Each of us regularly engages in patterns of actions or thought that we know are unproductive. Why do we have bad habits? Human beings like comfort, and we must make ourselves uncomfortable to break the patterns.
The Comfort Of Bad Habits
Every action you take serves a purpose. If you go to the gym, you’re working to increase your physical fitness, and improve your body. You drink water to quench thirst. You eat to satisfy hunger or cravings. You read to learn, or to entertain yourself, or to pass the time.
Your actions have a purpose, even if you don’t know it. The most common hidden purpose is comfort. We are wired to settle into routines. As we relive these routines day to day, we deepen the grove, and become comfortable with living on those set paths.
The comfort of routine explains most of our bad habits. Say you want to go to the gym right after work each day, but you’re finding it difficult. Your typical routine is to come home, get comfortable, and settle in to watch a couple hours of TV. Every single day you return home, your body will default to getting comfortable on that couch. And once you’re seated, you’ve already started the routine. You probably won’t get up off the couch and get to the gym. And every single day that you do that, you’ve deepened the groove – and it becomes that much harder the next day, and the next day after that.
Find The Reason
So we know that comfortable routines explain why we keep engaging in bad habits. But what made them habits in the first place? Habits don’t just happen, else they wouldn’t be habits. Habits are formed by repeated action. What made you do that unproductive thing so often to begin with?
Find the reason you started your bad habits. Often, we did it simply because it’s easy. Easy things are comfortable – we accomplish them with a minimum of effort, and a minimum of planning.
Here are a couple of bad habits that develop due to ease – see if you recognize any in yourself:
- Eating or ordering pre-made meals: this is easier and quicker than cooking, and there’s no clean-up afterwards
- Skipping workouts: it is easier on our bodies to just do nothing, than to challenge ourselves through exertion
- Watching TV for hours: this is the most passive form of entertainment – sit back, and live vicariously through images on the screen
Easy things are comfortable, and so we default to them if we don’t have energy or drive. And once they become routine, it is comfortable to just stick with them – so the bad habits continue, and we continue to accumulate debt.
Ease and simplicity are not the only explanations. But they are common ones. Sometimes, we have deep-seated psychological reasons for starting something, and then the comfort of routine builds these into a bad habit. For example, you might pick up a habit for complaining if those around you tend to complain, so you can “fit in” with the group. This can happen unconsciously, without any intention to do so on your part. And then, comfort and routine make it into a bad habit.
Find the reason, whatever it is. That is your starting point for getting yourself out of the rut.
Don’t Fight Your Bad Habits
You will never win a fight against your bad habits. As we discussed above, there is always some reason for our actions. We never repeat any course of action that isn’t serving some function or purpose. If you are focused on labelling and judging yourself for your bad habits, you will wrap yourself up in negativity and self-doubt, only reinforcing a new bad habit.
It is difficult to admit fault in ourselves. Your mind will fight just as hard to keep you in patterns of comfortable thinking as it fights to keep you in patterns of comfortable action. Fighting old habits is bringing a knife to a gun fight. Your habits have years of experience in deepening the groove, and you are trying to climb out of a deep, deep hole.
Step back, and observe your habits with indifference. Spend some time thinking, to find the real reason you started. Then, examine how the comfort of routine led you to keep repeating those actions. It is important to withhold judgment – look at your habits as if you were trying to help someone else.
Break The Cycle: Start New Habits
A baby kangaroo spends its early life in the habit of being carried everywhere in its mother’s pouch. But when it is time for it to fend for itself, it doesn’t fight the habit of being in the pouch – it simply jumps out and gets to hopping. If you spend your time caught up in the bad habit, trying to resist, you will get nowhere. Stop resisting your bad habits, and just start new ones.
“Habits are statements about the past, and the past is gone.” – W. Timothy Gallwey
If you step outside yourself and examine your actions objectively, you’ll find the reasons for your bad habits, and the reasons you keep doing them. But this is all you need to do to stop them. From here, change is simple. Find a new reason for good habits, and find ways to make them comfortable and routine.
The most daunting part of this is admitting we have a problem in the first place, and taking the first step. Everything is easier after the first time. Embrace fear, and take the first step. From there, make every day a step. Soon, you’re rolling in positive momentum, and the bad habits are but a speck in your rearview.