Why Are Bad Habits Easy To Acquire

Bowls of sweets

By Azzy Aslam

Habits, Routines, & Behaviours

14 Jun, 2021

Why Is It Easy to Form Bad Habits?

Do you wonder why it always seems so easy to create bad or unhealthy habits? And you may well have noticed it also happens much faster than your efforts to build good habits. Once the bad or unhealthy habits have formed, they are also hard to break.

The main reason comes down to the reward (or pleasure) you get from an action or behaviour which is part of the habit. The faster you receive the reward (or pleasure) the more likely you are to perform the habit again which in turn speeds up the forming of the habit. ‘Rewards’ are part of the ‘Habit Loop’ and is the part which keeps us going until we want more reward.

I will briefly go through Habit Loop below and look at the reason why understanding the process will answer the question of why it’s so easy to acquire bad or unhealthy habits. Once you understand the loop you can then start to do something about the troublesome habit!

What’s the Habit Loop?

The habit loop is explained in several books which cover the topic of habits. The one which stands out for me is Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habits”. Other books also cover the habit loop although it may be embellished by the author to give it their personal touch, however, the core remains the same.

The habit loop has three parts to it:

  1. The Trigger
  2. The Action/Behaviour
  3. The Reward

Diagram of the Habit Loop

As it’s a loop, the trigger and the reward are linked, and drive the action and behaviours to get the reward. As part of the reward, we will usually get a kick of Dopamine. This is a neurotransmitter and also known as the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter. It’s released when we are enjoying something, eating food we love, company of loved ones, reading our favourite books, watching our favourite shows, and let’s not forget sex!

Our hunt for the reward is strong and so are the triggers to move us to act. This is why bad habits feel so good!

How does the Habit Loop make it easy to form bad habits?

If you look closely at any habit (good, bad, unhealthy), it’s the reward stage which really starts to embed the habit inside our brain.

The first thing we notice is the reward linked to bad or unhealthy habits tends to follow quickly, if not immediately, after taking action.

However, when it comes to good or healthy habits, the big rewards may not be realised fully for weeks, months, or even years. There may be some small satisfaction of completing a good or healthy habit, but you will probably have to wait much longer for the big pay-off for sticking with the good habit.

As I mentioned above there is also the kick of Dopamine with the reward. When you get your reward, you will also get your Dopamine kick to make you feel good. The more often you get some Dopamine the more likely you are to keep repeating the habit which releases it into our brain.

With bad and unhealthy habits, the reward and dopamine kick are usually immediate. With the good and healthy habits there may be little to no dopamine kick when you act. The good habit will not give the mini ‘high’ you get from Dopamine kick from a bad habit.

Having seen so many people attempting to change or stop their bad habits, it’s only when they tackle the reward and Dopamine kick, have I seen people start to make changes.

How Reward and Dopamine works

Let’s take something which were all familiar with, the habit of constant and regular Social Media checking. Many of us would class this as a bad habit, particularly when it takes you away from doing more productive work. The Habit Loop would look something like this:

  • The Trigger – feeling bored, want some stimulus, want to find out what’s happened to your last update (comments, likes, etc.), fear of missing out (FOMO), what are others up to…
  • The Action – Pick up the device and scroll through your feed, check other people’s profile, respond to updates, reply to comments on your post, post your own update…
  • The Reward – Feel good as you get a kick of Dopamine, feel as though you know what is happening with your friends, feel updated, feel better if the number of comments and likes have gone up…

In this instance you can see the reward of getting the update and the dopamine kick may be short lived, so the habit will be repeated regularly and often. Which in turn helps to create the habit much quicker due to the high number of times it is repeated.

Each time you take action the neurons fire, the neural pathways are strengthened and so the habits get established faster than you realise!

Let’s have a quick look at a habit which may not give you an immediate reward or little to no dopamine. Sticking with social media, if we plan to write a meaningful or helpful update (perhaps a short version of this blog on LinkedIn) this will take a little time.

You will have to decide what to include in the post, will it convey the message you want, will it appeal to the people it’s intended for etc. Now suddenly this feels like work. It has become a task or even a chore. Getting it completed may just be a relief rather than a reward. Even though you may get some small sense of satisfaction the Dopamine kick may be small or none at all!

At this point you are not exactly going to be looking for the trigger or the reward to repeat it. Unless it generates a dozen prospective clients, but the reward and Dopamine kick will only come when the prospective client gets in touch. So, you can see the reward isn’t immediate unlike checking social media in general.

Another piece to the habit we can look at is if there is any pain, discomfort, or suffering. What we find with good and healthy habits there is some level of pain, discomfort, self-discipline, and even some suffering. Think about getting fit, healthy, or losing weight!

When there is some level of pain & discomfort then it’s likely to have little to no immediate reward, other than relief of having completed a challenging task.  

Unlike good habits, the unhealthy and bad habits seem to have little to no pain, discomfort, or suffering, and lack self-discipline. In fact, the bad habits try to keep you away from any pain and discomfort!

What can you do to make it harder to acquire bad habits?

First and foremost, start to become aware of the habit loop. Start to become aware of the triggers which start the habit. Once you are aware you can acknowledge the actions, behaviours, and the rewards you expect. Use the chart below to see exactly what your bad habit is getting you to do. This will help to be clear and more aware everytime the triggers are pulled to starting the unhealthy habit.

Use the example I gave above on checking social media to help you complete this for you habit.

Habit Loop Grid To Work WithThe next step is to stop taking action when you become aware the habit’s trigger has been pulled. Or you can replace the action and reward part with different actions and rewards. Sounds simple but it will take time to adjust and focus on making changes. Once again, catching the start, the trigger, to you bad and unhealthy habits is important and then consciously decide what you are going to do.

Use the chart below to create an alternative action and reward to help you make the conscious change.

Habit Loop Grid 2

If you need more help in defining the trigger, and then creating the alternate actions and rewards, book a free 30 minute call to get you started. Click the button below.


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