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Habit and Inertia Are Real Change Killers

Habit and inertia. I believe those are behind every New Year’s Resolution failure.

A recent study out of Harvard finds that nicotine replacements—patches and gum—are not particularly effective in the long term. 

I read that in my newspaper this morning, along with an article discussing the we’ve-heard-it-before finding that eating foods marketed as sugar-free, fat-free, or low-cal are not a particularly good route to weight loss. They’re just not satisfying, so we just keep eating.

What these two articles together suggest to me is that substitution to break a habit is no substitute for breaking the habit itself.

As addictive as nicotine is, it seems the habit of lighting up is even more addictive. I haven’t smoked in about three years and I have no nicotine craving, but I still get the urge to light up at parties, which is where I used to smoke the most. My morning-after hangovers were always much less about liquor than cigarettes. The fact that I still want to smoke at parties is not addiction, it’s habit.

I resist the urge by remembering the physical aspects of smoking—the way my lungs felt, the way it furred my tongue, the way it made me smell. Now that I’m past the physical addiction, I can short-circuit any feeling of deprivation by remembering—hard and with intention—the unpleasant side effects of smoking.

(Oh, and by the way, my impetus for quitting was not fear of lung cancer or heart problems or any other disease that may result from smoking. It’s easy to convince yourself that these won’t happen to you. My impetus was a certainty: Wrinkles. We wrinkle soon enough without cigarettes. Why rush it?)

I’ve had to change my eating habits, too, since discovering I have a gluten-sensitivity.

Research suggests that habit is the big cheese when it comes to eating behavior. So I am less interested in finding substitutions for gluten than in changing my eating habits altogether.

I have yet to find a gluten-free bread that is as satisfying to me as regular bread, so I have simply given up bread. I don’t buy a lot of products that aren’t naturally gluten-free because I’d much rather eat something delicious than some sort of lame substitution. For example, for breakfast, toast made with crappy gluten-free bread makes me feel a lot more deprived than high-quality Irish steel-cut oatmeal, which feels like an indulgence.

It seems to me that not feeling deprived is key to making a habit change stick. A nicotine patch might help the body craving, but it does nothing for the feeling of psychological deprivation. For that, you need to find something that satisfies you instead. When it comes to not smoking, I get satisfaction from not feeling or smelling crappy, and the delusion that I will stay ever-young and live forever. (No, don’t tell me…)

But then there’s inertia. Even more than habit, I suffer from inertia.

What New Year’s Resolutions I do make frequently involve do-gooding. Volunteering. I’ve made and ignored those resolutions for years. I’ve never managed to break through the inertia of not volunteering.

Yesterday I was talking to a friend whose young daughter was having trouble making friends. Every time my friend came up with ideas for her daughter—classes, clubs, other activities—the girl declined. I think this little girl is bogged down by inertia.

It’s so much easier to not do something than to do something new. And the only cure for inertia is momentum. I suggested my friend just sign her daughter up for something that she’s likely to enjoy if she gives it a chance. Sometimes we need to be forced from inaction to action.

A friend and I are motivating each other to stay on our fitness program with a gold star system. We live in different cities so we can’t exercise together, but we have a shared Google calendar. Each time we exercise at least 30 minutes, we get to put a gold star on our calendar. Every time my friend puts up a gold star, it’s a gentle kick in the pants for me to earn mine. When I look at the calendar and see too big a gap between my gold stars, it’s another kick in the pants.

And of course, as with so much else, once I break from my inertia and start doing whatever it is, I enjoy it. That’s why my fitness blog is called “Suit Up and Show Up.” For me, showing up is the hardest part.

As for volunteering…I finally got the kick in the pants I needed. As I’ve done a million times before, I was diddling around online, looking for volunteer opportunities, when I found one that seemed a custom fit. I started reading up on it and discovered that an old friend administers the program. So I immediately dropped her a line, before inertia set back in, and she immediately responded. Kick in the pants. At that point it would have embarrassed me not to follow through. And because this volunteer position involves working with an individual, I now am beholden to someone else, so quitting is not an option. Not according to my values, anyway.

I haven’t yet broken my habit of not volunteering—I still have to force myself to do what I have to do—but that will come in time, as I get into a new habit. I’m sure. I hope.

(P.S. A note to people who recruit volunteers: Over the years I have emailed various organizations and even submitted applications and never heard back from anyone. If inertia were not a problem for me, I might have been more persistent. But my inertia is a much stronger force than my motivation, and so I never did anything more. My friend’s lightning-fast response is what made the difference. Just something to keep in mind.)

Habit and Inertia Are Real Change Killers

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2012). Habit and Inertia Are Real Change Killers. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Jan 2012
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