Why Habits are so Hard to Break

Habits are powerful things, for good or evil.

If you have ever tried to change a bad one or successfully created a new one by choice, you know this.

The most overused example of physical habit formation is riding a bicycle, so here is a scooter for you instead.

There is a neurobiological reason that habits are so powerful. (I am about to simplify things dramatically, but the basic idea is correct.) In your brain and body, every action triggers a pattern of neuronal activity. And every time a neuron fires, a little myelin is added to the outside of the neuron. This myelin coating basically forces the message the neuron is carrying to stay on target and move directly to the next neuron in the chain rather than bouncing around on its journey to the recipient neuron. The more myelin, the more the message delivery system stays on target, the faster the message gets there.

At some point in the habit-forming process, the myelin is thick enough that the neuron carries its message too fast for conscious thought to notice.

Interestingly, the process is exactly the same for thinking and for doing. Habits of mind and habits of body function the same way.

The power of habits is in their speed, your body takes action so fast you can’t think about it. Imagine you have the habit of getting out of bed and making coffee as soon as the alarm goes off. When the alarm goes off, your body starts moving. By the time your conscious mind has caught up, the coffee is brewing. On the other hand, if you are in the habit of hitting the snooze button, your body responds to the sound of the alarm by rolling you over and lifting your arm to press the button before your conscious mind has time to process the sound. You are asleep again without having noticed the alarm.

The unconscious movement of your arm is why moving your alarm clock can help you break the hitting the snooze button habit. Your body still moves to where the alarm used to be, but because the button is in a different place, you don’t touch the snooze button and the alarm keeps sounding. This gives your conscious mind time to recognize the sound and choose how to respond.

The unconscious nature of habits is what makes them powerful.

And, because mental habits work the same way as movement habits, you can prime your mind for certain activities.

Writers who use rituals to get themselves into a creative mental space are tapping into this habit power. If their minds immediately move away from what to make for dinner and towards thinking about their characters when holding a certain pen, then faster than consciousness, their minds start writing when their bodies pick up that pen.

It is easier to build a new habit than to break an existing one. Building a new habit where there is no habitual behaviour requires only repetition of the new pattern, which can be done consciously until suddenly it is so fast it is no longer conscious.

To break a habit, you must do two physical things. You must interrupt the neuronal messaging system so it doesn’t deliver the old message, and you must create a new habitual messaging system that delivers a different message as a result of the same stimulation. The old habitual message is still there. You cannot make conscious changes that take the myelin off the neuronal pathway of the old habit. You have to work around it.

So there you have it: the basic physiology of habit formation and why it is so hard to break a habit.

(For a less clinical take on habit formation practices, you can check out my related posts: A Creative Space of Your Own, Writing at the Speed of the Unconscious, Step By Tiny Step: Changing my Life Practices, Hang on and Pretend It’s a Plan.)


About Kate Arms-Roberts


Posted on March 4, 2012, in Creativity, Daily Life, Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Kate~Wise post. It’s utterly true what you say. I gave a talk last week to a group on creative momentum. We discussed the challenges of inhibiting impulses – the ones we don’t want to keep repeating. Ritual and regular rhythms – mixed with delight, of course – seem crucial for my thriving.

    Thanks for adding to the neuroscience of creativity.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      Ritual and rhythm – I like the way those words feel in my body more than habit. I think I’m going to hang out with them for a while.


  2. I really appreciate you articulating the formation of the habit. The neuroscience is fascinating. Haruki Murakami likens the habit of running everyday to writing everyday. His golden rule is “never take two days off in a row.” I look forward to following your journey of habit formation for the next 30 days.


    • Kate Arms-Roberts

      “Never take 2 days off in a row” sound like very good advice. We do sometimes have life experiences that force us to take a day off, but two days in a row is an invitation to derail a habit.


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