Sunday, June 24, 2012

Breaking Bad Habits (Part 1): Why do we Fail

This past January, as I often do, I set a New Year's resolution to eat healthier and begin exercising.  By mid-February, I panicked realizing that I still hadn't changed anything.  I got my butt into gear and finally began my program.  I worked hard, focused, lost some weight and felt great.  I remember thinking to myself, "Why didn't I do this a long time ago. I haven't felt this good in years."

After about 5 or 6 weeks, my plan derailed and I completely went back to my old, unhealthy lifestyle.  Man, that is so frustrating.  And the worst of it is, this same thing has happened EVERY DARN YEAR for the last 4 years.  Even though I felt better and looked better,  I went backwards and settled into my old lifestyle.

So, WHY do we fail at eliminating our bad habits?

Earlier this month, my brother Lee and I went to a one day conference put on by the Institute of Brain Potential called How the Brain Forms New Habits:  Why Willpower is Not Enough.  It was a very informative and interesting seminar.  The following are the main points that I learned from the seminar.

Once a Habit is Formed, It is Permanently Stored in Your Brain

There is a tiny little structure right in the middle of your brain called the Basal Ganglia that stores any habits that you have learned FOREVER. If you developed a habit of smoking cigarettes, for example, the habit of smoking is stuck in your brain for the rest of your life.

Before you go beating up on the Basal Ganglia, please note that it does serve a very important purpose.  If you learn how to do something useful, in your career or any other area of your life, your brain remembers how to do it for the rest of your life.  Even if you have not tried it for years, you can always pick that function up again fairly easily.  Two great examples of this are snow-skiing and bike riding.  Once you know how to do them, your body always knows how to do them. 

Interestingly enough, this tiny brain structure is located at the very core of your brain. Obviously God didn't want it to be easily disrupted.

Because of the Basal Ganglia, overcoming bad habits is almost always a life-long endeavor.

If we don't act out on a bad habit for a long time, what makes us go back to it?

According to the presentation by the Institute for Brain Potential, there are two main causes for Bad Habit Relapse.


When we are over-stressed, we often resort back to our bad habits because they give us some  
temporary relief from the Stress.

The presenter first referred to this as Reward Deficiency, but then admitted that what it really is is boredom.  When we are bored, the amount of dopamine floating around in our brain is low.  Our bad habits give us a little jolt of dopamine, which brings us out of boredom.


So there you have it.  I hope you gain a little more insight into why bad habits are so hard to overcome.  As I finish writing this article, it is 11:30 PM and my stomach is stuffed to the max from the Chinese Buffet we ate at tonight.  Obviously, knowledge about bad habits alone does not eliminate them....

In Part 2, we will discuss some practical tips for overcoming bad habits.

What about you?

Do you have trouble overcoming bad habits?  Are they always there to pester you when you are stressed out or bored?

Information about the seminar I mentioned can be found at:


  1. Oh, Aaron, I made the same resolution -- exercise more, eat less -- this year. I had just had spinal fusion in December and had gained weight while waiting for 6 months for a surgery date. No movement, weight gain. Did well the first few weeks, and then stress hit with a family crisis and back came the bad habit of eating to overcome my sadness. I'm so glad to know that there's a reason for this -- I thought it was just that I had no will power and was hopeless. You have given me hope. Can't wait to read Part 2!

  2. Mine would be Diet Pepsi.........Thanks for educating me!

    1. I can relate to that one. Diet Mountain Dew is the pop that I love. I don't know if it is just the caffeine or if there is something else in pop that is addictive, but it is a tough habit to break for a lot of people. Thank you for the comment.

  3. Aaron i love this!!! And i do agree it is all in your head.. If you can just train your mine to overcome bad habbits and train it to only pick up on the good habbit then you can overcome anything!! Keep on writting..

  4. Thank you very much for the comment. The hard part with good habits is that they often require work, and we all get a little lazy sometimes. Also, they usually do not provide us with the spark of dopamine that makes us feel good right away and reinforces the bad habits (instant gratification). Bad habits can be overcome, however, and good ones can be developed. I hope to discuss how in the next one or two posts. Thanks again for commenting.

  5. Aaron, It seems it takes a lot of discipline, persistence and motivation to wrestle those bad habits to the ground. I think motivation is the key for me. Once I get motivated, the discipline and persistence can do their jobs. Thanks for sharing how boredom and stress can make changing bad habits so hard to do.Now,I'm looking forward to your suggestions on how to do it!

    1. Thanks Kathy. I think motivation is key also. You first have to want to have a deep desire to get rid of the habit or a compelling reason to do so. Once you have that, the others do fall into place. The boredom and stress thing really hit me during the presentation. As I thought about it, those are almost always my triggers to fall back into bad habits.