What causes bad habits?


Sheena was an over-eater. One day she finally realized that she was indulging in her bad habit only to lift her mood. This awareness increased her determination to quit and she did.

For two weeks, she didn’t eat more than necessary and was happy that she had finally gotten hold of her habit. However, after two weeks on a bright Monday morning when she was alone at her home, she found herself running to the kitchen again to get a good dose of sugary carbs.

“What was that?” she thought. “I was feeling fine and my mood wasn’t down in any way. Why did I return to my habit? Maybe all this eating-to-lift-moods theory is hogwash!”

An incident of a similar nature happened to Jeremy. Jeremy was a smoker who had now quit for about a month after he realized that he only smoked to get relief from stress. Also, he had read somewhere that smoking only increases stress in the long-term and does nothing to alleviate it. So he decided that he’d quit.

One day he was waiting for a friend who didn’t show up and after five minutes or so he felt an urge to smoke. He went to a nearby store, opened the door and had almost bought a cigarette when he realized that he had given the habit up.

So he came out, without a cigarette, and wondered, “Gosh! What was I doing?! I wasn’t really stressed or anxious. Why then did I feel the urge to smoke?”In this post, we answer their questions…

One habit, many triggers

In my post about why we hold on to our bad habits, I pointed out that bad habits are often extremely pleasurable. There is always some kind of a reward that we get when we do a bad habit.

Whether it is the dopamine rush that you get by eating or a sense of control that you feel when you smoke, rewards make your brain happy and it tries to ensure that it receives them again and again.

To achieve that end, your mind tries to connect a reward-generating habit with as many triggers as possible and not just one. This increases the odds of you encountering one of the triggers and consequently carrying out the habit.

The more triggers your mind attaches to a habit, the harder it will be for you to quit your habit but once you identify all the triggers, no matter how subtle, then you’ll be able to conquer your habits. 

To make things clear, let me explain what actually happened in Sheena and Jeremy’s story…

When Sheena rewarded her brain with her bad habit, her mind was carefully examining the environment so that it could attach as many triggers as possible to this habit.

Over a period of time, Sheena’s mind learned that she often indulged in her habit when she was alone at home!

Note that bad moods were already the strong triggers behind Sheena’s habit (as she already knew) but her mind kept searching for additional triggers so that the probability of her repeating the habit could be increased.

So when Sheena’s mind noticed that she was alone at home, it urged her to return to the habit. Weird as it may seem, it was the situation of ‘being alone at home’ itself that became a trigger!

The same thing happened to Jeremy. His mind turned the situation of ‘waiting for someone’ into a trigger in itself so that it didn’t have to wait for Jeremy to feel anxious before it could attain the reward.

Chances are high that he often had to wait for people for prolonged periods of time in the past, the anxiety of which made him go for a smoke.

Otherwise, his mind could never have associated ‘waiting’ with ‘smoking’ like it did. So when his subconscious mind found him ‘waiting for someone’, it urged him to smoke!


The mind wants rewards. It’ll do whatever it can to make sure you return to your habits. Identify the subtle triggers that may still be triggering your bad habits, bring them into your awareness and don’t give in to these triggers next time.

It all starts with awareness. The higher you climb the ladder of awareness, the more self-control you will develop.