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Why Are Habits So Hard to Break?

It seems so easy.

Image courtesy of Amazon

It seems so easy—just stop eating unhealthy foods and exercise regularly and you'll achieve the perfect body; just stop smoking and your lungs will restore themselves to their healthier form—it sounds so simple, but why is it so hard? Why don't we all have the "perfect body" or lungs that can inhale and exhale at normal capacity? To put it simply, humans are stubborn, unwavering creatures of habit. 

It's not that we're incapable of changing a habit. It's just that it can be much harder than we anticipate, sometimes. To answer the question of how to break a habit, we have to first look at how a habit is formed. For instance, Pavlov's study on dogs was the most quintessential research on habit-forming in the twentieth century and it holds its efficacy and truth today. The study observed a cohort of dogs who received a treat every time a bell rang. After a while, the dogs expected a treat to follow the ringing of the bell, prompting them to salivate more. This, in a nutshell, is implicit (or tacit) learning. Implicit learning happens when a taught action becomes a natural phenomenon to a person or (in this case) dog. So what does all of this mean in regards to breaking a habit? In short, it seems to be much easier to adopt a habit than it is to break one. 

Breaking a habit is undoubtedly tough, especially if you've fostered that habit for years on end. It seems, more often than not, that people lose faith in their own abilities if there's a relapse of any sort. While setbacks can be discouraging, most research regarding health and habits suggests that most participants experience some form of relapse but that is not grounds for dismissal. 

It's not impossible for us to change our ways. If you truly want to break a habit, it seems to require more than just moral determination. It does take commitment, but it also takes encouragement, support, and most of all, the belief that you can accomplish the goal you've set forth to accomplish. Overwhelmingly, studies and psychometric testing reveal that one of the greatest obstacles for us is our own self-efficacy. Many people give up on a goal after the first or second failure. It makes sense, we live in a perfectionistic culture that seems to move at the speed of light, and it's easy to apply these notions to our lifestyle. 

After all, the best approach to a healthier life is a lifestyle change. So what is the best way to approach this lifestyle? It is both simple and complex. While you can change your lifestyle, you can't always change your friends lifestyles or even, your environment. This can be tricky but it's definitely no reason to lose hope. No, you don't have to make new friends or move to another country—you can simply assert boundaries for yourself. Let's say your doctor tells you you're at risk for diabetes and you need to adjust your diet. You make a meal plan and stick to it pretty thoroughly the first two weeks, but then you start to revert back to your old ways when you see several of your friends ordering that deliciously unhealthy food when you go out with them. Instead of resenting your friends, hold true to your boundaries and continue monitoring your behavior and accomplishments within your goals. Celebrating little victories can serve more purpose than we tend to give it credit. In short, habits can be broken. It just takes time, patience, determination, and above all, it takes self-efficacy.

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