Why is it so hard to implement good habits? Part of the reason is our brain cannot tell the difference between good and bad habits.
According to researchers, bad habits are always “lurking” and waiting for the right cues to drive our behavior. During a study at MIT, rats were trained to run a specific way down a maze. At the end of the maze, rats received a reward for their behavior, which helped ingrain the habit. Then one day the reward was moved and the rats were trained in a completely different way. Many months later the reward was placed back in its original spot, and the rats immediately remembered the steps for how to find it in the maze. The old habit quickly reemerged.
When we consider why new habits are so hard to implement, we have to remember that old habits do not just disappear. Familiar cues, just like the reward for the rats, may lead us back to what we did in the past.
This is why teams struggle to implement new systems. For example, your team learns new ways to prioritize projects, which works well initially and their workspace looks textbook clear. But then their workload increases and they feel overwhelmed, which triggers the old habits, and the neat workspace morphs into piles—the old habit for dealing with too much to do.
Fortunately we can take control of which habits we follow. The key is to create new routines that overpower the old ones, meaning we have to really “buy-in” to what we are implementing. We may also need reinforcement from others, and we may need to be held accountable. All of those factors help us implement better habits.
Old habits are hard to break. And since old habits never completely disappear from our brain, it’s important to create an effective process for ingraining the new habits we want to embrace.