How Your Biology Is Reinforcing Your Bad Habits
Whether it’s junk food, junk TV, smoking, gambling, or anything else that has worked its way into our daily habits, there’s no denying that quitting a bad habit is hard.
Today we’re going to look at why that is, and how our own biology can make ditching bad habits harder than it should be!
If you’ve been trying and failing at putting a stop to your bad habits, then read on…
It’s a trap!
What is it that makes pleasurable activities feel so good?
It’s largely due to a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is an incredibly powerful chemical released by our brains when we complete pleasurable activities such as accomplishing a task, completing a goal, eating tasty food, or having sex.
It's our body's reward system, making us feel good, giving us a sense of accomplishment and reinforcing behaviours that trigger its release.
This is thought to have played a major role in the survival of prehistoric humans by motivating them to procreate, eat nutritious foods and generally stay alive and well.
Some scientists believe it may have been the evolutionary advantage we needed to triumph over our prehistoric competitors.
The problem is, our brains aren’t that different from those of our ancestors, and dopamine triggers are everywhere these days!
Social media, junk food, sugary drinks, porn, and video games all cause our brains to release dopamine, in huge amounts. Since our brains don’t know the difference between good or bad habits, (it just wants that dopamine release!) these negative behaviour patterns end up getting reinforced biologically!
This makes it harder for us to find the motivation to complete activities that will benefit us in the future because our brain knows it can get a dopamine fix straight away by doing something that requires very little effort.
In other words, we are often tricked by our own biology to complete the tasks that will give us a release of dopamine with the least amount of effort possible.
So, what is the solution?
What if I gave you the choice between £1 million in your bank account right now or 1 penny that will double in value every day for a month?
£1 million sounds like a lot compared to a penny, so you’d be forgiven for choosing the first option. But when you think a little harder, you’ll realise that when the penny doubles in value for just 31 days, you’ll end up with a whopping £10,737,418.24!
When you put it like that it seems like a no brainer, but this simple thought experiment is designed to illustrate the concept of instant gratification vs delayed gratification, and you’ll be surprised how often people choose the former.
Here’s another way to think about it that is a little more relatable.
Imagine you’ve got a big beach holiday planned next summer, it’s your first time away in a couple of years and you want to shed some of that belly fat that somehow accumulated during the lockdown.
You know you need to ditch the junk food and hit the gym, but the rewards are so far away… And that packet of biscuits is so close.
Those biscuits are the instant gratification.
You know they will taste good. So good in fact, that you accidentally finish the whole pack! All that excess sugar that is now coursing through your body has caused a release of dopamine, and you feel satisfied… For now.
According to your subconscious brain, you just completed a worthwhile task.
Your conscious brain, however, knows different.
It’s your conscious brain that is giving you that guilty feeling. Yes, you ate all the biscuits, but now you’re one step further away from reaching your goal of shedding those pounds in time for your summer holidays. No matter how good they tasted, they will never make you feel as satisfied as completing your skipped gym session would have.
And therein lies the rub.
Your subconscious brain craves dopamine, and your conscious brain knows the quickest and easiest ways to release it.
I wish I could tell you to “try this one simple brain hack!” to make all your temptations disappear. But life is rarely so kind to us and I’m afraid there is only one solution to this gratification dilemma.
It’s not a particularly attractive sentiment to many. It can bring about connotations of strictness, boredom, and rigidity. But as counterintuitive as it sounds, the more disciplined you are, the freer you are!
Self-discipline allows you to stop being pushed and pulled by your bad habits. Learn to master the art of delayed gratification and no longer will that packet of biscuits seem to shout, wave and beg for your attention.
We all know what we must (and must not) do to reach our goals, self-discipline is simply the act of listening to that internal voice!
There is no great secret to this, but there are some things you can do to help you get started:
#1 Remove as much temptation as possible!
This will depend on what habit you are trying to quit, but the principle will remain the same for all. To stick with our current example, if you don’t want to be tempted by the biscuits, then don’t buy them! Junk food is so much harder to resist when you know it’s hiding in your cupboard, waiting to be eaten. Next time you go shopping, write a (healthy) shopping list, and stick to it!
#2 “Motivation gets you going, but discipline keeps you growing.” - John C. Maxwell
Motivation is a great tool to get you started. Without it, you could argue we would never start anything at all. But what most people don’t realise, is that motivation is a finite resource. It will run out, no matter who you are. Self-discipline picks up where motivation leaves off and will keep you on track when your feet start to wonder.
My favourite description of self-discipline is from the writer Elbert Hubbard:
“Self-discipline is the ability to make yourself do what you should do, when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not.”
#3 Don’t try to quit too much at once!
Pick your battles. You may have a few bad habits you want to ditch, but trying to stop them all at once is a recipe for disaster! Pick one thing you want to work on, focus on that, and when you’re ready, (you’ll know when), move on to the next area you want to improve. Little steps taken consistently every day can add up to big changes over the course of a year.
#4 Make sure you have a goal!
Without a vision or endpoint in mind, you won’t have a clear direction to head in. This is disastrous when you want to ditch a bad habit, because you are lacking a good reason. And just to clarify, quitting something because you know it is bad for you is not a good enough reason!
Think big, be specific, set a date, and get to work!
The Top Tip
I hope this blog has given you a better idea of the journey quitting a bad habit (or starting a good one) will take you on. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is.
If there is an ultimate top tip to give, I would say it’s this:
Don’t give up, no matter how many times you fail. If you want to make a change in your life, you are the only one who can do it, you just need to keep trying!