How to Know When Your Habits Are Holding You Back

We all have things we do to avoid discomfort of change and growth. Overeating. Overdrinking. Gambling. For some it’s excessive porn or shopping. Surfing the internet. Binge-watching Netflix. Checking your phone/FaceBook/newsfeed over a dozen times a day.


Change feels scary. Our brain evolved to repeat what we know and be efficient, to avoid expending excess energy required to do something new.


And so, we develop habits that keep us stagnant.


How do you know if your guilty pleasures have spilled over into negative habits that keep you stuck?


Negative consequences.


Watching your favorite show Friday nights may feel like brain candy, a pleasant rest.


But if you have a nagging feeling it takes you away from your exercise goal or getting training that would significantly help your career, and you’re doing it 6-11 pm every night, Netflix is no longer your friend.


I think of activities that feel good but have major negative consequences as having 3 characteristics: habituous, dopamine producing, and providing avoidance.


If you always eat a muffin on the way to work, pick up your phone five times an hour, or have a glass of wine as soon as you get home, that’s a habit.


Our brain likes to take it easy.


When one thing works fairly well, we keep doing it because it’s easier to follow established neuropathways than create new ones. It’s like your brain says, you didn’t get eaten by a tiger today, so do exactly the same thing tomorrow and survival is likely.


The muffin, your phone and wine all produce a dopamine hit. Sugar and white flour activate the same areas of the brain as heroin, flooding the brain with feel good chemicals. Same with alcohol and seeing someone liked your post. Your brain reinforces the action so you want to do it again.


I swear I got a dopamine hit every time another news article came on my feed showing Mueller was closing in. Before I deleted my news app, I was spending upwards of 3 hours a day checking the latest news stories, feeling triumphant with each piece that confirmed my political leaning.


These habits combined with positive reinforcement produce a strong biological urge to continue doing the same thing over and over, despite knowing intellectually it’s contributing to a poor result.


Negative habits can be a symptom of avoidance.


What would you be doing if you didn’t spend 35 hours each week watching tv? 20 hours looking at your phone? What if you did exercise, lose weight and stay sober?


You might be faced with what to do with your life. The parts that make you unhappy and afraid.


You might be confronted with the fact that you hate your job and have to face the hard work and possible rejection of seeking another position.


You might get in shape but still feel insecure and decide the possibility of getting your heart broken again is more than you can bear.


You. Might. Get. Hurt.


Here’s the deal: You are hurting now anyway, just in a different, buried way.


Life involves feeling crappy and good. You can’t have one without the other. When you are thinner, sober, in a new job or relationship, you will still have times you feel bad. It’s part of the full human experience.


Awareness is power. Becoming conscious you’re comforting yourself with activities that unwanted results is the first step.


The next is to consider what you’re avoiding.


Imagine what life would be like if you changed your behavior. What comes up for you? Ask yourself what would be better and worse.


Sometimes the key to changing behavior is solving the underlying issue.

—Julie Ernst, CCJD

P.S. Visit to take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.

Julie Ernst