Is It Harder to Break a Bad Habit Than Form a Good One?

Is it harder to break a bad habit than form a good one?

Is it harder to break a bad habit?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

Habits are a powerful force in our lives and can be resistant to change. However, by understanding the nature of habits and employing strategies that target their automaticity and context-dependence, it is possible to break bad habits and establish new, healthier ones. This approach is not only relevant for individuals seeking to improve their lifestyles but also for leaders aiming to enhance their effectiveness1 2.


Understanding Habits

Habits play a significant role in our daily lives, especially in the realm of behavioral medicine. They are not merely actions that we perform frequently; habits are characterized by their regular occurrence, automaticity, and the fact that they are triggered by specific contexts1. This means that habits can encompass a wide range of behaviors, from simple physical acts to complex patterns of behavior and even mental processes.

The Challenge of Breaking Habits

One of the main reasons habits are difficult to break is that they are deeply ingrained in our behavior and operate automatically. Traditional information campaigns often fail to disrupt these patterns because they do not address the automatic nature of habits1. Moreover, habits can be resistant to change because they are reinforced by the contexts in which they occur. This makes it challenging to simply decide to act differently, as our environments can cue us to fall back into habitual behaviors.

Leadership and Habits

In the context of leadership, habits can have a profound impact on effectiveness. Leaders are encouraged to adopt a learning stance to become aware of the consequences of their habits, whether they are beneficial or detrimental2. The habit loop model explains how habits are formed and maintained in the brain, highlighting the importance of recognizing and altering these loops to improve leadership behaviors2.

Strategies for Change

To foster change, it is suggested that creating new, desirable habits should be an explicit goal of interventions. These interventions may have a higher chance of success if they are implemented during periods when old habits are disrupted, such as during significant life changes1. Additionally, for leaders, replacing counterproductive habits with engaged leadership habits—such as taking a moment to pause, learning from emotions, and paying attention to social identities—can lead to more effective leadership2.


Is it harder to break a bad habit than form a good one?

Benjamin Gardner has answered Uncertain

An expert from King’s College London in Psychology, Behavioural Science

This is a much more complex question than it first seems. First, we need a definition of habit. To the psychologist, habitual behaviours are action episodes that are triggered automatically when we encounter situations in which we have repeatedly done the action in the past, due to the activation of learned situation-action responses. Second, we need to agree on what we mean by ‘breaking’ a habit and ‘forming’ a habit. Habit is not dichotomous: it is not the case that you either have a habit or do not have a habit. Rather, habits vary in strength on a continuum, so that they may be more or less strongly habitual. If we cannot say that someone has a habit or does not have a habit, then it becomes problematic to claim that someone has ‘broken’ a bad habit or ‘formed’ a new one.

To add further complexity to this issue, we have to consider the different ways in which a habit can be ‘broken’. If habits are triggered by exposure to environmental contexts, which activate learned associations, then there are three ways to ‘break’ a habit: by avoiding the environments that trigger habits, by stopping yourself from acting on the habit that is triggered, or by trying to ‘unlearn’ the associations that are activated by encountering certain environments. Each of these approaches can vary in difficulty. Some environments can be easy to avoid. If you are triggered to eat popcorn by going to the movie theatre, then you might simply avoid going to the movie theatre to address this habit. However, if you are a film critic, then it is much harder to avoid the movie theatre. If you are triggered by everyday situations, then it is difficult to break a habit by avoiding the cues. It can also be easy to stop yourself from acting on a habit. Simply telling yourself ‘don’t do it!’ can work for some people in some situations. But if you are stressed, tired, or your self-control is impaired for some other reason, it may be difficult to stop yourself acting habitually. Perhaps the most difficult method is to try to ‘unlearn’ the underlying association. People cannot simply ‘unlearn’ associations, but rather they have to learn new associations in their place. For example, consistently eating grapes in the movie theatre might lead to the development of a new grape-eating habit that overpowers your old popcorn-eating habit. Whether this is easy or difficult will depend on how strong the old habit is, and how much you want to form the new habit.

Lastly, in theory, it is no more difficult to make or break ‘bad’ habit associations than it is to make or break ‘good’ habit associations. However, there is a reason why many ‘bad’ habits stick where ‘good’ ones do not: ‘bad’ habits are often inherently more pleasurable or rewarding than ‘good’ habits. In practice, then, it can be more difficult to weaken a ‘bad’ habit than to strengthen a ‘good’ habit.


Is it harder to break a bad habit than form a good one?

Samuel Nordli has answered Uncertain

An expert from Indiana University Bloomington in Cognitive Science, Psychology

The short answer is: it depends. We (and other vertebrates) form habits when the same behaviors are repeated within recurrent ecological contexts. Part of what fuels this process is the set of motivations that drive behaviors to be repeated in the first place. Although the neuropsychological definition of habit is slightly different from the colloquial use of the word (which tends to be synonymous with ‘behavioral tendency’), there is some overlap: the behaviors that we are motivated to do repeatedly are the kinds of behavioral tendencies that might be considered habitual in the more colloquial sense. While some individual motivations are almost certainly acquired culturally (like the desire to become more physically fit), others appear to be innate (like the preference for consuming foods with sweet, salty, and fatty flavor profiles).

We tend to evaluate whether a habit is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ according to present-day standards, but this understanding is incomplete. Compulsively eating candy and chips is typically considered a ‘bad habit’ in modern cultures, but this is because junk food is relatively cheap and readily abundant (and because we have learned that its excessive consumption can lead to health complications). However, prior to the invention of agriculture — which was characteristic of the ecological contexts in which humans evolved — it was rare to find sources of food that were rich in sugar, salt, and fat… which is why preferences for these flavors were favored under natural selection. From the perspective of our evolved physiology, which developed under conditions of relative scarcity, to gorge on junk food whenever you can find it is actually a ‘good’ habit.

On the other hand, while regular exercise might be considered a ‘good’ habit by individuals in many first-world cultures (in which caloric resources are often plentiful), for preagricultural ecological contexts (in which regular sources of calories were more scarce), the needless expenditure of excess energy might very well have been a ‘bad’ habit (while laziness might actually have been a beneficial trait).

In the colloquial sense of habits, it can feel hard to break ‘bad’ ones or to start ‘good’ ones because our motivations are sometimes conflicted. A part of us wants to eat a whole pint of ice cream, while another part wants to abstain and eat a healthy alternative; a part of us wants to go for a run, while another part wants to watch TV and eat a pint of ice cream. When our culturally-acquired desires are at odds with intrinsic motivations, it can certainly seem like our intrinsic motivations often tend to win out. We don’t fully understand why this is the case, but it might be because they are simply stronger in some cases (e.g., because they helped our ancestors to survive in relatively harsh environments); or it could be because humans tend to devalue future outcomes relative to immediate outcomes — a phenomenon called ‘temporal discounting’ — and most ‘bad’ habits tend to be immediately gratifying while ‘good’ ones more often have delayed rewards that come at the expense of immediate gratification.


Is it harder to break a bad habit than form a good one?

Phillippa Lally has answered Likely

An expert from University College London in Psychology, Behavioural Science

Forming a habit requires repetition of a behaviour in a consistent context. Breaking a habit requires inhibiting an established behavioural response when a cue is encountered, or planning ahead to avoid the cue. With unlimited motivation, attention and resources this is all possible, however in everyday life when all of these fluctuate both can be challenging. Substituting a new behaviour in place of a habitual response is likely to be a useful approach to breaking an old habit, however we do not know how long it takes to establish a new association that is strong enough to override the old, when people are distracted with other things and when their motivation may fluctuate.


Is it harder to break a bad habit than form a good one?

Klaus Rothermund has answered Near Certain

An expert from University of Jena in Psychology, Behavioural Science

It is always easier to form a habit than to break one, irrespective of whether these habits are “good” or “bad”. The reason is that breaking habits requires effortful control, whereas forming a habit results from learning and memory processes that operate in an automatic fashion, that is, they emerge effortlessly and without self-control, simply by executing certain behaviors in certain situations at least once). Thus, it easier to break a bad habit than to form a good one, but it is also harder to break a good habit than to create a bad one.

Bad habits are probably those that have negative long-term consequences, whereas good habits serve the individual in the long run. It is unclear, however, whether the consequences of behaviors exert a direct influence on habit acquisition, and many recent models assume that habits are created independently of outcomes, but simply by (repeated) execution of certain behaviors in certain situations.


Is it harder to break a bad habit than form a good one?

Gina Cleo has answered Likely

An expert from Habit Change Institute in Habits, Behavioural Science, Health

Whether a habit is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, generally speaking, breaking old habits can be more challenging than forming new habits. 

Forming new habits requires creating a responding action to an environmental trigger (e.g., when I’m having breakfast, I will eat a piece of fruit), whereas breaking old habits requires preventing an automatic reaction from taking place (e.g., when I go to the cinema, I will not eat popcorn, or I will eat peanuts instead of popcorn). 

Habits are actions which are automatically responding to a triggering cue. Therefore, habitual action can be impulsive, subconscious and automatic, and we are generally not mindful of habitual performance. 

Breaking a pre-existing habit therefore, requires deliberative and conscious control over automatic cue-response associations, this includes, motivation, self-regulation, action planning, prospective memory and implementation intentions. This is certainly achievable when we are highly motivated, however when we are stressed, tired, experience emotional exhaustion, cognitive overload or negative emotions, the necessary conscious control required to break a habit becomes extremely difficult to sustain. 

Although motivation and conscious effort are also required to form new habits, we can use external reminders to nudge us towards performing the habit, which reduces the need for action planning and prospective memory. 

Another important point to note is that our habits – good or otherwise – provide us with some kind of reward, even if they are undesirable in other ways. For example, eating dessert every night isn’t going to help us achieve our weight/health goal, but it does offer us the reward of satisfying our sweet tooth. Breaking this dessert habit may mean that we no longer experience the resulting reward – an outcome we may not be ready or willing to accept.


Is it harder to break a bad habit than form a good one?

Rachel Smith has answered Likely

An expert from Texas A&M University in Neuroscience, Addiction, Habits, Drug Use

We most likely perceive a habit to be “bad” or “good” based on the outcome of the habitual behavior. “Bad” habits might include biting your nails or eating ice cream every night, whereas “good” habits might include flossing your teeth or going to the gym. But, these outcomes differ for many reasons beyond being desired or undesired, and these differences will affect the likelihood of a behavior becoming habitual. Habits are generally more likely to form when rewards are immediate (ice cream is an immediate reward, whereas going to the gym and flossing are more often associated with long-term gratification) and when the reward is larger (ice cream > flossing). Many “bad” habits also involve negative reinforcement, when a behavior results in reducing a negative outcome (as opposed to increasing a positive outcome). For example, biting your nails might reduce your temporary anxiety, so the behavior is reinforced by feeling better or being distracted. For all these reasons, undesired behaviors often are the ones that are more likely to become habitual. Finally, I think it is worth noting that we are much more likely to be mindful of our “bad” habits and ignore how many “good” habits we have. Most of us automatically buckle our safety belts every single car ride and brush our teeth daily. It sometimes requires lots of repetition, but eventually the behaviors become automatically triggered by environmental cues (e.g., getting into the car, getting ready for bed at nighttime).


Is it harder to break a bad habit than form a good one?

Youna Vandaele has answered Likely

An expert from Lausanne University Hospital in Habits, Addiction, Neuroscience

Habits are notoriously hard to break and easy to form, whether they are bad habit or good habit. Indeed, habitual learning occurs unconsciously with repeated experience of the same behavioral response and associated consequences in the same situation. Once formed, habits are hard to break because they are by definition triggered by antecedent conditioned stimuli and are insensitive to actions’ consequences. It is possible to reengage goal-directed control over habit by voluntarily repressing the habit but this requires cognitive resources with more effortful deliberation. In contrast, expression of habit is low cost and efficient. Thus, it is easier to succumb to habits than to overcome them.


Is it harder to break a bad habit than form a good one?

Miriam Sebold has answered Likely

An expert from Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin in Neuropsychology, Habits, Cognitive Science, Alcohol Use, Drug Use

In some ways this is true. We see this with many disorders from the so called “compulsive spectrum”, e.g. substance dependence or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). These disorders are characterized by repetetive, stereotyped behavior despite severe negative consequences. Such stereotyped behaviors seem to be “hard wired” and hard to distinguish. However, even the worst habit has not always been a habit but initially served some purpose (e.g. in substance dependence initial drug intake was rewarding, for instance by easing social problems). Thus, most habits were initially goal directed. Interestingly, in animals excessive training shifts most goal-directed actions towards habits and thus habits can be seen as a consequence of repetitions. 

In easy words one could say: the brain loves repetitions. The neural structures that are responsible for “habits” lie deeply in the midbrain and are evolutionary old. This highlights the purpose and also the benefit of habits: They are very efficient and do not rely on additional cognitive demands. Goal-directed actions on the contrary also rely on cortical structures that are evolutionary young. They require additional cognitive resources. Taken together one could thus say it is always hard to form a new habit because such habitual actions are initially goal-directed and require cognitive demands and resources.

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