Habit Interrupted: Why Is It So Easy to Stop a Good Habit? (And How to Start Again)
I’ve been writing on a regular basis for almost seven years. Lately, however, I’ve been writing less and struggling with keeping a consistent schedule. What scares me the most is how easy it is to just not do it—after all these years.
In the beginning, I told myself that I’d cut down on writing so I could focus on a few large and demanding projects. Looking back, I feel it was an excuse. I don’t think writing would’ve taken away from other priorities.
This wasn’t my first experience with stopping a solid practice that I enjoyed. I’ve done it with exercise, learning to play the piano, journaling, and waking up early, to name a few. And the interruption wasn’t after a few weeks of starting something, it was after months, and even years. Stopping felt effortless.
In my attempt to understand my behavior so I can resume an old habit, I started looking into the nature of good habits and what happens when we stop. I hope the following insights will be useful to you.
Before we start, I want to say that there are good reasons for stopping a good habit and not resuming it. There is nothing wrong with doing something for an extended period of time and realizing it’s not for you. In this case, letting go is the most helpful option.
Now back to the habits we miss and want to start again.
Why is quitting a good habit we enjoy so easy?
The most basic answer to this question lies in our innate tendency to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
Starting a new habit is not easy. And it’s much harder to keep going. Stopping has its appeal. Consider these reasons.
Instant relief: When we stop doing something, we don’t exert any effort, we can do whatever we want with the newly gained time and energy, which means:
Less resistance: When we stop something, we move towards safety and comfort. There is no reason for resistance to show up.
Delayed consequences: In most cases, when we stop a good habit, we won’t feel its negative side effects right away. We will feel the pain much later.
No accountability: If we’re not held responsible by others, we only have to deal with our own reasons, and that’s pretty easy considering the following.
Our amazing ability to justify anything: Left to our own devices, we can convince ourselves of anything. The ability to justify is the most powerful mental weapon we have. We will come up with numerous excuses to stop.
As you can see, the odds are stacked against us when we stop. But that doesn’t mean we should give up.
The good news
It may be easy to stop—way too easy sometimes—but luckily for us an established habit doesn’t go away. It occupies a permanent place in our brain. Stopping merely adds a new behavior on top of it. So the old habit remains intact.
We will crave the rewards of the interrupted habit at one point. For example, I missed the satisfaction of publishing a new article, the clarity of a thought brought to life, and the connection with readers who benefited from the shared ideas.
The cravings of a good habit can be a strong motivation to start again. We’ll want to avoid the pain of the nagging thoughts and seek the pleasure of satisfying the cravings.
Also, resuming an old habit is easier than forming a new one. We’ll experience less resistance as we recall the skills we developed in the past.
How to start again
The simplest way to start again is to reverse the reasons we stop in the first place.
1. Revisit your deepest why. Look back and think of why you did this habit in the first place. What’s your deepest why? If we can justify stopping, we should be able to justify restarting. We can use our mind’s ability to our advantage.
2. Determine the tiniest action you can start with today. Use your previous experience as a starting point. It’s tempting to start big since it’s something we do well. That would be a mistake that I’ve done many times.
To start writing again, I decided to just do ten minutes each day. Small actions are not worth resisting. So we’re more likely to stick to them.
3. Create a system of instant rewards for performing the habit. This is something that will give you pleasure right away. For example, if I write for ten minutes, I get 20 minutes online to do whatever I want, guilt free.
4. Have a system of harsh consequences for not doing the habit. We need to have a mechanism for inflicting pain as soon as possible. Wanting to avoid pain can be a great motivator. In my example, not doing a writing session means no TV or Netflix for a day. It will be even better if you have an accountability partner who’ll make sure you suffer for not doing your work.
5. Keep going. The more you do something, the less you’ll resist it. As you probably know, resistance is the biggest obstacle we face when we want to take any worthy action. Once you build momentum, you’ll be more likely to stick to it. And if you happen to stop for whatever reason, start again, as soon as you can.
A couple of reminders
If you want to resume a habit you enjoy, keep the following in mind to ensure you don’t compound your pain and reduce your chances of success.
Don’t beat yourself up for stopping. It won’t do you any good. What matters is recognizing that you need to start again, and making a conscious choice to begin.
Let go of perfection. Just start and improve along the way. Perfectionism is resistance masquerading as quality.
In case of future interruptions
If you have to stop for whatever reason, consider the following steps to ensure you won’t suffer in the future.
- Stop for a short period of time. I’d say a maximum of two days. After that perform the action even if you have to do it for a couple of minutes.
- Remember: It’s better to take small action than no action at all.
- If you have to stop for a longer period than intended, be kind to yourself. You’re doing the best you can. Then repeat the five steps outlined above.
We all want to live a fulfilling and authentic life. We want to express ourselves, experience joy, and connect with the world in a meaningful way. Everything we do starts as a single action and accumulates over time bringing us either closer or farther from our truth.
My wish for you is to have faith in your desires and abilities, and to take actions that express who you truly are.
And don’t forget: if you stop, pick up, and keep going.
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