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Why habits are so difficult to break and techniques for overcoming it

Updated: Jan 29, 2020

Humans are creatures of habit. The majority of actions we do every day, we do unconsciously. We learn something and do it over and over again, until we don’t think about it anymore, and the whole process happens automatically. Think of brushing your teeth, for example. I bet you don’t consciously think “First I pick up my tooth brush. Then I apply the tooth paste….”. You get the point. It’s generally a good thing that we don’t have to think about every little thing we do. It would be pretty exhausting and overwhelming, if we’d do so. However, when it comes to behaviours we want to change, being a creature of habits becomes a disadvantage. To change habits, behaviours or thought patterns, you have to create new so-called neuropathways. You can literally imagine these neuropathways as a path. You walk the same path through a field every day, the path gets wider, the surface more even, you know exactly where there’s a rock on the way....Walking that old path doesn’t need your attention. Creating a new path, however, takes some effort. You check the terrain, watch out for uneven surfaces and make your way through high grass. Now think of changing a habit, for example instead of rushing to work in the morning you want to meditate after you wake up. Maybe you do it for a few days, but then you forget it, or you don’t feel like it, or you just hit the snooze button without even thinking about it. So what can we do? How can we create a new habit? 1. Get very clear on your ‘why’ You need to know why you want to change or create a new habit. How do you benefit from it? What is the outcome? Visualize yourself as detailed as possible in the new situation. 2. Drop the should Observe and choose your self-talk. Instead of saying ‘I should go to the gym’ say ‘I choose to go to the gym’ or ‘I want to go to the gym’. Should makes us feel contracted and it evokes a certain resistance. Want to or choose to gives us a sense of empowerment and expansiveness. 3. Set a realistic and smart goal Take one step at a time. Aiming to high will make it much harder for you to achieve your goal. Take the example of starting a daily meditation practice. If you start with 5 or 10 minutes every day, you will be more likely to follow through, than if you start with an hour. Writing down a clear goal statement on what, where, when, and how you do it helps. Write it in present tense. Your subconscious mind cannot distinguish whether something is just a thought, or reality. 4. Regularity is key To create new neuropathways, it’s better to do a little bit regularly, than a lot every once in a while. If you want to create a new habit, you have to do it over and over again, until it becomes second nature. To start something new, it helps to do it at the same time, in the same spot in regular intervals (e.g. daily, weekly). 5. Be compassionate with yourself Allow yourself to make mistakes and keep going after a setback. You will probably fall back into your old habit from time to time. If you criticise yourself harshly, you only build up resistance and make it harder for yourself. Just 'get up and try again'. 6. Create incentives Reward yourself once you followed through. Determine in advance what your goal is, how you know you've reached it, and what your reward will be. Create circumstances that make it easy for you to follow through, e.g. have your bag for the gym already packed.


The little things we do every day have a much bigger impact on our lives than the seemingly big things we do once, or every once in a while. Inspired to make the change? Start with one thing at a time. Which old habit do you want to let go of once and for all? Which new habit do you want to create?


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