Why is it so hard to drop a bad habit or add a new healthy one? Often, you feel like you're fighting yourself when you know what to do, but you still don't do it. Don't worry, it's not just you. Human brains are slow to adopt new habits and make changes.
If you, like many others, have unmet health goals or a New Year's resolution that has fallen to the wayside, then take note: The trick is to recognize your thoughts and to work with your brain to form better habits.
Habits Make Things Easier on The Brain
The brain relies on habits. Everything from how you grocery shop to how you respond to criticism is reliant on a previous behavior and habit. Reliance and repetition make things easier for the brain, giving it less work to do. That means even if some habit is hurting you, your brain resists changing it.1
It can take mental gymnastics to build a new, healthy habit. The good news: Research shows that lasting change is possible. By being aware of thought patterns that get in the way of achieving a goal, you can work with your brain to change your behavior.1,2
Use the following strategies to challenge a less-than-helpful thought pattern to build a new habit.
You're Focused on the “Shoulds” Instead of the “Wants”
"I should exercise more for my heart health." "I should watch less TV and be more social instead." These big ideas might drive you to start changing – or at least want to change. But studies show that knowing why you should make a change doesn't usually lead to a new habit in the long run.2
For the most part, the brain responds to the here and now. Research shows the human brain needs repetitive, positive reinforcement to establish a habit.2,3
Try This: Tie A New Habit to Something Positive in Your Everyday Life. Trying to set a gym habit? Find the positives: How exercise brings your stress level down; how moving your body gives you extra energy during the week; or maybe you love the company of your exercise buddy.
Focus on the positive things you get every time you make a healthy choice. They're key ingredients to long-term change.2,3
You're Mad at Yourself All the Time
Although you might feel like you need to be your own drill sergeant, being hard on yourself can lead to a cycle of negativity. When you slip up and are hard on yourself, it can undermine your effort to make a positive change.
Research shows that negative self-talk doesn't help you reach your goals – instead, it can actually hurt you. Give yourself some kindness to break the pattern.4,5
Try This: Be on Your Own Team. Notice when your brain says something like: "You're not good at this," or "You're probably going to fail," or "You’re so lazy you can't make it to the gym."
Then, talk to yourself like you would talk to a friend. Say something like: "I'm working to make a change," or "This can take time because I'm learning about myself," or "I'm being good to myself, but along the way I might mess up."
It can seem counterintuitive, but accepting yourself, flaws and all, actually makes you more ready for a healthy change.4
You're Overlooking the Details
Imagining how good you'll feel when you've reached a goal is great. It's the part that excites and motivates you. But dreaming about the future can mean you're not being realistic about the obstacles.
There's a difference between imagining yourself stronger from a gym routine and imagining yourself getting out the door earlier in the morning for a workout.6 To get to the reward, you need to be mentally ready for the things in your way.
Try This: Program Your Brain with "if-then" Thinking.
If you miss a morning workout, then you'll take an after-dinner walk. If you keep skipping your daily exercise, then you'll make plans with a friend to do it together.
That way, you'll have a solution at the ready when you hit a setback. And your bad days won't knock you off course.6
You're Comparing Yourself to Others
Comparison is an old habit of the human brain, whether it's your body, your bench press, or your health progress – comparison can get in the way of reaching your goal.
Research links the tendency to compare yourself with others to lower self-esteem. And that link carries through to how people use social media. If you're measuring yourself against other people while scrolling, then you can be making yourself feel worse.7
But you can break the pattern.
Try This: Lean on Supportive Relationships.
Schedule a walk or a coffee date with someone who makes you feel supported. Feeling connected to individuals you care about is linked to higher self-esteem and empathy.8
If you're feeling low after scrolling through Facebook, then take a break from the constant feed. One study showed that limiting social media to just 10 minutes a day per social platform for three weeks had a significant beneficial impact on feelings of loneliness and depression.9
Spending less time and energy on comparing yourself with others can help you feel better and bring you closer to your goal.
The steps to self-improvement are usually obvious. Taking those steps is the tricky part. Unhealthy habits can stick, even when you know better. Working with your brain and recognizing thoughts that get in your way will help you take the steps that lead to lasting change.
- Breaking bad habits: Why it's so hard to change. National Institute of Health News in Health. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2012/01/breaking-bad-habits. [Accessed Feb. 11, 2022.]
- Kwasnicka D, Dombrowski SU, White M, Sniehotta F. Theoretical explanations for maintenance of behaviour change: A systematic review of behaviour theories. Health Psychol Rev 2016;10(3):277-296
- Squire LR, Berg D, Bloom FE, et al. Reward, motivation and addiction. In: Fundamental Neuroscience 4th ed. Netherlands: Elsevier, Inc.; 2013.
- Homan KJ, Sirois FM. Self-compassion and physical health: Exploring the roles of perceived stress and health-promoting behaviors. Health Psychol Open 2017;4(2):2055102917729542.
- Pearl RL, Wadden TA, Hopkins CM, et al. Association between weight bias internalization and metabolic syndrome among treatment-seeking individuals with obesity. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2017;25(2):317-322.
- Cross A, Sheffield D. Mental contrasting as a behaviour change technique: a systematic review protocol paper of effects, mediators and moderators on health. Syst Rev 2016;5(1):201.
- Bergagna E, Tartaglia S. Self-Esteem, social comparison, and Facebook use. Eur J Psychol 2018;14(4):831-845.
- Seppala E. Connectedness and health: The science of social connection. The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. http://ccare.stanford.edu/uncategorized/connectedness-health-the-science-of-social-connection-infographic/. [Accessed Feb. 10, 2022.]
- Hunt MG, Marx R, Lipson C, Young J. No more FOMO: Limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. J Soc Clin Psychol 2018;37:751-768.