Why Is It Hard to Change Unhealthy Habits? The Battle of Instant Gratification vs. Long-Term Rewards

Man hiding under comforter hitting snooze button
March 13, 2024
By the time you're done reading this post, you'll have gained a solid introduction to habit change from authorities like Wendy Wood, BJ Fogg, and James Clear. It’s a primer on navigating the complexities of behavioural science, providing a foundation to overcome the pull of instant gratification with strategic, incremental shifts. This read is the first step toward long-term health improvements and reshaping your habits for the better.

Have you ever pondered why, despite being well-versed with the health benefits, we often find ourselves veering towards unhealthy choices? The ongoing internal dialogue between the allure of instant gratification and the promise of long-term health benefits is a common struggle faced by many. This post delves into the behavioral science behind habit formation and the psychological factors that play into our daily decision-making, especially when it comes to choosing between immediate rewards and long-term benefits.

The Psychology of Habit Formation

The journey of understanding why change is challenging begins delving into what exactly constitutes a habit. A habit is a routine behavior performed with little or no conscious thought, formed through repeated actions over time. According to behavioral science experts, the neural pathways associated with habit formation strengthen with each repetition, making the behavior more automatic and less consciously directed.

The process of habit formation is intricately tied to our brain's reward system. Renowned psychologist Wendy Wood explains that habits develop when the brain starts associating a specific activity with a reward. Over time, this association becomes ingrained, leading to the automatic initiation of the behavior when exposed to similar circumstances.

The Tug of War: Immediate Rewards vs. Long-term Benefits

The psychological tug of war between instant gratification and long-term benefits is why making healthier choices often feels like an uphill battle. Instant gratification, the desire to experience pleasure or fulfillment without delay, often overpowers our better judgment related to long-term benefits. The concept of "Delayed Gratification"  sheds light on how our decision-making is impacted by our ability to delay immediate rewards in favour of future benefits. James Clear, author of "Atomic Habits", emphasizes that mastering the art of delayed gratification can pave the way to achieving long-term goals and breaking free from the shackles of unhealthy habits.

Practical Examples: Stairs vs. Elevator Scenario

A simple yet illustrative example of the struggle between instant gratification and long-term benefits is the common decision of choosing between taking the stairs or the elevator. The elevator often appeals to our desire for comfort and speed, providing immediate satisfaction with less physical exertion. On the other hand, opting for the stairs aligns with long-term health benefits such as increased cardiovascular fitness and calorie burn, albeit at the cost of instant comfort and convenience.

This scenario illustrates  the psychological dynamics at play in the everyday choices that often lead us towards instant gratification rather than long-term health benefits.

The Power of Incremental Changes

The notion that small decisions can significantly impact habit formation is a powerful one. A single choice, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, may seem insignificant in isolation. However, when repeated over time, these small decisions can accumulate and snowball into long-term habit changes.

In  "Atomic Habits", James Clear emphasizes the transformative power of making small changes. According to Clear, the accumulation of marginal gains leads to a significant positive impact over time, underlining the potential of incremental changes in breaking the cycle of unhealthy habits.

Challenges in Breaking Unhealthy Habits

The endeavor to change unhealthy habits is often met with numerous challenges both from societal and individual fronts. Societally, the ubiquity of unhealthy options, aggressive marketing strategies, and the ease of access to options providing instant gratification pose significant hurdles. On an individual level, factors like stress, fatigue, and emotional associations with unhealthy habits further complicate the journey towards positive change.

Final Thoughts

The road to breaking unhealthy habits is fraught with challenges, yet the rewards of overcoming them are immense. Every informed decision made with long-term health in mind is a step towards a healthier life. While the pull towards instant gratification is strong, understanding the behavioural science behind our choices can empower individuals to navigate through the hurdles and progressively work towards healthier habits.

Why Is It Hard to Change Habits: Frequently Asked Questions

Why do we often choose immediate rewards over long-term benefits?

Our brains often lean towards instant gratification as it provides immediate reward or relief, making it a preferred choice over delayed but potentially greater long-term benefits.

How long does it take to form a new habit or break an old one?

The commonly cited timeframe of 21 days to form a new habit varies greatly among individuals. The process is influenced by several factors including the complexity of the habit, individual differences, and the circumstances surrounding the individual.

What strategies can help in breaking unhealthy habits?

Adopting baby steps, making environmental changes conducive to healthy habits, and practicing mindfulness techniques are effective strategies. Additionally, leveraging behavioural science insights can provide a structured approach to understanding and tackling unhealthy habits.

Can unhealthy habits be transformed instead of completely discarded?

Absolutely. Modifying habits to better versions instead of outright elimination can be a more sustainable approach to positive change. This involves identifying and altering specific cues and rewards associated with the habit to steer behaviour in a healthier direction.

How do societal pressures influence our unhealthy habits?

Societal pressures significantly impact our choices. Advertising, peer pressure, and accessibility  of  unhealthy options are major contributors to the perpetuation of unhealthy habits, underscoring the importance of a supportive environment in facilitating healthier choices.

References on Habit Formation:

Wendy Wood, a USC Dornsife Emerita Professor, has published extensively on habit formation and change. Some notable publications include:

Wood, W. (2018). Habit formation and change. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 20, 117-122​1​.

Wood, W. & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114(4), 843-863​1​.

BJ Fogg, Ph.D., a Behavior Scientist at Stanford University, has shared insights on building lasting habits in his book "Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything". His work emphasizes the simplicity of forming habits if done in the right way, as he elaborates in his Stanford Graduate School of Business talk, "Building Habits: The Key to Lasting Behavior Change"​2​.

James Clear, the author of "Atomic Habits", provides a detailed framework for understanding and building good habits. His book offers practical strategies based on scientific principles to form good habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors leading to remarkable results​3​.

Dr. Alexandra Segal, C.Psych.
Director of Clinical Product and Behaviour Science
Dr. Alexandra Segal, C.Psych. completed her B.A. in Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and went on to complete her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology in New York City. In 2017 Dr. Segal became a Diplomate and Certified Cognitive Behavior Therapist with the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. Dr. Segal is also a Certified Cognitive Behaviour Therapist with the Canadian Association of Cognitive and Behavioural Therapies and in 2022 Dr. Segal attained the designation of Beck Institute CBT Certified Clinician.
Follow on |
LinkedIn logo with link
We're proudly 100% Canadian owned, operated and built.
Book a Free Program Consultation