Most people have bad habits they continue despite knowing it’s not good for them. Why is this?
We are steered by reward and unpleasantness. Usually bad habits, like eating too much of tasty food or staying on the couch, gives us instant rewards. This encourage us to continue with that behavior. Breaking a habit can be experienced as stepping out of our comfort zone, which triggers unpleasantness. That is why we tend to avoid change.
Why is it so hard to break bad habits?
Due to the above. We have the same brain today as 40 000 years ago, thus what helped us survive back in the days may not always be beneficial in the modern world.
Can you explain this behavior: A new activity (like working out) feels easy and fun in the beginning, but after a while the enthusiasm wears off and the smallest set back makes us stop. Why is this?
We are programmed to like novelty since “new” conveys important information. Once the novelty wears off it is not ranked as important. We need to find new strategies for motivation. Setting up a long term goal requires short term goals on the way to stay motivated.
How long does it take to form a new habit?
It varies a lot, but a standard answer is three weeks. In the same sense that it takes time to build a physical road it takes a bit of time to build new “roads” in the brain.
What are your best tips to someone who wants to start a new healthy habit?
- Plan the change in the same way you plan a trip. If you want to start eating healthy, find 3 good meals that you can make for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Throw all junk food you have at home and fill you home with healthy commodities. If you feel like it is too difficult, ask a professional for help.
- Inform your surrounding about the change you want to make and create your own fan club that will help you through the change.
- Analyze what situations you are successful with your change and try to create more of those. Also understand when you fall back to old patterns - “failure” is a perfect opportunity to learn what you can do better next time. Build strategies around how not to repeat your mistakes.
- Stay positive and give yourself a pep talk every time you take a step in the right direction.
We work a lot with routines, because we think that small actions you take every day will help you see long-term results. What’s your take on this?
Taking baby steps in the right direction is a great strategy as it does not feel overwhelming nor unpleasant. We can all replace a candy bar with a carrot. However, start eating healthy, quit smoking and start exercising at the same time is too much of an effort. Consequently, that creates unpleasantness which increase the chance of failure. You should not do more than two things/interventions at the same.
So if you want to start eating healthy, begin with cleaning out the house from junk and fill it with good things. That will automatically make you eat better. Once you have started to eat better you will feel the benefits, it will be rewarding making healthy choices rather than unhealthy. This creates a positive spiral, keeping you motivated and after a while you can add a new thing to change!
About Katarina Gospic:
Katarina Gospic is an M.D., Ph.D. and a M.Sc. in Physiology from the Karolinska Institute. She has 15 years of experience in brain research and neuroeconomics. Dr. Gospic is an entrepreneur and 2018 she started as the Director of Neuroscience at the VR/AR company Spinview Global to work with ehealth and prop tech. She has several years of experience lecturing, both within and outside academia, and has an ability to make difficult things easy to understand. She implements abstract research into easy actions that boost health, performance and wellbeing. Dr. Gospic is the author of six books and a frequent guest in media.