Why are bad habits so easy?

Why are bad habits so easy to acquire and good habits so hard to acquire? That’s what’s been on my mind the last few days.

I work at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). We have a commitment to work on sustainable development projects and one task we’ve been working on is decreasing our internal paper consumption.

I’m a writer, so almost by necessity (and certainly by proclivity) I am a “Paper Beast”. I always have pads of paper (large and small), daytimers, journals and stickies (where would we be without them???), well, everywhere. At home, at work, in drawers, in bags, in purses, on desks–everywhere.

Since Earth Day is coming up on April 22 and we’re promoting it, I challenged myself to go without paper FOR AN ENTIRE WEEK!!

That week has just come to an end and I can tell you IT WAS HARD. Every five minutes I was turning around to grab a piece of paper and a pen to jot a note down before I forgot it. And how did I go to meetings without anything to take notes?!

I managed. Somehow. I truly didn’t think it would be that hard, but, honestly, it was torture! But I learned a few things:

  1. I CAN go without paper.
  2. I don’t LIKE to go without paper.
  3. Not relying on paper made me rely on my memory more. Argh.
  4. Not relying on paper made me get creative. Like putting the timer on in Outlook to remind myself to do something, instead of writing it on a stickie. Or sending myself home an email to remember to bring something to work. Or using OneNote to make daily task lists.
  5. When I don’t use paper, and thus don’t have piles of paper around, my desk is neater.

The biggest lesson learned, however, was to simply be more aware. I love writing in special journals with pretty pens, so I’m not going to give that up. It makes me happy. But this week’s exercise made me aware of every piece of paper I could have potentially used. It showed me that I can, if I want, choose differently.

Ah, there’s that word again “differently”. Doing things differently is on my radar this year to make changes and it’s part of the reason I took this challenge on. Not because I knew I was going to suddenly change my ways and never use paper again, but that, when I do use paper, I will be more aware of it and SOMETIMES choose a different option.

The end of my successful paperless week over, I’m left with that question still churning in my mind: “Why are bad habits so easy to acquire and good habits so hard to acquire?” Working at the CRA is a perfect example of each.

Good habit hard to acquire: If I were going to go permanently paperless, I know it would be a long hard climb for me.

Bad habit easy to acquire: I’ve only worked for the CRA for two months and already I’m in the stubborn bad habit of jones-ing for one of those gluten free peanut butter Rice Krispie bars with dark chocolate they sell in the cafeteria around 3:00pm each day.

If you’ve ever wondered why latching onto bad habits is so easy (and letting go of them so hard), you’ll be happy to learn that it’s not your fault. Researchers say that bad habits give you instant rewards (e.g. chocolate!), while good habits provide you with, well, not much! A sense of accomplishment when you finally maintain it (e.g. quitting smoking. You know it’s good for your body, but the reward comes from not dying of lung cancer eventually).

The end result is awesome, but human beings have a hard time with the-thing-that-takes-a-long-time-with-no-immediate-gratification. The positive habits have the greatest rewards long term, but suck at the short-term fix. That’s where bad habits excel! And that’s why changing your life is so darn hard!

Experts say that the first step to changing a bad habit is acknowledging it exists in the first place. It’s being aware, just like I experienced every time I picked up a pen this week.

To eradicate it, so say the experts, you then need to draw your attention to it. That was easy to do for me as I tried to go paperless. It was very obvious every time I physically turned to grab a pen.

The next step to change a habit is to interrupt the bad habit with a positive behavior. In my case, choosing ANY other option but paper.

Other examples might be to go for a walk every time you crave that cigarette or making tea every time you think of making yourself a cup of coffee.

To sum it up, awareness is the the first giant leap to change. The rest is just:

  1. Keep at it.
  2. Know it’s going to be painful, but the long-term gain will be worth it.
  3. Repeat.

Here’s an infograph to illustrate the process of change:

bad habits.png

The good news is, it WILL eventually stick because all this time you’ve been rewiring your brain. I expect by this time next year, my brain will be fully rewired!



If you’re interested in more information on change, check out Brian Tracy, who’s done work on the subject for years:

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