Having habits is often a great and effective way to manage routine things. They can save us time, energy, and effort. But more often than not, habits can also prevent us from achieving what we want out of life, and out of ourselves. They can make us turn to food when stressed or sad, avoid getting in shape when it gets hard, and become an excuse for not doing the thing that would make our life much better. 

Some of the top bad habits many of us fall victim to include eating something bad for us, excessive drinking, using distractions like social media, and physical inactivity. They are borne out of a triad of the following parts:

Cue —> Routine —> Reward

Cue

A cue is simply the thing that triggers your response without you thinking about it. If you love chocolate, the cue for you might be a sad event, or a time of day, or driving home from work. 

Routine

The routine is, obviously, the habit itself. It’s eating the chocolate, or drinking alcohol, or scrolling through social media, when triggered by whatever cue that just occurred. 

Reward

This is where it gets fascinating, however. When we engage in bad habits, most of the time these behaviours trigger a euphoric feeling, which is a result of a Dopamine release in our brain. Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical that is made in the brain and if you don’t have enough of it, low levels are associated with depression. So dopamine is an important hormone and when released in large amounts, it creates feeling of pleasure and reward, which motivates you to repeat a specific behaviour. 

Hard to Break

Dopamine, being a neurotransmitter, is destroyed moments after being released and, as a result, if you want to “feel good” again, you reach out for another hit. As dopamine is released over and over again, this leads to changes in both the connections between neurons as well as the actual systems responsible for your actions, which is why we start to form bad habits in the first place. And as these connections, or neural networks, get stronger, and we want more dopamine, the bad habit becomes difficult to break. 

Change

There is a lot of information out there on how to break a bad habit. Some of the most common ones include:

  • know your triggers
  • Get a friend to help
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Visualize
  • Replace the bad habit with a good one
  • Ask yourself why you do this in the first place

This is obviously not an exhaustive list. And it’s very logical and makes sense, doesn’t it? So why doesn’t this work?

The one single, most important reason why these don’t work on their own is:

Dopamine!

The key to breaking a bad habit is not in knowing that you need to break it and having lots of logical reasons to do so. The key lies in linking more dopamine to something else. By linking more dopamine to another activity that you want to engage in that is good for you, and can replace the bad one, and creating an anchor that results in the good habit being done and lots more dopamine being released, you will quickly and happily move away from the bad and into the fabulous. So how do we do this exactly?