Barriers in Adopting New Habits
Seven of the top barriers that people experience when attempting to adopt new habits include the intention-action gap, the lack of a supportive environment and consistent cues, a lack of planning, the lack of an appropriate reward, the lack of practice, negative self-talk, and how difficult it is to permanently change a behavior. A detailed look at our findings is below.
THE INTENTION-ACTION GAP
- One of the biggest barriers that prevent people from adopting a new habit is called the "intention-action" gap, which is essentially the gap between wanting to do something and actually doing it.
- According to a 2002 study entitled, "Intention–behavior relations: a conceptual and empirical review," only "47% of those who have intentions subsequently take any action."
- An example of this is that people know exercise is good for them and want to (intend to) exercise more often, but "global studies have shown that between 36% to 55% of people never manage to convert intention into action."
- Another example is shown with hand washing in that nearly everyone knows that washing their hands before eating is a healthy practice, but only 20% actually do it.
- According to neuroscience, human "brains are not engineered to change habits through a simple conscious decision."
- This is because habits are "created and maintained in the basal ganglia, an area quite deep inside" the brain, which means they must be consciously acted upon to create.
- Studies have found that even effective interventions that have a "medium‐to‐large effect on intentions" only have a "they only have a small‐to‐medium effect on behavior, suggesting that part of an intervention's effectiveness gets lost between intentions and behavior."
- Research has shown that in many instances of the intention-behavior gap, "situational cues trigger specific cognitive structures," which then override action despite conscious intention. This means that for example, the visual sight of an unhealthy food (like a chocolate cake) is a situational cue that overrides the intention to eat healthy.
- This phenomenon specifically happens before habits are embedded since "when strong habits exist in a certain domain of behavior, conscious intentions... are less likely to affect behavior than if habits are weak."
- Moreover, situational cues can lead to hedonic goals, which means that humans will naturally choose behaviors that make them feel good even if they contradict long-term intentions.
- An example of this is buying a brand new car even if the intention is to save money for long-term investment.
- In addition, situated conceptualization is another feature of the intention-behavior gap, which is the term for when a repeated experience with a person, place, or object is reactivated through internal or external cues and triggers the desire to repeat the experience (i.e. maintain the old behavior).
LACK OF A SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT AND CONSISTENT CUES
- According to David Neal, a psychologist at Duke University's Center for Advanced Hindsight, the most critical necessity for building a new habit is the presence of a supportive environment with consistent cues.
- Without a supportive environment (i.e. having a convenient gym nearby for someone trying to exercise more, having a fast and reliable WiFi connection for someone who wants to stream music instead of listen to albums, or substituting sparkling water for beer for someone who is looking to cut down on alcohol consumption), "even the most determined, obstinate characters are going to struggle to even start a new habit, let alone embed it."
- Likewise, studies show that people who attempt major life changes (like creating a new habit), are more successful if they recently moved to a new location or "consciously altered their existing environment in some way," which indicates that one barrier to adopting a new habit is remaining in an environment that is unsupportive of the habit one wishes to establish.
- Lack of social support can also be a critical missing component of a conducive habit-building environment. Without peers, family members, or health professionals available to encourage the habit, it becomes easier to justify skipping the desired behavior, which then breaks the routine.
- The social support factor is one reason why support groups often facilitate the embedding of a habit.
- In a study conducted on adolescents who did not have healthy exercise habits, it was found that the limited support from the surrounding environment was a key factor in the lack of positive habits.
- In addition, the adolescents reported that the abundance of unhealthy food in their environment made it more difficult to make a commitment to healthy behaviors.
- Even after a habit is established, if a supportive environment is not present, a person can still revert to old behaviors, particularly if the habit is not embedded deeply enough into the brain to have altered the neural pathways.
- In a stable, supportive environment, it becomes easier to establish cues that trigger the memory of "doing the same action or
- routine previously and helps to initiate it again."
- An example of a cue is waking up in the morning, which triggers the habit of drinking coffee before work."
- Tacking a new habit onto an old one can often lead to the successful embedding of that new habit because the old habit becomes a cue for the new habit.
- An example of this would be flossing after teeth brushing, where flossing is the new habit tacked onto the old one, which then becomes the cue to floss.
LACK OF PLANNING
- In terms of establishing a routine or habit, Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, stated that "It’s always going to be easier to react based on something you’ve already planned out in the past versus trying to come up with a new plan on the fly."
- Studies have shown that people who do not plan for the habit are more likely not to establish the habit. For instance, "people who first outlined when and where they would floss each day flossed more frequently over the four-week study than those who did not."
- In another experiment, when an office staff considered when and where to recycle before beginning the new habit, their levels of successful recycling were higher than the control group that did not make a plan.
- In general, "implementation intentions (planning) have a medium-to-large magnitude positive effect on goal attainment that extends beyond the effects of having goal intentions." In other words, those who plan often have more success than those who do not.
- Lack of planning leads to three common obstacles that stand in the way of habit creation:
- A main reason why planning is critical in the habit-forming process is that a plan "heighten[s] alertness to situational cues and automatize[s] the behavioral response."
- Health professionals recommend that patients "schedule weekly workouts in their calendar to make sure it fits into their day," since studies have shown that "having a daily routine that incorporated physical activity also helped enable regular exercise."
- One major part of planning is goal setting and those who fail to plan often do not have a specific goal or intention in mind.
- For instance, having a vague goal of decreasing the number of cigarettes smoked per day is not conducive for long-lasting change. Having a plan to decrease the number of cigarettes smoked per day by two each week is a specific goal and plan that can succeed.
- People who fail to enter the pre-actional phase of the habit-forming process will likely fail at adopting the new habit because this phase is "the process of linking goal-directed behaviors to certain environmental cues by specifying when, where, and how to act."
- Research evidence indicates that implementation intentions (planning) "can facilitate the transition from goal intention to action."
- In addition to planning for when to practice the new habit, it is just as critical to plan for what happens when a slip-up occurs. If there is no plan in place for mistakes, the habit-forming process will be interrupted and possibly halted.
LACK OF AN APPROPRIATE REWARD
- Research indicates that when people receive some kind of reward during and after the desired behavior is performed, they feel incentivized and more motivated to repeat the behavior.
- In addition, rewards need to be varied so that some are short-term, some are intermediate, and some are long-term.
- Likewise, periodic rewards can actually increase desire to perform the behavior.
- In an experimental study conducted in 2009, the gym attendance of participants more than doubled seven weeks after providing them with financial rewards for exercising "several times over the course of about one month." The authors of the study concluded that financial intervention can be key to habit formation.
- A study published in 2018 came to the same conclusion, which was that "monetary rewards for weight loss have not only short-term but also long-term effects on the body weight of obese individuals." This suggests that the lack of a financial aspect to the reward may inhibit people from creating a habit, especially one that may not have other rewards such as pleasure or enjoyment.
- There are three types of variable rewards that motivate behavior change:
- 1. Rewards that come from other people (i.e. social media recognition).
- 2. Rewards of the hunt (i.e. anticipation of a reward that might show up, such as finding the perfect pin on Pinterest).
- 3. Intrinsic rewards such as mastery, competence, and control (i.e. video games that give no external rewards, but deliver the satisfaction of "leveling up"). Lack of one or more of these rewards can cause people to revert to old habits that did provide these rewards.
- Rewards need to be appropriate and personalized because what motivates one person to change their behavior may not motivate another.
- For example, one person might need an external reward such as a dip in the hot tub after swimming a certain distance, while others may only need an intrinsic reward such as the "runner's high" that comes after a running workout.
- Enjoyment of the behavior can itself be the reward as a recent study found that "more satisfying — and so rewarding — outcomes increase intentions to subsequently repeat behavior."
- The converse is also true: if a behavior is not enjoyed (and therefore, not appropriately rewarded), the person is unlikely to continue the behavior even if their intention is to form a habit.
- Many habits involve the brain's dopamine system, which offers a "feel-good" reward for these habits. This dopamine release can lure people back into old habits even if they intend to establish new ones.
LACK OF PRACTICE
- To establish and embed new habits, the desired behavior must be repeated often and regularly. If there is no time or opportunity to repeat (practice) the behavior, it will not become a habit.
- There are three different types of practice, two of which will eventually lead to a habit:
- Naive practice, which is what people do when they are not serious about changing behavior because it does not result in improvement or change.
- Purposeful practice, which is people practice with specific goals in mind and requires undivided attention. This type of practice results in slow progress toward goals (and thus, toward habit formation), but if it is faithfully implemented, change will occur.
- Deliberate practice, which is practice in a field that has "clear differences between experts and novices" and typically requires a coach or teacher who gives feedback for improvement. Habits do not require deliberate practice, but can be developed more quickly with it.
- People who fail to embed a habit often practice it only when they are in the mood, which leaves the process of developing a habit up to "randomness" rather than to deliberate practice.
- According to researchers from the University College London, it takes an average of 66 days to embed a habit, but the range actually spans from 18 days to 254 days.
- This indicates that people will need to practice a new skill or habit at least 66 times for it to become embedded. This is a challenge that prevents many people from succeeding.
- In addition, people get inpatient with the amount of time and practice it takes to change a habit and because "it's always hard before it's easy," they give up before they reach the easy part.
- "Neuroscience and reinforcement literature" has shown that people learn by doing much better than by watching, so people who do not "do" the behavior simply will not develop the habit.
- This is particularly important for people who are trying to learn a new skill, since if they do not have the opportunity to practice it, they will never become proficient.
- An example of this is a child learning to get in the habit of tying their shoes. If they wear lace-less shoes on a daily basis, they will never have the opportunity to practice tying them and thus, the habit of tying them will never be embedded.
- When people miss an opportunity to practice, it can derail them from their attempt to adopt a new habit.
- Without deliberate practice, the neural pathways that embed a habit into the subconscious are never created and thus, the habit is never fully formed.
- When an opportunity to practice is missed, all built-up momentum is lost and it can cause a person to give up on the habit development process.
- Negative self-talk can persuade someone to stop performing the desired behavior.
- An example of this might be someone wants to go to the gym on a regular basis, but tells themselves that aren't fit enough to join a gym in the first place.
- In addition, "negative self-talk can act as punishment and interfere with feelings of reward," which is a necessary component of developing and embedding a habit.
- According to Researcher Carol Dweck, in order to create new habits, people must "first believe [they] are capable of change."
- People who do not believe they are going to succeed, even subconsciously, will not succeed.
- The over-emphasis on the need to be perfect when creating a new habit often results in failure. This is the theory behind why people who "go cold turkey" often do not succeed.
- As DevelopingGoodHabits.com states, "having a goal of never again leaves you with no wiggle-room when you cave into the temptation of doing the habit you’re trying to eliminate... so focusing on perfection is not the way to change a routine."
- In addition, the inability to perfect leads to negative self-talk in that they say if they can't be perfect, then they might as well not even try. In fact, they "subconsciously decide that since they’ve already done it one time, they might as well go on a binge. The result? The person will do more of the habit than they ever did before."
- People tend to be hardest on themselves and do not know how to forgive themselves for mistakes, so if one is made during the habit-forming phase, it can cause people to give up.
- Since "habitual behavior is created by thought patterns," negative thoughts can lead to feeling compelled to do what makes one feel good. This is usually the opposite of the habit that person is trying to establish.
- Changing thought patterns "initially creates significant psychological discomfort," which means it hurts to lose a habit that provided (usually) subconscious rewards. This can cause people to revert back to old habits.
- Another tendency that leads to negative self-talk is the natural inclination to compare oneself with others. When a person does not see the same progress as another person, it can cause them to doubt their own ability to change.
- To embed a habit, it has to be perceived as doable because it takes much more cognitive thought to establish a new habit. If there are challenges in the way, people will use them as an excuse not to perform the desired behavior.
- For instance, some people find there to be too many choices to make before starting a new habit, so they suffer from overload and end up not choosing at all.
- Examples of this would be having too many diets to choose from when trying to lose weight or too many steps to take to prepare a meal when trying to eat at home more often.
- Setting unattainable goals is a challenge that impedes the process of forming habits and can happen when someone is trying to make a big change in a small amount of time.
- For example, losing significant weight before a vacation may not be attainable depending on how much time there is between setting the goal and the vacation. If sufficient progress is not made in that time, a new habit will be abandoned.
- Lack of equipment or materials can also be a challenge that gets in the way of a new habit. If someone is trying to establish the habit of flossing, for instance, if they run out of floss, this can interrupt the embedding of the habit.
- "Intimidation and lack of knowledge" about how to use gym equipment was cited as a primary reason why people quit within a month of joining one.
- When a new habit is not entirely pleasant, people new to the experience "might find it too difficult to continue on a daily basis, or stop altogether."
- Changing more than one habit at a time is another pitfall that can cause people to abandon the habit-forming process because according to the philosophy of "ego depletion," willpower only has "a limited amount of energy every day."
- As such, people who try to develop more than one habit at a time will ultimately fail because each one requires a significant amount of willpower to achieve and then, it "becomes too easy to give up on all of them, instead of just one."
To identify the top barriers that people experience when attempting to adopt new habits, we turned to scientific studies from sources such as Health.gov, Psychology Today, Science Alert, BMC Psychology, and BehavioralScientist.org, among others. Other studies were found in academic databases like Semantics Scholar, Springer Link, and NCBI. We also used quotes from scientists, doctors, and psychology experts that were featured in reputable media sources like Today, Forbes, Financial Times, and Time. While we were unable to find a publicly available list of barriers to adopting a new habit, we did discover a wealth of information on the actions people take to establish habits and keep them permanently embedded. It was our assumption that the converse is true: people who do not perform these actions would likely not be successful. As such, the barriers are not always explicitly stated in the sources, but are instead implied as barriers that prevent people from attaining the same success that other people achieve when certain actions are taken. We discovered that the same barriers to developing a new habit were repeated throughout these sources and by the experts in the field. Therefore, we selected the seven that appeared most often throughout our research as the seven top barriers to new habit adoption.
Some older studies were included as they provided insight into the reasons why people struggle to implement new habits and are still being quoted by current studies. Therefore, we determined the scientific conclusions in these studies are still valid. In addition, we used some habit-building expert blogs and opinion articles rooted in science for additional details and context for the barriers identified. We also included as much information as possible about psychological and user experience barriers to changing habits, but while there was an abundance of literature available on the psychological reasons that prevent people from adopting new habits, user experience reasons were limited.