Bad Habits Die Hard (But You Can Break Them)

September 21, 2017

Bad habits are disgusting little buggers.

Come to think of it, so are good habits when you’re trying to develop them.

Nothing is more frustrating than setting a goal to break a bad habit or build a good one, only to find you’re not self controlled enough to follow through.

But is that really it? We just don’t possess the willpower it takes to get it done? Or is there something deeper going on here?

See if this situation sounds familiar…

You have two goals; to lose weight and get out of debt. You know that in order to accomplish these goals, you’re going to have to replace your old habits with some healthy new ones.

In the beginning, you are a poster child for these habits; you’re full of enthusiasm and you’re temptation free. But then, as obstacles are thrown in your path and your motivation disintegrates, you realize that creating new habits and breaking the old is a daily grind. It’s grunt work and it just plain sucks.

Then you start slipping.

First it’s just a cupcake at your niece’s birthday party, (bad for your health). Then you get invited to go out to eat for your best friend’s birthday (bad for your finances and your health). Then your kid gets sick and the energy you dedicated to developing your new habits is the first to go.  Before you know it, you’ve gone 2 weeks without working toward your goals.


So you pump yourself up for yet another round of mission impossible, while the devil on your shoulder reminds you how many times you’ve tried this and failed.

 How bad habits are formed.

When there is a behavior you keep repeating and want to break, it is always easier to know why you keep repeating this behavior. If you can identify the why, it gives you power over the habit and increases your chances of beating it.

Habit expert, Charles Duhigg, says,

 “What we know from lab studies is that it’s never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure…” (1).

So, let’s delve into how bad habits are formed.

First things first, there are the obvious reasons bad habits form.

  1. Bad habits give us a source of pleasure.
  2. Bad habits are easier and more convenient than the alternative.

But there are deeper, psychological reasons as well.

1.) We make the mistake of thinking that a new decision is only a one time decision, and we fail to recognize the potential for a “one time” decision to become a habit.

Think about it.

Your bad habit had to start somewhere.

Most likely, you knew it wasn’t a great choice when you did it the first time.

Take your goal of getting out of debt for example.

Most likely, the first time you went into debt, you knew it wasn’t a great idea. You knew you’d pay for it later and that you’d have interest rates on top of the initial expense.

But in your own clever way, you justified it.

You might have even told yourself it was a one time thing.

But then, the next time an expense came along that you didn’t have the money for, it was a lot easier to go into more debt because you made that decision once already.

Stop there.

At this stage in your debt accumulation, did you think that you would be in the debt cycle you’re in today?

Of course not.

The reason being, you had your blinders on.

You didn’t see that these 2 decisions would lead to countless others just like it.

In the words of Dan Ariely, in his fantastic book, Predictably Irrational,  “You’ve already made this decision many times in the past, so you now assume that this is the way you want to spend your money.”

So, in order to take over the bad habit you want to break and to find a starting point for a new habit you want to develop, pay close attention to the very first time you make a choice.

Ariely continues to explain,

 “..We should also pay particular attention to the first decision we make in what is going to be a long stream of decisions…When we face such a decision, it might seem to us that this is just one decision, without large consequences; but in fact the power of the first decision can have such a long-lasting effect that it will percolate into our future decisions for years to come. Given this effect, the first decision is crucial, and we should give it an appropriate amount of attention.

2.) A habit is more complex than a simple behavior. It’s flanked on either side by a “cue” and a “reward.” The cue and the reward are what makes the behavior occur without thought, which is the glaring characteristic of a habit. 

Again Duhigg explains this idea in an interview on NPR,

“The habit loop is a three-part process. First, ‘there’s a cue, which is kind of a trigger for an automatic behavior to start unfolding…There’s a routine, which is the behavior itself … and then there’s a reward, which tells our brain whether we should store this habit for future use or not…The reason why these cues and rewards are so important is because over time, people begin craving the reward whenever they see the cue, and that craving makes a habit occur automatically'” (2).

So, perhaps if you can figure out how a habit is triggered and the reward your brain associates with completing the habit, you’ll be in a much more powerful position to change the habit altogether.

3.) Habits are addictive because they fulfill internal needs.

Zoë Chance, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Yale School of Management gave a TED talk where she discussed how to make a behavior addictive.

She starts off talking about how she was addicted to her pedometer. Although humorous, the illustration is effective.

She references Tony Robbins’ 6 Basic Human Needs:

1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure.

2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli.

3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed.

4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something.

5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding.

6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others.

She then explains why components of these basic needs are included in every addiction and challenges you to implement these 6 basic needs into the habit you’re trying to develop.

This concept is fascinating because it further delves into the psychological role of habits.

Habits aren’t just behaviors on auto-pilot. They are also fulfilling a need within us, otherwise we would not keep repeating the habit.

For example, let’s take the bad habit of eating out too frequently.

1. Certainty: You know that when you go to a restaurant, you’ll be satisfied. You have the certainty that if the restaurant is open, you’ll go home full tonight.

2. Variety: You know that you don’t have to go home and eat the same pot of soup you’ve been working on this week. You can choose something completely different than your palate has been tasting lately.

3. Significance: When you eat out, you can associate yourself with those that can afford to eat out. You feel significant because you appear to have money.

4. Connection: You usually don’t dine alone. Even if you do, there are other people dining in the same restaurant as you, so you feel socially connected to either your dinner date or the other diners in the restaurant.

5. Growth: (Bahaha, no pun intended here.) Yes, your belly will grow, but you also will walk away feeling as if you grew culturally. Either by trying a new food, or continuing to keep a relationship with the culture you already ascribe to.

6. Contribution: You feel as if you’re contributing to the company, the restaurant, your community and the economy when you spend money at a restaurant. It’s a normal part of a first world lifestyle.

Now, going out to eat too much is a bad habit, and the 6 basic needs illustrate why you can’t seem to shake the habit. You can use this information as power over you bad habit.

Now, take it a step further and use these 6 needs to make a desired habit more addictive. Ready? Set. GO!

So, now that you’ve heard from 3 different experts on the origin and structure of habits, which do you think gives you the most insight into your own habits? Which aspect do you think gives you the most power over your bad habits?

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12 Comments on "Bad Habits Die Hard (But You Can Break Them)"

Leslie Beslie
Leslie Beslie

I wouldn’t say there are good or bad habits at all, just habits. The habit of buying a coffee every morning isn’t necessarily bad in itself. It may become a poor choice if you cannot afford to spend the $56/month on it. And you don’t necessarily want to stop the “bad habit” of buying coffee. You want to actually change your habit of spending money unconsciously.

Jacob Lumby
Jacob Lumby

There must be a line somewhere. Racking up consumer debt and paying the minimum monthly credit card bill is financially “bad.” Smoking 2 packs a day is “bad” because there is ample research linking the habit to lower quality of life and decreased life expectancy. Eating fast food for lunch ever day is “bad” for similar reasons listed above.

Myles Money
Myles Money
Tim Ferriss talks about this (in a roundabout way) in The Four Hour Body: the idea that if things are difficult then you’re much less likely to succeed, so you have to make the “right choice” the easiest. In dieting, that is a set of simple rules (no white carbs, lots of protein & veg), a bonus (the “cheat day”) and the idea that you can eat as much as you want (so you’ll never feel hungry) whilst still shedding the pounds. And it works: you don’t feel tempted to break the rules because it’s actually harder to do the… Read more »
Natalie @ Financegirl
Natalie @ Financegirl

I make sure to implement good, success habits so when I’m on autopilot I’m doing things that improve my life. A big reason I say “no” to myself on any given day is because I know that if I say “yes” today, I’m twice as likely to say “yes” again tomorrow.


Since we can’t avoid habits, the key – in my experience – is to first recognize the habit and then look for ways to turn it in a more positive direction (if its negative) and to maintain if it is already positive in nature. A great topic.

Lance @ Healthy Wealthy Income
Lance @ Healthy Wealthy Income

My problem is justifying delays and saying “well I can do it tomorrow.” Then I just keep moving it on the calendar each day and another day and then I’m behind schedule. It’s interesting how I am a rock on a few things, but a few things at work just annoy me and I hate to do them and push it off as long as possible.

Dee @ Color Me Frugal
Dee @ Color Me Frugal

I’ve always heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit. So whenever I am trying to do something, like get back into working out regularly, I try to keep myself going for at least three weeks- and after that I usually do find that it gets easier! Unfortunately the opposite is also true- if my bad habits have been going on for three weeks or more it’s harder to break.


Hmm, I had 2 cupcakes today and took an employee to lunch. The cupcakes weren’t even worth it. I clearly need to keep working on this.

de la
de la

It’s amazing how many times we consume empty carbs and regret it afterward. If you limit your carbs (don’t cut them out entirely) but save them for really special treats, like something from a high-end bakery instead of junk from the vending machine or the grocery-store cupcakes someone brought in for someone’s birthday, you’ll have much better taste, be able to say no more easily, and still feel like you treat yourself on occasion. Try it sometime!

Tonya@Budget and the Beach
[email protected] and the Beach

I find the subject of habits very interesting, but because they can be good AND bad. I always think if I’m going to quit a bad habit, I need to replace it with a good habit. I got into a good “habit” of practicing ukulele just about daily. At first there was little reward, so I just had to push through and create that inertia…now I get the “payoff” of being able to play songs. Sometimes you have to push through those early days to create that habit, even though those days may sometimes suck. 🙂


My bad habits are definitely formed from pleasure and instant gratification. I’m actually trying to break one bad habit right now. Like Mrs. Frugalwoods suggested I’m trying to replace the bad habit with a more positive one.

It doesn’t seem to be easing the pain so far lol. But I’ll keep plugging away for a couple more weeks and hopefully the new habit will become automatic.

Mrs. Frugalwoods
Mrs. Frugalwoods

Very interesting! I can definitely track the six basic needs to bad habits I’ve had. It makes sense that bad (or good) behavior would stem from our most elementary desires. For me, substitution is the most effective way to combat bad habits. Yesterday afternoon, I had an apple instead of a muffin–I needed to eat something, but I could make the decision of what to eat.