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Incomplete Habit Fallacy

Updated Jan 19, 2023

The Incomplete Habit Fallacy: Why Breaking Bad Habits Can Be Harder Than We Think


We've all experienced the frustration of trying to break a bad habit, only to find ourselves falling back into the same routine time and time again. Whether it's procrastination, overeating, or excessive social media use, breaking these habits can feel like an uphill battle. This is where the concept of the "incomplete habit fallacy" comes into play. In this article, we will explore what this fallacy entails and uncover the reasons why breaking bad habits can be more challenging than we initially perceive.

Understanding the Incomplete Habit Fallacy

The incomplete habit fallacy refers to the mistaken belief that changing or breaking a habit only requires willpower and motivation. Many of us assume that if we simply want to change a behavior badly enough, we will be able to do so effortlessly. However, research has shown that habits are deeply ingrained in our brains and breaking them is a complex process that goes beyond sheer determination.

The Habit Loop: Cue, Routine, Reward

To understand why breaking habits can be so difficult, we must first comprehend how habits are formed. According to Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit," habits are built upon a three-step loop: cue, routine, and reward.

  1. Cue: This is the trigger that signals your brain to start a habit. It could be a specific time of day, an emotional state, or even a visual cue.

  2. Routine: The routine is the behavior itself, the habit you are trying to change. It can be an action, a thought, or an emotional response.

  3. Reward: The reward is the positive feeling or satisfaction you gain from completing the habit. It reinforces the habit loop and motivates you to repeat the behavior.

The Role of Context and Environment

One reason why breaking bad habits can be challenging is the influence of context and environment. Habits often become deeply ingrained in specific situations or locations. For example, if you always reach for a sugary snack while watching TV in your living room, the environment becomes linked to the habit. When you find yourself in that context, your brain automatically triggers the habit loop, making it harder to resist.

The Power of Neural Pathways

Neural pathways play a crucial role in habit formation and breaking. Every time we repeat a habit, the neural pathways associated with that behavior become stronger. These pathways make it easier for our brains to automatically engage in the habit without much conscious effort.

Breaking a habit requires creating new neural pathways and weakening the existing ones. This process takes time and patience as the brain needs to rewire itself, which is why the incomplete habit fallacy is inaccurate.

The Importance of Awareness and Mindfulness

To overcome the incomplete habit fallacy, awareness and mindfulness are key. By becoming more conscious of the cues, routines, and rewards that drive your habits, you can start to disrupt the habit loop. Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and journaling, can help you develop a deeper understanding of your habits and provide insights into potential triggers.

The Role of Willpower and Self-Compassion

While willpower alone may not be enough to break a habit, it still plays a significant role in the process. Willpower can help you resist the initial urge to engage in the habit, giving you a chance to consciously choose an alternative behavior. However, it's important to remember that willpower is a finite resource, and relying solely on it can lead to burnout.

Practicing self-compassion is crucial when breaking bad habits. Acknowledge that setbacks are a natural part of the process and be kind to yourself when you stumble. Developing a growth mindset and treating yourself with compassion can help you stay motivated and bounce back after a setback.


The incomplete habit fallacy reminds us that breaking bad habits is not as simple as sheer willpower and determination. Understanding the habit loop, the role of context and neural pathways, and the importance of awareness and self-compassion can help us navigate the challenging process of habit change. Remember, breaking a habit takes time, effort, and a willingness to learn from both successes and setbacks. So be patient, be kind to yourself, and keep striving to break those habits that no longer serve you.


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