Why do we sometimes get “stuck” in habits?
Habits and behaviors play a significant role in our lives, shaping our daily routines and overall well-being. However, it’s not uncommon for people to find themselves trapped in habits they know they need to break. I wanted to dive a little more into the various reasons behind this “stuck” feeling and talk about some of the practical strategies I offer to patients to overcome these barriers.
Our comfort zones can be both a safe haven and a formidable barrier.
Breaking away from familiar routines can be daunting, even if we understand the need for change. Fear of the unknown, uncertainty, and resistance to stepping outside our comfort zones can hinder our progress. Habits often have emotional underpinnings, and breaking free requires confronting these attachments. Emotional connections to certain behaviors, such as stress-eating or procrastination, can be deeply ingrained. Acknowledging and addressing the underlying emotions is vital to moving forward.
Furthermore, habits have a remarkable ability to shape our automatic responses. They operate on a subconscious level, making it difficult to break free. Understanding the science behind habit formation and employing strategies like habit replacement and mindfulness can really help us to shift our behaviours. In particular, our brains are predictive machines, and they use precious experiences, learnings and memories to predict what will happen next. It’s more efficient for a brain to just do the same thing in the same situation as before than to try to learn new processes or ways of navigating that next situation. Therefore, left to its own devices, the brain will fall back on habits by default (this is why we also slip back into old habits when our resources are down, we are tired, ill, overworked, highly emotional etc). Mindfulness helps us observe what’s really happening in the moment, and that allows us to consider putting effort into habit-replacement strategies to make change.
Low self-belief can also be a hinder to our progress. When we doubt our ability to change, we can become trapped in negative cycles. The messages we say to ourselves when thinking about making change is important to observe and capture. This is why cultivating self-compassion, setting realistic goals, and seeking support from loved ones or professionals can bolster our confidence and empower us to break free from those unwanted habits in which we feel trapped.
While getting “stuck” in habits is a common struggle, it’s not insurmountable. In fact, it’s expected. By understanding the barriers that impede change and implementing effective strategies, we can navigate our way towards adopting healthier and more fulfilling lifestyles.
We all have a laundry list of things we know we should be doing to improve our lives…
Whether it’s exercising regularly, eating healthier, managing stress, or getting enough sleep, the challenge lies in transforming knowledge into action.
Atomic Habits by James Clear breaks down the process of habit formation into four fundamental laws and teaches a number of easy and proven ways to create new positive habits and to break bad ones.
The four fundamental laws of habit formation:
Law #1: Make it Obvious
To build a new habit, you need cues that remind you to act. For instance, if you want to get into the habit of exercising every morning, place your workout clothes and shoes next to your bed so you see them immediately upon waking.
Law #2: Make it Attractive
The more appealing an action is, the more likely you are to do it. Pairing a new habit with a behavior you enjoy (like watching your favorite show while on a treadmill) can make it more enticing.
Law #3: Make it Easy
If a new habit is simple and accessible, you’re more likely to stick with it. Start small. If you want to read more, begin with just 5 minutes a day, then incrementally increase. There is no such thing as too little when making a change.
Law #4: Make it Satisfying
Positive reinforcement can help in making a habit stick. Celebrate small victories, whether it’s by rewarding yourself or simply recognizing and appreciating your efforts.
Making a List of Your Current Daily Habits
By listing out your daily routines, you can become more aware of the behaviors that have become automatic. This gives you a clear picture of where you might be going right, or where there might be room for improvement. It’s essential to approach this with a non-judgmental attitude. The goal is to observe, not criticize. It’s also to become aware of things that have been so normalised they now are outside of our awareness. For example, by having cookies next to the breakfast cereal, you may notice how often you grab a quick naughty snack while making your breakfast- maybe you’ve never even noticed how this simple behaviour has become a habit outside awareness!
James Clear also discusses the three layers of behavior change:
Layer #1: Outcomes – These are the goals we typically set for ourselves. For example, losing weight or winning a championship.
Layer #2: Processes – These are the habits and systems that lead to the desired outcome. It includes daily routines like dieting or training schedules.
Layer #3: Identity – This is about changing your beliefs and self-image. Instead of merely aspiring to be someone who exercises, you see yourself as a person who works out.
Of these, identity-based habits are the most powerful. They lead to deep, lasting change because they transform who you believe you are. You may surprise yourself how sticking with a goal moves from being something that feels like a chore to gradually something you really enjoy (running, painting, cooking), and therefore, you will need to update your self-identity as someone who connects with that thing (runner, painter, chef).
Essentially, progress is not always linear. There will be days when you’re on top of your game, and days when you feel you’ve regressed. James Clear emphasizes that it’s essential to focus on the overall trajectory rather than the daily fluctuations. Using the analogy of ‘ice cube melting’, he explains that sometimes progress might be happening in the background, unseen, until it reaches a critical point. An ice cube at -10 degrees C looks the same as an ice cube at -4 degrees C. There may have been strong progress and movement in that ice cube to get it from -10 to -4. However, it’s not until it reaches 0 and then +1 degree C before suddenly, change becomes apparent!
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Penguin Random House.
Johnston, S. J., & Mrazek, A. J. (2017). Neural mechanisms of reward, motivation, and habituation. In The Wiley Handbook of Cognitive Control (pp. 223-240). Wiley.