The Unpleasant Truth Behind Why We “Can’t” Break Bad Habits

Think you can't break bad habits? You totally can! But it started by being really honest with yourself about why you think you can't. Click through for 4 tips that will help with long-lasting habit change!


It’s an overcast Tuesday night and it’s happening again.

I’ve been horizontal for two hours now, slowing eating my way through a bag of pizza rolls. The sheet pan lies on the floor and my laptop sits on the coffee table, both within easy reach so I can alternate between eating cheesy pillows of goo and clicking through 90s music videos on Youtube.

Pizza roll. No Diggity. Pizza roll. The Boy Is Mine. Pizza Roll. Karma Police.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. For a 1.5 year window, this pizza roll + music video binge became, well, a habit. Whenever the stars aligned (the weather was bad, Kenny was gone, and I’d worked too hard) I’d find myself on the couch. Somehow, there would be pizza rolls in my mouth and *NSYNC in my ear.

Did you notice how I phrased that paragraph? As though I was powerless? As though this bad habit ‘happened’ to me and I didn’t have any control over it or myself?  AS THOUGH A BAG OF PIZZA ROLLS IS SMARTER THAN ME?

Friends, it’s time to have a brutally honest conversation about bad habits and why we “can’t” break them.

Demoralizing but true: We engage in bad habits because - on some level - they benefit us. Share on X

The Unpleasant Truth Behind Why We “Can’t” Break Bad Habits

Bad habits can feel socially advantageous

When all our friends are drinking three $13 cocktails, it’d be positively rude not the join them, right? And if the marketing director takes three 15-minute smoke breaks, why quit when we could smoke with her and pitch our latest idea?

It’s can feel like a bummer to be the friend who doesn’t buy anything on the buddy shopping spree or the one who’s nursing a La Croix at the rooftop party. <- it me.

When everyone you know carries credit card debt, drives after three beers, and “jokingly” talks shit about their partner in group settings, it can feel downright awkward to not do those things. It’s easy to feel like an uptight weirdo when you shyly admit that you pay off your credit card every month and think you partner’s pretty great.

It can feel a lot easier to go with the flow. We want people to like us! We don’t want anyone to think we’re uptight or judgey or too cool for school! So we order another drink and laugh a little louder.

And then three years later we have terrible credit scores and our partner dumped us because we’re mean.

Related: Why you should hang out with + date people you admire

Bad habits can feel goooooood

If I gossip about someone and all the ways they’re screwing up their life, I get a tiny, awful spike of self-satisfaction because I’m not screwing up my life.

Every time we check social media and see a like, a comment, or a heart we get a shot of dopamine. Seriously!

Throwing clothes on the floor instead of putting them away, eating a whole bag of pizza rolls for dinner, ignoring that voicemail from Grandma – eventually all of the above will make us feel bad. But for about 20 minutes, they feel goooooood.

Since most of us are subconsciously chasing immediate gratification, we’re much more likely to opt for the sodium stupor of pizza rolls than the hassle of making a salad.

The truth is: we are but mammals and we like to do things that feel good. In the moment, sleeping in feels better than going for a run. Checking Facebook feels better than checking our bank accounts. Going out to eat feels better than cooking something from scratch.

But – and I know you know this – those feelings are short-lived and those habits lead nowhere you want to go.

Bad habits are usually the path of least resistance

If everyone around you is engaging in a bad habit, it’s much easier to start doing it, too. Why make a fuss? What fight the current? Why be the odd one out with your early bedtime and one-drink rule?

Why are you spending hours every Sunday doing meal prep when you could just buy a $7 deli sandwich? Why sip a smoothie when you could drink a frappe? Why spend your lunch break calling your senators when you could use that time to catch up on celebrity gossip?

Making the choices that are right for you isn’t always easy. You’re bound to encounter pushback – from your friends, your co-workers, even society in general. Do it anyway.

Bad habits reinforce beliefs we have about ourselves

Every time we say something hilarious and snarky and – let’s be honest – pretty unkind about someone, we’re reinforcing the belief that we’re brassy ball-busters who “tell it like it is.”

Every time we date someone volatile or emotionally unavailable, we’re reinforcing the belief that we “have terrible taste” or “attract a-holes.” What luck! Since that’s “true” we don’t have to examine our role in it or change anything.

Every time we’re late, we’re reinforcing the identity we’ve created for ourselves as “The Busy One,” the “Lovably Flustered One,” or just “The Chronically Late One.” And it’s easier and more comfortable to maintain an established identity than it is to work to change it.

But I want to hear from you! What are your bad habits? If you’re honest with yourself, how are they benefiting you?

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  1. Mamacita

    Wait, I need to know how you eat pizza rolls while lying prone without getting the worst case of heartburn ever. It’s possible that you are more than a mere mammal. You need to offer coaching on this.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Truly, one of the ways I ‘broke’ this habit was by developing the first and only case of heartburn I’ve ever had. CERTAINLY CEASED TO BENEFIT ME THEN.

  2. Elle

    Von Bargen, I have been reading your blog for years, but this is the first time commenting. I feel compelled to tell you THANK YOU for this reminder that I, in fact, control ME. More timely than you know!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      <3 <3 <3

  3. Tracy

    Wow! This post hit me in the gut in a good way. I have tons of bad habits, like not getting enough sleep. I’ve been wondering why I have struggled to give up my bad habits and I realized that doing the “good stuff” makes me feel rigid and confined. For me I know this is rebellion that I never lived out as a kid. It’s like there is a voice in my head that says ” you can’t tell me what to do!”

    I know there is more to my resistance around giving up these bad habits. For example, the fear of failure and the fear of success. I don’t know if I’m ready to let them go, but admitting this is the first step.


    • Gwen Bortner

      This is a great insight that I think applies to me as well, but it didn’t register until I read your comment! I am definitely going to ponder this one…

  4. Jess

    “Why spend your lunch break calling your senators when you could use that time to catch up on celebrity gossip?” Advice columns for me, but, uh, you’re reading my diary, Sarah. I’ve clearly got some work to do re: my habits.

    On the plus side, I’ve done a very good job recently of making weekend breakfast at home instead of going out to the bagel shop! My budget is happy 🙂

  5. Emma

    I’m interested to see where you’re going with this one because I think it’s all in your own perspective. Is a pizza-roll/YouTube night a bad habit or a brilliant treat? Not immediately returning a voicemail a bad habit or simply not jumping to the demands of others? I think before labelling anything as simple as “good” or “bad”, you have to consider both what you want your life to be like overall and give yourself the slack not to be perfect 100% of the time.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Ooooh, interesting point! To me, a bad habit is something that negatively impacts my/your life. Eating a bag a pizza rolls gives me heartburn and makes me feel bad both physically and emotionally. Not returning voicemails/calls erodes my relationships.

      I think for me the issue is that these things truly become habits and as they do – at least for me – they get ‘stronger.’ It’s not a treat to eat an entire bag of pizza rolls for dinner when it happens once a week, ya know? I’m not “prioritizing my own needs” when I ALWAYS wait a week to return phone calls and all my relationships start to erode.

      I’m not suggesting that perfection should be the goal for any of us. That’s unattainable and boring. I do think – however – it’s important to look at the excuses we’re giving ourselves for consistently engaging in behavior we know is detrimental to our goals/health/quality of life. 🙂

      • Anonymous

        Yep. Yes. Agreed.

  6. Indya | TheSmallAdventurer

    Talking badly about your partner is such a bad habit to have. It makes me sad whenever I hear someone say something mean about their partner knowing that they’re at home with no idea about what their partner is saying about them. I always talk about how great my partner is – in an appreciative way, not a bragging way! I’m all about spreading the love.

  7. Catherine

    Loved this post! One thing that I can’t afford to have a bad habit on is sleep less but I always feel bad when I comment that I sleep 8h and everyone sees it like a luxury (people without kids ) like I’m wasting my time. And yes sometimes I go to sleep and I should iron my clothes or clean up something but I know how grumpy I get and I don’t like to go to work and fight my sleepiness.

    Anyhow, still have bad habits myself! Especially when I’m on my period: I can’t help eating this, it’s my period talking, I have an excuse 😀

  8. Deb

    Loved this post SO MUCH and I needed it today because my fiance told me off for gossiping last night and I tried really hard not to be defensive because I knew he was right. So he made me feel bad when I deserved it and you’ve made me feel like I can be better and that everything will be all right again!

    • Lindsay

      I have had similar conversations with my husband about my gossiping lately and it is NOT making me see myself in a positive light. Time to work hard to make some necessary changes!

  9. Chrissy (Better Than Never)

    I’m trying to be more mindful of how I “kill time.” If I have to wait 15 minutes for an appointment, or I’m meeting friends in a half an hour, I will usually just end up scrolling through Twitter. Such a waste, especially since I’m always complaining that I have no time to read books or write stories or exercise. Those little pockets of time could definitely be spent working towards my goals, instead of obsessively following the latest political meltdown.

    PS – You create the coolest courses! I’m loving the Money & Happy group on Facebook. <3

  10. Heidi

    Bad habit #1: Eating breakfast while I drive to work.

  11. Jessica

    Very timely! Very timely. Someone made fun of me last week for “being a grandma” and needing to go to bed at a decent hour (re: earlier than 11pm on a work night). I know I’m not a nice person unless I get sleep. I have so many bad habits that don’t seem like bad habits. Vegging in front of the TV after a long week is certainly one of them. I could be spending time getting healthier, cultivating relationships or working on being okay with being myself.
    Thank you for writing this!

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