Acquiring a new habit vs. quitting an old one

Shutterstock

If we take the literal meaning, it’s obvious quitting a habit is infinitely more difficult than creating a new one.

You see, a habit is stored in your brain in the form of a neural loop. So, the only way to “quit” a habit is a lobotomy, which is pretty difficult compared to the development of a new habit.


Follow Ladders on Flipboard!

Follow Ladders’ magazines on Flipboard covering Happiness, Productivity, Job Satisfaction, Neuroscience, and more!


If we consider the common meaning of the expression “to quit a habit,” which is “stop doing something we had been doing,” it gets easier.

To stop your habitual activity you need a traumatic experience or you need to painstakingly rebuild your habit.

The Moment of Decision

The traumatic experience doesn’t need to be sudden and painful, like a car accident. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of people who quit smoking because their grandchildren asked them to do so and they felt like “they want to be here for their grandkids.” It was the moment of decision that caused them to modify their behavior for good.

However, engineering both life-changing car accidents or moments of decisions is close to impossible. I mean, those smokers who quit usually had their grandkids for a few years, as well as a decades-long smoking habit.

It wasn’t like they didn’t know the facts. Nobody had to tell them their self-destructing habit would cost them their health and potentially years of life. Nobody had to tell them that their grankids love them and would love to have them around for decades to come.

They needed enlightenment to spark the decision and we cannot procure the enlightenment. Thus, it’s impossibly difficult.

Rebuilding a Habit

If you don’t experience the moment of decision, you need to rebuild your habit from scratch.

The best piece of free content on this topic is on Charles Duhigg’s website:

How Habits Work — Charles Duhigg

It is a load of hard thinking and hard work. The biggest problem with this strategy is immense resistance.

The older your habit is, the stronger the neural loop is in your brain. You need inhuman focus to be aware of every time a cue for the habit activates to modify your behavior. Even though you instill a new behavior, if you let your subconscious keep the reins, the old behavior activates, because it is stronger than the new routine you’re trying to develop.

Resistance Against a New Habit

When you create a new habit, you need to overcome resistance as well. It’s the resistance that comes from the status quo. If you are a couch potato, it’s difficult and uncommon for you to move your butt and jog or go to the gym.

However, this resistance is nowhere near the resistance that comes from an old habit. When you build a new habit, you create a new trigger for it and there are no conflicting messages in your brain. It is the simple “when this happens, I do that” routine. The whole art comes to repeating the routine long enough and often enough for your mind to recognize the pattern and “save” it in your brain.

You can screw that up by being inconsistent which gives conflicting signals to your brain. But you don’t have to fight off a decade-long custom of yours.

My Experience

I quit a few bad habits and it was almost effortless for me. I just realized they don’t lead me to the better life I desired. I starved them out instead of remodeling them. In a few weeks I quit playing computer games and reading fiction in excess.

That was much easier than developing some habits of mine. It took me several months to create a writing habit.

On the other hand, I have some habits I’ve been struggling with for years, like going to bed too late. This habit seems to be insanely hard to change.

In the same period, I was able to develop dozens of daily habits. Easy peasy.

Summary

Quitting an existing habit is usually much more difficult than acquiring a new one. There are some cases when it’s not true, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.

 

This article first appeared on Medium