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Why is it so Difficult to Kick Bad Habits?

I have always wondered why we battle to kick bad habits like sugar addictions, watching too much TV, not doing enough exercise, and not sleeping enough. I always thought it was because we are weak and pathetic but this is too simplistic and probably even false. The true reason is our lack of patience and our inability to understand the long-term implications of our actions. Let me explain.

Think about two actions - one bad and one good. The bad habit is hitting your local Starbucks every morning for a mocha cookie crumble frappuccino. The good action is putting in your running shoes and hitting the road for a 5km run first thing in the morning.

Let's start with the frappuccino. This is undeniably delicious. It gives you a rush of dopamine and the 140 mg of caffeine helps kick-start your day. The problem is that after months and years of scarfing down this 600-calorie beverage, it is likely you are going to pick up a few kilos which may lead to heart, cholesterol, and obesity problems. So the short-term high is great but the long terms consequences are slightly more nefarious.

Let's now move across to the running example. Most of us are not morning people and getting up is a mission. Add to this challenge the additional complexity of going for a run and for many you have created a mini Everest. But after weeks, months, and years of getting this habit deeply engrained into your day will start to yield amazing benefits. You will feel the benefits of exercising self-control and discipline, the endorphins from the run will keep you coming back for more, your heart will strengthen and you will feel like a million bucks. So the short-term is negative but the long-term benefits are hugely positive.

So now we better understand the challenge of breaking bad habits. Our brains tend to fixate on the short term. We often ask the question: how will this affect me now? We are not great at understanding the long-term implications. This is why getting people to change their bad habits in climate change has been so challenging. The damage we do today will only be realized in the years and decades of the future. That is why education on the dangers of AIDS in Africa was so complicated. How do you warn people of a disease that may only affect them years or decades in the future when their short-term survival was so precarious?

The only way to break bad habits is to troubleshoot this short-term obsession in our caveman's brains. These are brains that were designed to protect us from immediate dangers such as bad-tempered lions and were not well designed to prepare us for the threat of a flash flood that may only happen five years from now.


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