Why's It So Difficult to Acquire Healthy Habits?

We all want to have healthy habits. In fact, we often try to acquire new ones. However, data suggests that, in most cases our attempts end up being unsuccessful. Why is this?
Why's It So Difficult to Acquire Healthy Habits?

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Why don’t we eat fruits and vegetables every day if we know they’re so good for us? Why don’t we do physical activity frequently if we know the benefits? Why do we find it a challenge to drink the recommended minimum of two liters of water a day? It’s the fact that acquiring new healthy habits isn’t an easy task but takes time, dedication, and effort.

In reality, the human mind doesn’t like change. That’s because change implies a large expenditure of energy. Your brain prefers to stay in the known, the predictable. It wants everything to remain stable and for there to be no unforeseen events or new experiences.

Imagine if you arrived at the airport to catch a flight and heard over the loudspeakers that it’d been canceled. How would you feel? Probably stressed, because this new information would require your brain to do extra work that you weren’t expecting to do. It’s for the same kinds of reasons that we all tend to run away from change.

Let’s see why acquiring and maintaining healthy habits isn’t easy and what you should do to achieve it.

What are habits?

Habits are behaviors that you repeat in a systematic way. In fact, many of the actions you carry out are reinforced, to such an extent that you internalize and assume them as a way of life.

Once an action becomes a habit, your mind no longer needs to exert itself. It’ll always work to automate everything that feels like a reward. For example, feeling pleasure.

Why do you usually end up abandoning healthy habits?

There are several reasons why you might fail to consolidate and integrate certain healthy habits into your routine. These are the most common:

Woman thinking looking up
The mind is extremely reluctant to change because it involves leaving the comfort zone. Furthermore, there are increased energy costs.

1. Because you focus on results

In most of your planned objectives, you focus on their results. The goals you want to achieve. For example, to lose weight, gain muscle, achieve a perfect complexion, etc.

However, starting the process of incorporating a healthy habit into your routine by emphasizing what you want to achieve usually generates the opposite effect. That’s because, although it’s possible to achieve it through different strategies that either tend to be restrictive (rapid weight loss diets) or extreme (excessive physical activity) it’s really complex to sustain it in the long term.

When you focus on results, you’re more likely to generate a rebound effect. For example, in the case of dieting, you’ll likely return to a sedentary lifestyle and gain the kilos that you’ve lost.

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear states the following: “The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become”.

2. Because your beliefs tell you that you can’t do it

You carry within you a system of beliefs that you assume to be true. They’re the assumptions that guide your behavior. They can empower you to achieve goals or they can limit you and function as obstacles. Indeed, what you do reflects who you think you are.

“A human being always acts and feels and performs in accordance with what he imagines to be true about himself and his environment… We act, or fail to act, not because of “will” as is so commonly believed, but because of imagination.”

-Maxwell Maltz-

A person who’s spent their whole life thinking that they’re good at sports will find it far easier to practice than someone who thinks that sport isn’t their thing. In both cases, the action of going for a run is ego-syntonic with who they think they are. There’s harmony between their behavior and their identity but, while it benefits one, it limits the other.

Doing deep inner work to question your beliefs and rebuild your self-talk is a valuable path to incorporating new healthy behaviors and leaving harmful ones behind.

Woman running outdoors
If you believe that you’re not capable of doing something, you’ll experience greater resistance to doing it.

3. Because you lose motivation

Your mind likes the simple. It always measures the cost-benefit balance. In this sense, not achieving immediate results, even with great effort, is often significantly demotivating and one of the main excuses you find for giving up. As a matter of fact, you’re motivated by achieving your goals with as little effort as possible.

To automate a behavior, you need repetition and time. What better way than by making it easy and attractive? Indeed, by designing a simple action plan, specifying the how, when, and where, you’re less likely to lose motivation in the face of an adverse situation.

For example, you’re more likely to eat fruit if you have a bowl of it on the table. Or, you’ll drink more liquid if, every time you go out, you carry a bottle of water in your backpack. Therefore, when you’re trying to build new healthy habits, ensure you make things easier and more bearable for yourself.

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  • Cenarruzabeitia, J. J. V., Hernández, J. A. M., & Martínez-González, M. Á. (2003). Beneficios de la actividad física y riesgos del sedentarismo. Medicina clínica121(17), 665-672.