Psychology of bad habits


Nicola Arnold

Humans are creatures of habits, regardless of whether or not they are good or bad habits. Several studies have shown that our brains are wired to pay close attention to the things or activities we find pleasing to us and which brings some sense of satisfaction every time we repeat them.

This is one of the factors which makes habits difficult to change because the brain is wired is such a way that it will resist all attempts to deprive it of the pleasures you will miss when you do away with a habit. But how exactly, does one find themselves slaves to habits they wish to kick and are unable to do away with? For example, setting a budget might be easy but sticking to it can be incredibly hard. Often spending habits are difficult to modify or break and can lead to online loans if left unchecked as you experience cashflow emergencies.

How bad habits are formed

To understand the psychology of bad habits, how they are formed, why they are difficult to break and how one can ultimately break them, it is vital to visit the place where it all begins and where the engraining of habits and behavior takes place - The brain. The formation of habits comes from learning new things - completely different phenomena from what the brain has been used to in the past.

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Habit formation engages a part of the brain known as basal ganglia (the part of the brain located in the prefrontal cortex and whose function is to start and regulate emotions and movement). Once this part of the brain is engaged, what follows is a three-step process known as the "Habit Loop", and it entails the following:

  • The trigger or cue. This is the signal which tells the brain to convert a particular behavior into a routine.
  • The routine. This is when you find yourself undertaking a habit, it comes naturally once triggered and because of the rewards you get from it, it becomes difficult to even think about shaking it off.
  • The reward. This refers to the satisfaction you get after doing the habit is formed. It brings some form of pleasure to your brain, and though sometimes the habit may be a bad one, the pleasure enjoyed by your basal ganglia will be strong enough to overshadow the thoughts of the habit being a bad one.

When the loop is completed, the brain will then take a break and reduce its activity. With time, a mapped formula gets developed in the brain, and this will kick off automatically when the cue is encountered again. Sometimes you don't even have to think about why or how you are doing the particular habit once the habit is engrained in the brain. It is as if the thoughtful intention mind is completely derailed, and every time the trigger is encountered, the brain will automatically fall into the habitual behaviour.

Why it is difficult to break bad habits

One of the reasons why millions find it difficult to break a bad a habit is because they are never aware when they are actually engaging in a trait that can be described as a bad habit. This owes to the fact that the purpose of any habit is comfort and no one ever wants to run away once a particular line of comfort is established. Given the brain is wired to settle in routines, the more you do the habit, the more it gets attached to the brain, the more comfort and satisfaction you derive from it and the more difficult it becomes hard to break.

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How to break bad habits

The process of replacing or changing bad habits may require time and sometimes professional assistance, but the conscious realisation of the basic principles of the formation of a habit is the first step towards the process. Here is a brief look into how you can break a bad habit and replace it with a good one:

The journey of changing a habit begins with the realisation that you indeed have a bad habit worth changing, then making the conscious decision to change it. It is imperative to accept the presence of the habit and make a determination in your mind that you are going to commit towards breaking or replacing it. This sense of honesty to self will give you the drive you need to push through, even during times when you think like giving up and falling back to your old habits.

Now that you have in mind the specific habit you desire to change, the next step is to identify the stages you go through prior to falling for the habit. This brings you back to the "Habit Loop", where you identify the triggers, the routine and finally the rewards you get from the habit. Determine the specific factors that normally lead you to do the habits, including the surrounding as well as the time of the day when you find yourself falling for the habit. A clear understanding of how you fall into the habit will be vital since these are some of the things you will have to change, or, simply break the flow for you to interrupt the habit.

At this stage, you have made the decision to change the bad habit and you also have a clear understanding of how the habit forms. The next step is now to think about the best alternatives you can use to replace the habits. A bad habit is removed by replacing with a good one, and in the absence of an alternative habit, you may never be able to break whatever bad habit you may have. Come up with a list of options of habits you could swap with the ones you are trying to eliminate. For instance, if you are trying to end box set binging, think about reading a book or a magazine when you feel the urge to binge or simply get away from where your television set is so that you are not tempted to turn it on.

It has taken you months, maybe years, to form the bad habits and you will be very ambitious to think that you can shed them off in an instant. You have to understand that it is going to take time and this is where setting realistic goals comes in. Start by targeting to reduce the intensity of habit by a certain amount then increasing the frequency as you move forward. For instance, if you have a habit of getting late to work by 30 minutes, aim to reduce this time to about 20 minutes or 15 minutes. This is powerful because each time you make it to work at your desired time, it will be an achievement which will be registered in your brain and this will encourage you get improving each day.

Even with the goals in place, there are certain times you will not follow through. This is normal because you are trying to get your mind, body and soul work on something completely new. The way to deal with it so that it doesn't derail your progress is to have in mind that disappointments will come, but you will have to continue pressing on. It is also a good idea to anticipate the kinds of roadblocks you may run into when trying to change your habit and know how to deal with them beforehand. This calls for considering the potential pitfalls in the habit loop then making the entire process watertight. For instance, if you are trying to change your diet, think about possible challenges such as weekend parties or fancy business dinners which may potentially expose you to the kinds of foods you are trying to avoid.

If you want to completely break a bad habit, you must be able to evaluate the kind of progress you are making and this should be in alignment with the goals you had set. It would be a good idea to keep a diary or a journal to track your journey and see if you are making the kind of progress you desire. For example, if you were working on exercise and weight control, you can take advantage of various online apps to help you track your diet, and the number of pounds you are shedding. If you are working on improving on your time management, you can also use an app to help you track the times you get to meetings or social gatherings so that you get a clear picture of just how you are faring on with the journey. If you are making positive steps and you are able to track the progress, your levels of motivation will go up, your brain will give you satisfaction from the progress and you will want to continue with the newly formed habits, finally replacing the bad ones.

Get support

There are certain times when you may not realize great success in your attempts to change a habit and at such times, getting external support would be highly recommended. This is one of the ways you can use to build inner resilience, and have the realisation that you are not on the journey alone. You can always reach out to friends, teachers, mentors or family members to help you out in replacing the bad habits you desire to do away with. There are also formalised support programs which can be helpful, depending on what habits you want to break. For example, those who want to quit drinking or lose weight can use charity programs set up to provide independent support and advice.

Common pitfalls

While you make your journey of understanding the psychology of bad habits and how to break them, it is also important to know some of the pitfalls you may run into, and which might curtail your success in replacing the bad habits.

Here is a list of the some of the commonly known pitfalls you should be aware so that you are well prepared to deal with them should you encounter them:

  • Lack of constant practice
  • Resistance to change
  • No desire to push through with the habit change
  • Denial of the presence of the negatives effects brought by the bad habit
  • No plan in eliminating the bad habit
  • Resistance to change
  • Failure to understand the triggers of the bad habit
  • Lack of support


Changing a habit, especially one that has been in place for years, is not going to be a walk in the park, but with the right attitude, strategy, determination and support, no habit is too difficult to change or replace.

What are your thoughts about bad habits? Is one person's bad habit another's good habit? Hopefully this guide has sparked some lively interest in the topic of habits. Should you have some interest in our loans then head to our payday loans page.