We form positive and negative habits throughout our lives. And once a habit is formed, it’s hard to break free of it. It’s as if our brain stops fully participating in decision making and relies on our automatic routines. Our brains form neural pathways that get stronger the more often we perform a task. When we perform a task enough times, we no longer must think about how it’s done. It becomes an automatic habit.
The brain views all repetitive behavior and habits as important and does not differentiate between what is helpful for us versus what is not. It just functions to maintain the habit that’s been created and it’s familiar with. When trying to rid ourselves of habits, we tend to gravitate toward a quick fix solution to expedite the process and avoid as much discomfort as possible. To permanently change a habit, we must be willing and committed to acknowledging, being with and working through any thoughts and feelings that arise no matter what in service of improving ourselves.
18 Ways to Work on Changing Habits Permanently
Learning about habits is an integral part of the empowerment process. It’s important to know ways to integrate good habits or extinguish bad habits:[i]
- Do something simple and achievable every day until it becomes automatic. Repetition of an action causes habits to form. Even after conscious motivation decreases, once a habit is formed, less focus, conscious motivation, and effort is needed, which makes the habit far more likely to continue. This is why habits are useful—we’re able to use less mental energy because they become automatic.
- Start out small, so you won’t be discouraged. Gradually build up to bigger tasks and goals.
- When looking to create a habit, choose an easy context cue (e.g., after breakfast, when you finish reading a book, etc.).
- You must determine your own goals, so you have more agency and investment in them.
- A behavior can reach a peak and plateau if you don’t set a new goal to strive for. To re-engage your motivation, you need to continually step it up.
- When considering habits, you need to assess and consider intrinsic and external motivators. Intrinsic motivation comes purely from within; it’s not due to any anticipated reward, deadline, or outside pressure.[ii] Extrinsic motivation can increase motivation in the short term, but over time, it can wear you down or even backfire. It’s also generally non-sustaining (e.g., deciding to lose weight because your daughter’s wedding is slowly approaching).
- Especially until your behavior reaches automaticity, forming habits requires you to have awareness, a willingness to be uncomfortable, and self-control.
- Understand that more complex behaviors take longer to form automaticity than easier behaviors.
- For all tasks, especially harder ones, it’s possible to achieve a great degree of automaticity. However, circumstances will require more of your willingness for discomfort, self-control, self-regulation, and effort, especially when you’re feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable, you don’t feel grounded or physically well, and/or you’re directly triggered in some way.
- The purpose of rewards is to satisfy our craving and to teach us which actions are worth remembering. As we go through life, our sensory nervous system is continuously monitoring which actions satisfy our desires and deliver pleasure. For good habits, this substantiates the need to consistently return and reinforce the rewards, which help you to create and sustain the habit. For bad habits, understanding your habit loop and the pleasurable sensations it evokes helps you extinguish habits that don’t serve you well.
- Evidence has shown that as the strength of a habit grows, intention becomes decreasingly predictive of the behavior.[iii] That’s why even when you intend to change behavior, because of all the ongoing processes related to your brain (i.e., production of dopamine, memory and consolidated learning, associations it makes, etc.), it’s not enough to do so. This reinforces that intention to change behavior won’t cut it; there’s a need to consciously and proactively commit to incrementally doing things differently than you had before.
- For behaviors involving repetition, habits are crucial. In Wendy Wood’s research in Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick,[iv] she found that our actions are habitual 43 percent of the time. She substantiates that willpower or self-control are not enough to change or sustain your behaviors. You must devote time and effort to behaving differently whether or not you feel like it in the moment.
- To change or break a habit, reconstruct the environment around you to prompt good behaviors and increase friction so that bad habits are inconvenient.[v]
- For accountability and to sustain interest and motivation, it’s often helpful to create habits alongside a buddy who’s committed or to enlist support from family members, friends, or someone else who’s encouraging.
- To help break unproductive habits, instead of struggling mentally, tap into mindfulness training in order to turn toward experiences, rather than away from them. Learn to gradually sit with the discomfort in service of doing what you want to be doing.
- Cultivate mindful awareness and an interminable state of curiosity. Mindful awareness helps facilitate curiosity and personal insight. It forges an openness to new habits and decisions and will help to break habit loops leading you to more mindful actions.[vi]
- To create continual motivation and fuel creation and sustaining of habits, you must find your purpose or personal meaning in completing certain behaviors connected directly to your values.
- Find intentional and meaningful ways to encourage your positive habits and growth through self-compassion and self-love. Surround yourself with people who encourage you, believe in you, and support you.
Many people think it takes just twenty-one days to change a habit, but one recent study suggests that the average might be closer to sixty-six days or even longer—especially if a habit is particularly hard to pick up.[vii] Habits never completely disappear; they become encoded into the structure of our brain which is advantageous as we can often pick up creating a habit where we left off.
The challenge? Our brain can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits, so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking, waiting for the right cues and rewards to get reactivated.[viii] Therefore, it is important to remember that changing any habit requires intentional awareness, repetition, persistence, and the willingness to be uncomfortable no matter what.
To help motivate yourself toward personal growth and changing your habits, listen to my Progressive Muscle Relaxation Guided Meditation. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel for more interviews and guided meditations.
For further tips toward positive habits and self-empowerment, see my new book ACE Your Life: Unleash Your Best Life and Live the Life You Want.
Blog as published in Psychology Today.
[i] Gardner, B., et al. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. The British Journal of General Practice: The Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 62(605), 664-6. doi:10.3399/bjgp12X659466.
[ii] Psychology Today Staff. What is intrinsic motivation? Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/motivation#sources-of-motivation.
[iii] Gardner, B. (2015). A review and analysis of the use of ‘habit’ in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behaviour. Health Psychol Rev, (3): 277–295. doi: 10.1080/17437199.2013.876238. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4566897/.
[iv] Wood, W. (2019). Good habits, bad habits: The science of making positive changes that stick. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishing Company.
[v] Groopman, J. (2019). Can brain science help us break bad habits? Studies suggest that relying on will power is hopeless. Instead, we must find strategies that don’t require us to be strong. The New Yorker. October 28 Issue.
[vi] Brewer, J. (2015). A simple way to break a habit. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/judson_brewer_a_simple_way_to_break_a_bad_habit?referrer=playlist-talks_to_form_better_habits.
[vii] Phillippa, L., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.
[viii] Farnam Street. The science of habit formation and change. Retrieved from: https://fs.blog/2012/03/everything-you-need-to-know-about-habits-the-science-of-habit-formation-and-change/.