4 Reasons It's So Hard to Build Good Habits

Goals are the results and outcomes you want to achieve. They are the direction you want to head in, at least for the time being. But systems are what create the desired results and outcomes. Your daily habits make up your system. What you do day in and day out compounds over time to determine your level of success, mastery and contentment.

Do you know how to build a habit?
Are you struggling to make a good habit stick?
Have you set yourself up for success or for self-sabotage?

This is Episode 48. 4 Reasons It’s So Hard to Build Good Habits

Welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.

Goals are the results and outcomes you want to achieve. They are the direction you want to head in, at least for the time being. But systems are what create the desired results and outcomes.

As James Clear writes in his book Atomic Habits, ”You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

Your daily habits make up your system. What you do day in and day out compounds over time to determine your level of success, mastery and contentment.

Atomic Habits is a great book to read on habits. I highly recommend it. My favorite book though, on this topic, is “Tiny Habits,” by professor BJ Fogg.

I will refer to both books to explain how habits are formed and why good ones are so hard to build.
Let’s start with the basics.

What is a Habit?

A habit is an automatic, repeated behavior that requires little effort or conscious thought. You start with a deliberate decision that turns into autopilot when the action is consistently met with a reward.

How Does the Brain Control Our Habits?

The human brain is made up of several parts:

The Prefrontal Cortex is the logical, thinking part of brain. The upper part is responsible for thinking about thoughts and the lower part is responsible for processing emotions.

The Limbic System is the emotional part of our brain. It includes the hypothalamus, which plays a major role in regulating hormones, body temperature, and other vital activities. It also includes the amygdala, which conditions your response to a threat or perceived threat, and the hippocampus, which shapes short-term and long-term memories.

The Autonomic Nervous system is the feeling part of the brain. It activates physical sensations in response to a sensory input.

There’s the sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight or freeze mode. You get faster breathing, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and muscle tension when you’re scared.

There’s the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the rest and digest mode. When you activate it, you deepen your breathing, lower your heart rate and blood pressure and reduce muscle tension.

The Habit system is the habit-forming part of the brain. It predicts, creates and executes habits. It includes the basal ganglia and dorsal striatum, which control good habits and bad habits.

The brain is also influenced by neurochemicals, like:

Dopamine – which is for habit impulse control, motivation, and alertness
Serotonin – which is for regulating mood, willpower and sense of control
Norepinephrine – which is for focus, attention, and stress management
Oxytocin – which is for feeling trust and human connection
Endorphins – which are for pain relief and a feeling of well-being

The primary mode of the brain is to feel. This primal part is fast and reactive. The secondary mode of the brain is to think. This developed part is slow and deliberate. Emotional filters often get in the way of evaluating data, detecting bias, and making logical decisions.

How Do Habits Form?

Every habit begins with a neurological loop. In stages 1 and 2, you have problems: the cue and the craving. In stages 3 and 4, you have the solutions: the response and the reward.

The cue triggers the brain to notice an opportunity for a reward. It could be an activity or event, the time of day, the location, the people around you, or a scent or sound that triggers the desire.

The craving is the emotion that comes with a certain cue. You want to feel the joy, excitement, or comfort that results from the change. The craving prompts you to act in a certain way.

The response is the routine or the actual behavior. This is the habit you do to get the change you crave.
The reward is the satisfaction that results from the behavior. You satisfied your craving and got the change you desired.

The brain makes neuropathways to link the cue to the reward. You repeat the behavior because you want to receive the reward again. The reward reinforces the behavior. Each time you have the same cue, the brain will be triggered to crave the reward again. You will do the same behavior, which forms a habit.

In the beginning, before a habit is formed, the brain evaluates different options. As the cue becomes routine, the brain will get nudged to choose certain actions that have been rewarded.

A good habit creates an upward spiral that keeps you aligned with our purpose and moving in the right direction. A bad habit leads to a downward spiral that does not serve you or your long-term goals.

What Drives Behavior?

Professor Fogg says what drives behavior comes down to this formula:

B= MAP. M is Motivation, the desire to do the behavior, A is Ability which means that you can do the behavior. P is the Prompt, which is a reminder to do the behavior now. These three things co-exist to drive the behavior.

If the thing is hard to do, you will need high motivation and high ability to take action. If the thing is easy to do, you can still take action with low motivation and low ability. Prompts work only if you have the right level of motivation and ability to do the behavior.

So Why are Good Habits so Hard to Build?

There are four reasons, and they have to do with the 4 rules of atomic habit formation.

Reason 1: The cue is not obvious. The cue to take the action step is not specific. The trigger to do the behavior is not visible. If you don’t know when and where to do the behavior, you’ll quickly forget about it.

If you’re not aware of your current habits, you can’t improve them or change them.

Your environment is also a factor. Even if your motivation is high, it’s hard to sustain the habit when there are no prompts or visible prompts. If your guitar is stored away in a closet, you will practice it less frequently than if you kept it on a guitar stand in the middle of your living room.

Reason 2: The craving is not strong. A desire to change your internal state prompts you to take action. You’re less likely to do the behavior if it doesn’t activate feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine.

Dopamine is released not just when you experience pleasure, but also when you expect it. The anticipation of the reward, not the fulfillment of it, drives the behavior.

Also, if your desired habit is not normal behavior in your culture, group, or tribe, you will be overpowered by the desire to fit in. Human beings have an innate need to be part of a community. When the habit doesn’t give you approval, praise or a sense of belonging, it’s less attractive to do.

Reason 3: The response (or the action step) is not easy. You have too much friction between you and the desired behavior You’re not dealing with decisive moments that create big impact. Each time you decide to scroll through social media instead of do your deep work, you move toward having an unproductive day instead of a productive one.

You’re trying to optimize before you standardize. To establish a new habit, you have to practice and repeat it, not just think about it. You have to take action, not just be in motion. There’s a difference between outlining an article and actually writing it.

The Goldilocks Rule says you perform best when the challenge is just manageable. The new habit has to be just right; not too easy, and not too hard.

When you’re building a new habit, you step out of your comfort zone. But going too far out of it can demotivate you and derail your efforts. Start with incremental steps to gradually expand your comfort zone. As you make progress, you keep moving up to the next challenge.

The sweet spot is where the challenge is 4% greater than your skill level. Not a whole lot, but outside your comfort zone.

In the real world, you can’t really quantify what’s 4% beyond your current ability. But the core idea still matters. If a habit feels too hard to build, it probably is. Start with an easier habit and, once you establish it, set a more challenging habit.

Begin with a run around the block. Then build up to running for 10 minutes. And with consistent and deliberate practice, you might become fit enough to compete in the next half marathon.

Reason 4: The reward is not satisfying. If the behavior doesn’t give you a sense of satisfaction, you won’t care to repeat it. The human brain is wired to want immediate rewards not delayed gratification. With good habits, the immediate outcome usually feels bad while the long-term results are what feels good. It’s the opposite for bad habits.

It’s harder to consider future gains than present rewards. By nature, we prefer to live in an immediate-return environment, not a delayed-return environment. We gravitate toward immediate, certain rewards than potential returns in the future. But sometimes the best, healthiest and most productive habits come only with long-term gains, not instant gratification.

There you have it. Now you know why it’s so hard to build good habits. In the next episode, I’ll cover a simple way to make your habits stick.

Habits, Routines and Rituals are discussed in the first chapter of my book, The Incrementalist.

To learn more about the Incrementalist productivity system, check out the book at leanpub.com/incrementalist. It’s now on sale for $4.99 up to January 31. After that, it will go back to the regular price of $9.99.

For updates on how to create big results in just manageable steps, sign up for my enewsletter at dyanwilliams.com.

If you have questions or feedback, drop them in the comments section of the YouTube channel or send me an email at dyan@dyanwilliams.com. If you found value in this episode, hit the like and share buttons, which helps others find the show. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss new episodes. Thank you for joining me and tune in again to The Incrementalist.

Join our newsletter

Sign up to get updates on blog posts, online courses, bonus tips and exclusive access to Empower Toolkit

checkmark Got it. You're on the list!
© 2021 Dyan Williams