There’s been a popular myth in the self-improvement field: “If you work on a habit for long enough, eventually it will become automatic and you never have to worry about again.” Another variation is “Stop a bad habit for long enough and you won’t have to deal with it again in the future.”
The assumption is that once the habit is automated it will be like that for life, without having to put any more effort in to maintain it.
I believed in that myth for years, in fact, I built my coaching business around it — help others to build better life habits.
But if you have done any work on habit building you know that assumption it’s not true. Whether it’s smoking, eating unhealthy food, drugs, alcohol — if you quit sooner or later the bad habit comes back. Maybe it’s after a traumatic event like losing a loved one, or it’s after a long trip where you change your environment for a while, but eventually, it always comes back.
So if the bad habit always comes back, why even bother working on habits at all? What’s the point?
Well, habit building has its place. If you put some effort in and purposefully stop a bad behavior for 30 or so days, it does get easier to keep going. The trouble comes if we stop there and believe the problem is solved. If we do that, we’ve missed a critical piece about why bad habits always come back: the underlying need that the habit was fulfilling.
Why Do Bad Habits Usually Come Back?
Bad habits can start for lots of reasons. Most often, it’s because of the environment around us. But after we realize it’s not a healthy behavior we can decide to quit.
And then we do.
And then it comes back. Why?
Virtually all bad habits come back for the same reason — we have an underlying need that is not filled in a healthy way. For example, we don’t have a healthy social life and we feel bored. We have an underlying need for excitement and variety that isn’t being filled in a healthy way.
As a result, we develop bad habits like eating junky food, binge watching TV shows, or browsing YouTube excessively. We develop all these bad habits to mask the boredom and temporarily fill the underlying need for excitement and variety.
The need is not something on an intellectual level, we already know the habit is harmful. The need is on the emotional level.
Most solutions for changing habits these days focus on the intellectual and habit levels, not on the need level. So if we need to fix our internet addiction, we’re told to install Freedom.to and limit our internet access only to certain hours. Or go on a healthy food retreat for a few weeks and change our eating habits. Sure, that will help us stop the bad habits for a while, but it doesn’t change the fact that the underlying need is still not fulfilled.
Sooner or later, when the pain from the unfilled need is bad enough, the negative behavior will come back, or we’ll simply replace it with another one. That’s why when smokers stop smoking they start binge eating instead.
We can abandon habits, but we can’t abandon needs.
Needs vs. Habits
Our needs are hard-wired, and unlike habits, we can’t choose to “quit”. We can’t decide that we don’t need human affection anymore and be fulfilled sitting at our computer all day. We can’t decide that we don’t want to grow anymore and we’ll be happy where we’re at. Growth is hard-wired into us.
In fact, if you look at any bad habit in your life that you can’t seem to break for good, you will always find an underlying need that needs fulfilling.
So instead of looking only at how to break a bad habit, let’s look at how to fill an underlying need in a healthy way.
Fulfill The Underlying Need
Say you want to stop binge eating fast food. What does fast food give you? Pleasure? Excitement? A way to connect with other people around you? A way to disconnect from the stress? What needs will be unsatisfied if you suddenly stopped eating fast food?
If you recognize some of those underlying needs, what are some healthy ways to fulfill them? Would it be socializing more? Changing your job for a less stressful one?
What if you want to wake up early but you can’t seem to make the habit stick? What if you always slept through half the day and ended up wasting your time on the internet until late at night?
What needs are getting filled by staying in bed for hours in the morning? Are you afraid to face the stress of the day and sleeping in is a way to deal with it? Are you lacking some personal “me time” and making up for it by staying up late on the internet?
What could you do to get more “me time” in a healthy way? How can you use the morning time productively to fulfill that need?
A practical technique when you want to quit a bad habit is to find a healthy substitute habit. Something better to do which will fill the emptiness left from quitting the bad behavior. If we don’t come up with a substitute habit deliberately, we will do it unconsciously. That hole will get filled no matter what, it’s up to you whether you want to do it consciously or not.
Basic Human Needs
Sometimes it’s helpful to start with looking at the unfulfilled needs first instead of our bad habits. The bad habits are just the superficial level. They’re the mechanisms that we use to fulfill our needs. But if you look at the needs first you go one level higher. You will be able to see the bigger picture, instead of looking at the small details.
There’s a great model that I’ve learned from Tony Robins that has helped me a lot to look at the bigger picture—the 6 fundamental human needs:
- Certainty — The need to be reasonably safe, secure and stable. If you’re not sure you’ll be able to survive in the next few days or weeks, you won’t care about healthy long-term habits.
- Variety — The need for change, excitement, novelty. If we get stuck in the same old pattern for too long, this need will remain unfulfilled.
- Significance — The need for achievement and importance. We want to feel like we matter to other people.
- Connection & Love — The need for human affection and friendship.
- Growth — The need to become better, faster, stronger, more intelligent.
- Spirituality — The need to feel like our life has purpose and meaning.
You can learn more about these needs in Tony’s brilliant TED talk.
If any of these fundamental needs are not met in a healthy way, you will inevitably develop some bad habits that overcompensate for it.
The Rat Park Experiment
The famous rat park experiment is a great example of how bad habits and addiction are influenced by our underlying needs.
The experiment was created by Bruce Alexander and tried to prove that simply using drugs didn’t make you addicted. The addiction was greatly influenced by other environmental factors.
He split the rats into two groups. In the first group, the rats were completely isolated in empty cages, no contact with other rats and nothing else to do. For the second group, Alexander built a beautiful “rat park” with plenty of food, toys to play with, and other rats to have sex with. Essentially a rat heaven.
Both groups had two dispensers to drink from — one with pure water and one with heroin water.
The isolated rats in the first group that had nothing else to do quickly got addicted to the heroin and consumed 20 times more of it than the group in the rat park.
The rat park group preferred the pure water. They already had their basic needs met. They didn’t need to compensate with drugs.
The most interesting results came when Alexander started moving some of the isolated rats in the rat park. Even though they were taking heroin for a long time, the isolated rats started preferring the pure water too. After some withdrawal symptoms, they stopped the bad habit automatically.
Much like our friends the rats we get influenced a lot by our environment. We behave similarly when our needs aren’t met and we look for unhealthy ways to meet them.
Unlike the rats however, we are in control of our environment. We can choose to live in the isolated cages and stay with our addiction, or we can choose to build a “rat park” around us.
If you have a bad habit that you’re struggling to quit, try doing it a different way. Instead of getting the newest app or habit breaking technique, try changing your environment. You will find that fulfilling the underlying need in a healthy way will often take care of the bad habit automatically.