Why breaking bad habits is so hard - and how to build new ones

A fool-proof guide to habit-building

Building new habits is like learning any new skill: it takes practice

We’ve all tried to do something new, only to find ourselves doing what we’ve always done before we even noticed. I bet there’s something you’re working on right now: a habit that you’re trying to kick, or a new one that you’re trying to form. Maybe every time you “slip up” you worry that maybe it’s self-sabotage or maybe you’re just not strong enough.

Why is it so hard to change habits? And why do we revert back to what we’ve always done?

The main answer to this question is humans are inherently lazy. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way: ultimately our innate human desire to use less energy lead to wonderful inventions like blenders and tv remotes.

Our brain spends most of its time on autopilot. There are so many steps to every action, that our brain finds ways of speeding up the process by creating links between the different bits of information as we learn.

Let’s take the example of walking: when we first learn how to do it there are so many things to consider. We need to decide where to put which foot, which muscles to activate to keep our torso up, which direction to go in etc. But now we just go, no thinking, no decisions. Our brain created all the walking pathways in the learning process and now we can walk on autopilot.

The same goes with learning to ride a bike: we had to take all the information in about what a bike is, what the pedals are, what the seat is, how to get on it, which body parts to put where, which muscles to activate to not fall over, which leg to push down when etc. But once you’ve learnt how to do it, the pathways are there and the process is automatic. We save a lot of time and energy by learning things.

The more you repeat something, the more solidified those pathways become.

Coming from a coaching point of view, the first time I teach somebody how to squat they might be making all sorts of different shapes while their body tries to figure out what it’s doing. But after many many repetitions and different cues, eventually they get it. They can squat. They don’t need to think about how to make the shape anymore. Practice makes progress and all that jazz.

What’s particularly cool about this superpower (our ability to learn) is that our brains are working on that pathway after we’ve finished, so next time is a bit better.

I remember the first three or so times I tried olympic lifting going from feeling like I’d never get it in the first session, to suddenly actually being able to sort of do it in the next.

Now, I’m not a neuroscientist, so I can’t tell you all the ins and outs of this, it’s just very cool and it happens (with probably everything).

So the more you repeat something, the stronger the pathway.

And this is why it’s so hard to break the old habits.

Take the dieter who is trying to lose weight. Let’s say they have a tendency to eat a lot of fried foods and they are trying to swap for more vegetables.

They know they need to create a calorie deficit and they are trying really hard; but they feel stuck between what they want in the moment and what they’re trying to get to.

There’s this constant tension and it feels like there’s never enough will power.

The fitness industry is full of people yelling that you just need to push through and try harder. It’s all about beast mode and gritting your teeth. The whole thing is filled with war language, a battle between what you want and what you’re trying to break free from.

It’s a lot of intentional decisions about things that you’ve become so used to automatically doing differently — and it’s exhausting. And eventually the battle is lost and you go back to what you’ve always done. Maybe you start again another time.

Now, obviously: that’s not always how the story goes. People change habits all the time, with varying levels of difficulty. The key thing I want you to take away from this is that it doesn’t have to be a battle. If you can take tiny steps towards your goal, getting there stops being this epic battle of will and starts just being part of your day.

A simple way to create new habits

In Making health habitual: the psychology of habit-formation and general practice, Benjamin Gardner et al define habits as “actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance”. For example: automatically washing hands (action) after using the loo (contextual cue); or putting on a seatbelt (action) when you get in a car (cue).

One study within this meta-analysis found that participants who repeated a health-promoting behaviour in response to a single, once-daily cue in their own environment, were able to build automaticity over time. The strength for simple actions peaked more quickly than for elaborate routines: drinking water was easier to make a habit than doing 50 sit ups.

So what does that mean practically?

You need to hook new habits onto existing habits and be really specific about what you’re going to do.

This year I’ve been focussing on two habits in particular: consume more protein and meditate daily. When the habits were as vague as that last sentence, success was a bit hit or miss. But when it became: have a serving of protein with first meal of the day; and meditate as soon as I get home, it was easier. By pairing the action with the cue you make a plan, which makes it much easier for you to follow. Humans work better when they have action plans.

Spend a prolonged period of time focussing on the specific thing you want to do and eventually it starts to become more and more automatic, until one day it’s just what you do. I’ll go more into this a bit later on and give you a free and easy-to-use tool so you can do it for yourself. (Scroll down if you’re in a hurry.)

Where do we learn behaviours?

In a letter in Nature, Robust habit learning in the absence of awareness and independent of the medial temporal lobe, Peter Bayley et al discuss their experiments on memory and learning in people and other mammals with hippocampal lesions.

They write: “Habit memory is proposed to involve slowly acquired associations between stimuli and responses that develop outside awareness and are rigidly organised, with the result that what is learned is not readily expressed except when the task is presented just as it was during training.”

They tested whether two amnesiac humans with damage to their hippocampus could learn new habits. And after many, many (over 1000!) repetitions, they did. They were able to pick out the correct cards, without knowing how or why — they said it just came from their heads. When the format of the test changed however, the automatic response was lost.

The researchers say that these findings “affirm the validity of unconscious learning and show that humans possess a robust capacity for gradual, trial-and-error (habit) learning that can operate outside awareness for what is learned”.

Imagine how much of what we know and do was learnt unconsciously through repeated actions. Like the food you eat based on what your parents fed you; or your response to stress based on how your parents treated you; or how active you are based on how active you were as a kid.

You’ve repeated some behaviours daily for decades and will power alone isn’t enough to change them.

Knowledge alone won’t illicit permanent change

Information isn’t enough. Knowing what you should be eating or that you should be walking more, isn’t the same as doing the things. Implementing the knowledge requires a level of motivation to carry out the behaviours.

Everybody knows what healthful behaviour looks like. Everybody knows they need a calorie deficit to lose weight and that they should eat their vegetables.

(Almost everybody: some people think vegetables are causing plaque on your heart and that you should only eat meat. But there are also people who think the Earth is flat, so there’s always going to be exceptions to the rule…)

The process of taking that knowledge and turning it into action is SLOW. You can rationalise something all you want, but if you also just always eat a bar of chocolate when you finish lunch, logic isn’t what’s going to break that habit.

In A perspective on judgement and choice: Mapping bounded rationality, Daniel Kahneman splits our cognitive systems in two: Reasoning and Intuition.

Reasoning is slow, controlled and effortful; while intuition is fast, automatic and effortless.

Our ability to be intentional in our actions is (probably) one of the things that makes us human. But our ability to be able to use all the information we’ve collected through our lives to automatically make decisions without pause allows us to get on with other things.

Think back to my walking example from before.

Context matters

The system for forming new habits is simple: repeat the same action consistently in the same context. The context matters when it comes to your brain making those connections.

Tack your chosen habit onto pre-existing habits. For instance, if you have breakfast every morning, go for a walk straight afterwards. If you consciously repeat the action every day in the same setting (after breakfast), over time it becomes automatic and effortless.

I recommend not focussing on too many new things at once. One of the reasons actions become automatic, is because our brains like to conserve energy. Decision making is exhausting and rationalising everything takes a lot of effort. If you’re trying to make 20 new habits all at once you’re going to wear yourself out.

It’s one of the reasons big-wigs like Mark Zuckerberg wear the same clothes to work every day: one less thing to think about, which leaves more energy to spend on world domination, or whatever.

Step-by-step guide to forming new habits

1. Decide on a goal

2. Choose a simple action that will get you towards that goal, which you can do daily

3. Plan when and where you will do your action. Choose a time and place that you encounter every day. Be consistent.

4. Every time you encounter that time and place, do the action

For example:

My goal: Eat more protein

My plan: I will have a serving of protein with my first meal of the day

Once you have your goal and your plan, you can use this free habit tracker to tick each day. You can rate how automatic the habit feels at the end of each week and (hopefully) see it get easier over time. Just print it off and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day. (Please tag me @superpennie on Instagram if you do use it and let me know how you’re getting on!)

10-week habit-building worksheet

You have to be really specific and really consistent for the habit to stick. Once you’re automatically doing that action when you encounter your contextual cue, you can add in the next layer.

While variety may make the process more interesting, it actually also makes it much harder. That’s why so many bodybuilders just eat chicken and broccoli every day. If you remove decision fatigue, you make forming habits much easier. (I’m definitely not telling you to just eat chicken and broccoli everyday, though!)

You should choose your own target behaviour, something that you actually want — not just something you think you should do because someone told you so. Focus on selecting a behaviour (eat an apple at lunch time) rather than on removing a behaviour (don’t eat any doughnuts).

Be patient, habits take time

People underestimate how long it takes to form a new habit. There are loads of myths about how it takes 21 or 30 days or any other numbers I’m sure you’ve heard. There’s a bunch of research that says it takes an average of 66 days, but it’s super variable and depends on the individual and the behaviour and how far away it is from the existing behaviours.

The sheet I created is for 10 weeks. Maybe it will take you fewer weeks, maybe more. Try not to give up after a couple of weeks to try something else. You’ll have much more success if you actually do it.

Follow me on Instagram @superpennie or Twitter @superpennie for all things fitness, nutrition and lifestyle.

Strength & flexibility coach | Certified Nutritionist | Run coach. I build strong humans, with the movement-freedom to live the lives they want.

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