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Why Are Old Habits So Hard to Break?

10 strategies for lasting behavior change.

Key points

  • Behavior change is challenging and requires consistent effort and intentional modification of habits.
  • Cognitive dissonance, the power of habit, homeostasis, and the desire for immediate gratification can make behavior change difficult.
  • Taking small steps towards behavior change is crucial, and patience and persistence are essential in achieving self-improvement goals.

Behavior change is a challenging endeavor, requiring intentional and consistent effort to modify actions and habits to attain desired objectives. The field of psychology offers valuable insights into the factors that make behavior change a challenging endeavor. By understanding these underlying concepts, we can better comprehend why altering our habits can be difficult and develop strategies to overcome these obstacles.

Cognitive Dissonance

One primary factor contributing to the difficulty of behavior change is cognitive dissonance, a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual's actions conflict with their beliefs, values, or goals. For instance, someone may value a healthy lifestyle yet struggle to maintain an exercise regimen. This inconsistency can lead to resistance to change, as people often rationalize their behavior instead of making necessary adjustments.

In Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith's early research, participants were asked to perform a boring task and were then paid either $1 or $20 to tell the next participant that the task was enjoyable. Those who were paid $1 experienced greater cognitive dissonance than those who were paid $20 because their actions conflicted with their beliefs that the task was not enjoyable. To reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, participants who were paid only $1 were more likely to change their attitudes about the task, convincing themselves that it was enjoyable.

This study highlights how cognitive dissonance can lead individuals to rationalize their behavior and modify their attitudes to reduce the discomfort of inconsistency. This can create resistance to change, as individuals may be hesitant to modify their behavior or beliefs, even if doing so is necessary to achieve their goals.

Power of Habit

Research has shown that habits can have a powerful influence on behavior, often shaping our daily actions without our conscious awareness. Moreover, habits can become deeply ingrained in our neural pathways, making them difficult to modify or break. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses the science behind habit formation and how it can impact behavior change.

According to Duhigg, habits are formed through a repetitive cycle of cues, routines, and rewards. The cue is the trigger that prompts the behavior, the routine is the behavior itself, and the reward is the positive outcome or feeling that results from the behavior. For instance, if someone has a habit of eating unhealthy snacks when they are stressed, they could interrupt the habit loop by engaging in a different, healthier behavior when they experience the same stress cue, such as taking a walk or practicing deep breathing.


The concept of homeostasis, the body's natural tendency to maintain a stable internal environment, can hinder behavior change. When attempting new routines, homeostasis can induce discomfort as the body resists alterations in its equilibrium. For example, trying to wake up earlier can be challenging due to the body's circadian rhythm or internal clock, which opposes the change and results in feelings of fatigue and grogginess.

Similarly, trying to adopt a new exercise routine can be challenging because the body may resist the change and experience discomfort or soreness as a result. This discomfort can make it difficult to maintain the new routine, and individuals may be more likely to revert to their old habits and routines.

Immediate Gratification

The human inclination towards immediate gratification complicates behavior change. People tend to prioritize short-term rewards over long-term benefits, making it difficult to see the value in adopting healthier habits that yield delayed outcomes. This preference can be a significant obstacle when attempting to make lasting changes.

For example, someone may prefer to indulge in unhealthy snacks rather than choose healthier options because they provide immediate pleasure and satisfaction, even though the long-term effects on their health may be negative. Similarly, someone may prefer to watch TV or spend time on social media rather than exercise or engage in other healthy activities because the former provides immediate gratification while the latter requires more effort and time before the benefits are seen.

Strategies for Lasting Behavior Change

Although psychology explains the difficulties of behavior change, it also equips us with techniques to overcome them. Below are 10 effective approaches to modify your behavior:

  1. Set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-related (SMART Goals): SMART goals help create a clear roadmap for change and increase the likelihood of success. For example, "I will exercise for 30 minutes, five times a week" is more effective than "I want to be more active."
  2. Break big goals into small steps: Breaking down a larger goal into smaller, manageable steps makes the change process less daunting and increases the sense of accomplishment. For instance, if a goal is to wake up earlier, an individual can start by setting their alarm clock 15 minutes earlier each week.
  3. Establish a routine: Consistency is critical to behavior change. Establishing a routine helps create new habits and reinforces the desired behavior. For example, incorporating a daily morning exercise session or a fixed meal-prep schedule can support healthier habits.
  4. Identify triggers and obstacles: Recognizing triggers that lead to undesired behavior and anticipating obstacles can help individuals devise strategies to overcome them. If the temptation of unhealthy snacks hinders healthier eating, one can replace them with healthier alternatives.
  5. Use positive reinforcement: Rewarding oneself for making progress reinforces the new behavior and increases motivation. For example, one might treat themselves to new workout gear after maintaining a consistent exercise routine for a month.
  6. Find social support: Social support from friends, family, or support groups can significantly improve the likelihood of successful behavior change. Sharing goals and progress with others can create a sense of accountability and encouragement.
  7. Utilize mental contrasting and implementation intentions: Mental contrasting involves envisioning the positive outcomes of achieving a goal alongside the obstacles that might arise. Combining mental contrasting with implementation intentions (concrete plans specifying when, where, and how to act) can improve the likelihood of behavior. For example, visualize the benefits of waking up early, such as increased productivity, and create a plan to overcome obstacles like hitting the snooze button.
  8. Monitor progress: Regularly tracking progress helps maintain focus on the goal and provides opportunities to adjust strategies as needed. This can be done using journals, mobile apps, or fitness trackers.
  9. Develop self-compassion: Adopting a self-compassionate approach can reduce the negative impact of setbacks and increase resilience during the behavior change process. Instead of harsh self-criticism, individuals should practice understanding and forgiveness when encountering obstacles.
  10. Focus on the benefits: Shifting the focus from what is being sacrificed to the benefits of the new behavior can increase motivation and commitment. For example, concentrating on the increased energy levels and improved mental clarity from healthier eating habits can help reinforce the desired behavior change.

Take the First Step

As the ancient philosopher Lao Tzu wisely said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." This quote emphasizes the importance of taking small, incremental steps toward our goals rather than expecting drastic changes overnight. By embracing this mindset, we can gradually progress, even when the path to change seems daunting. Moreover, acknowledging that lasting change takes time and effort can lead to increased patience and persistence in our journey toward self-improvement.

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