Why is forming new habits such a difficult task? The short answer to this question is that developing a new habit is something that is not currently in your brain’s “familiar programming”. As a result, your mind subconsciously rejects it.
The long answer:
Your brain rejects the unfamiliar
By the time we enter adulthood, we basically run on subconscious programming – thoughts and patterns – we’ve learned for many years. Our brains have been trained that when X stimulus is presented, Y response is needed – except in the case of A, B, and C.
With this sort of subconscious programming running in our minds at all times, whenever something new – that challenges the old program – is introduced, your brain rejects it because “It is not how we are supposed to respond.”
Here’s an example:
Ever since Mary was a little girl, she’s always seen adults go to work, come home, eat and watch tv, go to bed, then repeat the same process every day. Mary is now at a stage in her life where she does not feel fulfilled following this routine so she decides to start reading a book after work instead of watching tv.
For the first week or so, she is motivated but after about 2 weeks, Mary finds herself watching tv after work again. Back to the same old habit.
She knows that reading will help her to feel more fulfilled and contribute to her overall personal development. But it’s “too much work”. Her brain is not used to this kind of action after work so she slowly, subconsciously, makes excuses.
“I’ll do it later” turns into ”I’ll do it tomorrow”, then turns into “I’ll start again next week”, until finally “Whatever. I can’t be bothered”.
We like instant gratification
We’d like to think that we are very complex creatures as human beings but in reality, we can be quite simple at times. We like to feel good and we want to feel good now.
So when we pick up a new habit, if it doesn’t make us feel good right away – even though it will be highly beneficial to us long term – we lose motivation to keep practicing the new habit.
Here’s an example:
Tom is trying to lose weight. He doesn’t have a lot of time to exercise so he decides that he will simply do 100 jumping jacks and 20 push-ups every morning before he takes a shower.
He knows this will only take him 5 minutes at most and so he embarks on his journey to lose weight and get fit. Tom also knows that he will have to replace coffee with green tea and replace burgers with chia puddings.
For the first few days, he’s super excited. He feels so proud of himself. He’s finally started living a little healthier. He weighs himself at the end of week one and sees that he lost 3 whole pounds! He is overcome with joy and he wants to continue on his journey. So he keeps pushing on.
However, by the time Tom gets to week two something happens. He continues doing the same things he did in week one but when he weighs himself at the end of week two, Tom lost zero pounds.
This does not offer any sense of gratification. He feels sad and as week three begins, he only does 10 push-ups and 50 jumping jacks. He decides to grab one burger this week instead of his chia pudding and when he weighs himself, he sees that he has gained a pound.
This does not feel good in the least bit. In fact, it makes Tom feel riddled with guilt. Tom’s brain subconsciously reminds him of the things that WOULD make him feel good.
Instead of doing his 5-minute workout on week four, Tom takes a long shower. And slowly, Tom finds himself returning to his old habits.
The brain protects us from things we fear may hurt us
A lot of the time, our fears aren’t obvious to us. Fears such as fear of failure or fear of rejection are quite common and oftentimes the underlying reason we are unable to stick to a new habit. However, it’s not always clear that such is the case.
The subconscious rationale is that if we fail or get rejected, we will feel sadness. Sadness is not a “good” feeling. Sadness “hurts”. Sadness triggers stress hormones. Your brain wants to protect you from that so it starts creating “logical” reasons why you should just forget about it.
Here’s an example:
This one is from personal experience and it is something I am currently working on.
Lis wants to help others. She’s been through a lot and has overcome so much and she believes that her story can help so many others do the same, but she needs to reach an audience. She knows that in order for her to help others she has to reach the people going through the things she has gone through.
She has to network and actively interact with others. She’s very introverted and does not like to put herself out there much but decides to actively make new friends and connect with people. She starts interacting with others and building a network. She feels proud of herself and decides to take it one step further by creating a Youtube channel.
Subconsciously, she starts doubting herself. “What if I give bad advice?” “What if I ruin someone’s life?” This is something that terrifies her. So Lis slowly starts interacting with people less and less. She starts making fewer and fewer videos until she just stops.
She privates her Youtube videos because she doesn’t want to ruin anyone’s life. The habit of putting herself out there and interacting with others slowly becomes a thing of the past. Her brain has “successfully protected her from failing or being rejected”.
Finally, we are trying to be perfect
Oftentimes, we give up on mastering a new habit because we are trying to be perfect. So when we don’t see the exact perfect result we are looking for, we begin to think it’s not worth the effort.
I believe the sooner we can identify these weaknesses in our personalities, the sooner we can start developing self-discipline. We have to understand that self-discipline will not always result in instant gratification.
Above all, we have to learn to experience the journey and not focus solely on the end goal. See the end goal as a guide to where you’re going but live for the journey. Understand that we are not perfect so we will falter along the way. But as long as we get back up and keep pushing, we are still winners.
Developing and sticking to a new habit takes time and practice, but it can be done successfully if we accept that we should never strive for perfection. We should instead strive for excellence.
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