Habits are a hard thing to accomplish, maybe even the hardest.
When they are positive, like exercising every day, achieving them has terrific long-term effects. The more we do them, the more comfortable they get to start, and the rewards just keep on coming. When they are negative, like eating processed food every day, well… the rewards reaped are negative too!
The problem with forming a habit is similar to getting good at a particular movement for a sport. At first, you suck at it. Then, you suck some more. And it’s hard and keeps getting harder. After a while, you start improving a little bit. And then eventually, nobody knows when it becomes “muscle memory”. Take tennis, do you really think that tennis players are mindful of all their movements during a match? The best ones are probably closer to that mindful nirvana, but there is a fair amount of “muscle memory” that kicks in with the most standard backhands or long drives. Their body does it because it did the same movement before, over and over again, and is primed to have a positive result when moving precisely in that way. Muscle memory is like a habit in many ways. We tend to think of habits as mental processes but we can compare a muscle’s fibres being formed in a certain way to synaptic alleyways, then roads, then motorways that get built in the brain to create a standard path. The path that we will go down unless something else changes.
When making this comparison it becomes more evident to me that forming new habits is indeed hard, much like muscle soreness from physical practice, so does the brain get tired. Some scientists call it the will-power credits. The idea is that you wake up with a certain amount of will-power and, depending on how you use it, it can last throughout the day or get exhausted, and you find yourself sleeping on your couch watching lousy TV covered with pizza crumbs.
On top of that tiredness, there is the road forming work. I visually see a habit being developed as a little person who is in the middle of a dirt field. At first, the person does not know where to go so they will tend to just walk to where it’s more comfortable (like downhill) or towards where it’s brighter (like a shiny distraction). But focussing a bit, we can lead that little person to the destination we want it to go (i.e. the good synapse). The next time we do the exercise, there are a bunch of footsteps on the dirt, so it’s easier for the person to know where to go. And then a path starts appearing. And then the trail becomes more clearly marked. And eventually, we have a motor-way that quickly leads our little person from the original synapse to the goal synapse.
The problem is consistency. In the same way that muscles go away if we don’t use them, so our synaptic paths, go away when unused. And this is where it gets hard, because it goes beyond the “good samaritan” feeling of the first day of the year (e.g. I will go to the gym every day this year), and into the gritty part of “I’m sick of this, and tired, and want to stay in bed, and my muscles hurt, and…”. There are tricks to go about forming new habits, entire books have been dedicated to that. One that I like is called temptation bundling. The idea is simple, you only get to listen to your favourite podcast during a run. Or, you can just eat chocolate as a dessert if you had a healthy main dish. The trick is to have the carrot close by so that your brain is able to make that extra effort, spend those will-power credits, to get the carrot.
The other problem with habits is called change. You may have heard that humans don’t like change much. Some studies show that although we are always wired to try to become better, we deal very poorly with change because it implies the unknown, and the unknown, for many generations of humans, meant a lion was eating you alive. If we are wired that way it’s tough to undo things, right? But it is possible and is one of the fantastic things our mind can do for us. We know that to improve our current situation (and everyone wants that, from the poorest to the richest) we need to change and accept changes around us. Einstein is attributed a quote that said, “doing the same action and expecting a different outcome is the definition of madness”. And he has a point, under the same context (i.e. waking up every day), if we do the same action (like snoozing the alarm clock), we cannot expect to arrive early to work.
I hope that by breaking down why habits are hard, I made it easier for you to create a new (hopefully good) habit or break an old bad one. Have a great day!