted to have an active lifestyle, healthy diet, and most importantly – to stop drinking. In the beginning, all I focused on was not drinking. Sometimes I would succumb to sugar cravings and my mindset was “this is OK for now, if I don’t drink today, that’s a win.” While I also wanted to be a runner and a badminton player, I would avoid pushing too hard early on in my sobriety. Light exercise was a step in the right direction – a round of golf or even a short walk was all I needed. Giving myself some grace on diet and exercise while I did the hard work of giving up alcohol allowed me to succeed, and ultimately become more successful at changing other habits when the time was right.

"If you missed a day of brushing your teeth, would you give up on brushing? No. If you have a setback on your journey, keep going. Tomorrow is a new day.

Replace A Bad Habit With A Better One

Good habits are ones that bring us closer to our goals. Let’s use an example. Maybe we have an unhealthy habit for dealing with stress, like biting our nails. This may help us cope in the moment, but doesn’t meaningfully prevent or reduce stress in the long run. If we want to give up biting our nails, we need to replace it with a better way to deal with the stress. Introducing a practice like meditation, which is shown to have a myriad of stress reduction and health benefits, will bring us closer to our goals of a lower-stress lifestyle.

Optimize Your Environment

Our brains rely heavily on visual cues to determine what we’ll do next. When creating a healthier habit, spending some time examining our environment can make a big difference. If we’re trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, pre-cutting them and placing them in the fridge makes it much more likely that we’ll eat them compared to unwashed, uncut vegetables in the crisper drawer. If we’d like to exercise more, we can make it easier on ourselves by setting out our gym clothes and shoes the night before, or having a yoga mat staring at us in the morning. If we’d like to stop watching so much TV, maybe we unplug the TV and put the remote away. The idea is this – for implementing good habits, try and make the cues visible, and for breaking bad habits, try and make triggers invisible.

How to Introduce a Healthier Habit

The best way to build a new habit is to get started with small increments of the activity. If our ultimate goal is to spend an hour in the gym, a good way to get started is with shorter visits. Going to the gym for 30 minutes may feel more achievable and gets us in the routine of being at the gym. In Atomic Habits, habit expert James Clear says “a habit must be established before it can be improved.”

Another strategy for building a healthy habit is to tack it onto an existing one. For example, you could add a 10-minute mindfulness practice to the 30-minute daily walk you’ve been doing for a year. Or if you’re hoping to start a daily affirmations habit, you could practice reciting them in your head as you brush your teeth in the morning. This helps make your new habit part of your daily routine.   

Similarly, making a healthy habit feel fun and exciting will make you feel more encouraged to continue it. If you’re trying to replace a nightly drinking habit, you can make yourself a delicious alcohol-free cocktail instead. Or if you’re trying to get into shape, you could start with an engaging hip-hop dance class. Doing something new will likely lead to more success than picking up old strategies that didn’t work in the past. 

However you decide to begin a new habit, making your goal realistic and emphasizing progress over perfection will help keep you motivated. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and being able to progress in spite of setbacks is often part of the transformation.

"When determining the size or complexity of a new habit ask yourself, What can I stick to -- even on my worst day? Start there. Master the art of showing up. Then advance. -James Clear"

How Long Does it Take to Change a Habit?

There is no magic number of days required for a habit to stick, and everyone’s journey is unique. However, studies say it takes anywhere between two months to a year for a new habit to become fully established.¹ Remember that repeating a habit many times is more important than perfect habit ‘streaks’. Even if you miss a day or two, keep going. The more you repeat a behavior, the more your brain will remember to practice it. With time and repetition, your new habit won’t require as much effort to maintain. That said, it’s important to stay connected with your support tools in order to not become complacent or slip into old habits. If you’re looking for tools for changing your drinking habits, Monument’s online alcohol treatment program can provide you with peer support and expert guidance throughout your journey. The process of changing and maintaining healthy habits is a lifelong endeavor, and one that’s very worthwhile.

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Sources:

  1. University of Scranton. “Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11920693/.”  Accessed July, 25. 2022. 
Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Connor O'ReillyConnor O'Reilly is an engineer turned recovery coach. He focuses on identifying clients’ strengths, helping them see what’s working and eliminating what isn’t. He's passionate about wellness & loves helping others make lifestyle changes.