Succeed in changing your most stubborn habits

Everyone has one or two habits that they would love to have or lose. However, not many actually are able to change them. Why is changing your habits so hard and what can help? These tips really worked for me on several occasions, mostly when I lost a lot of weight.

Why is it so hard?

Most habits are born out of necessity in some way. For instance, the habit of snacking on junk food is born out of the evolutionary need for calories. The problem with this is however, that in the current economy and in Western culture, there are not many people that are not able to eat enough calories in a day anymore. Therefore, your brain tells you to eat fatty and sugary stuff, whereas the rest of your body has had enough of those already.

Then, some habits only make your brain think it needs something to survive, like alcohol or smoking. With both, there is the obvious physical component of the addiction. However, in many situations, there is another strong component at play, which is the need to belong. As group animals, we would do almost anything in order to be accepted by the group. A lot of addictions at least start in a social context, like having nice chats over a cigarette or the fun dinner parties with just a little too much wine present. Changing habits that used to enable us to be social, go in against this need to belong and are therefore hard to maintain.

The last aspect is maybe the hardest one of all the reasons and this is our working memory. It has been found that only about 5% of all the stimuli that we receive in processed thoroughly. This means that although we do process the rest, it is not really in our conscious minds. Many habits are being done fairly automatically. They thus don’t require much conscious attention anymore, which makes it easy for us to do. Changing this does require a lot of attention and thus, you have to force the behavior into the conscious. This is for instance very hard when people bite their nails, since they do it so automatically that they don’t even notice it anymore. And if you don’t know it’s there, how are you ever going to change it?

However, as I just mentioned, most behaviours are very instinctive, so don’t feel too bad about doing them. They could have saved your life, if you were only born in another place or era. Accepting that you are not perfect is the most important first step. Punishing yourself will prevent you from making the stimulating hormones you need to be proud and continue the good behaviours. So, don’t beat yourself up if you slip up. Take a deep breath, and look for ways to prevent this from happening the next time.

The bad habit

We all know of a few examples of bad habits. Some are small annoying things to quite harmful behavior in the long run. But how do we get rid of those? The first thing I would recommend is to look at specific behaviors. Instead of changing ‘eating unhealthy foods’, look at when you mostly tend to eat unhealthy foods. What barriers are there that keep you from eating healthily now? What kind of food tempts you the most.

The second step is based to divide all of these habits up in small ones. So from now on, you are not ‘trying to eat healthier’, but you are trying to ‘stop eating chips every evening on the couch’. An example for me is that I know that I tend to have unhealthy dinners when I come home tired. Therefore, buying groceries in advance that are quick to prepare helps me to adhere to my goal instead of ordering pizza. This way, it will seem more achievable and it will need less attention. Critical moments are now specified to only a small part of the day, instead of every moment. Eating healthy is something that you always have to be aware of. However, you just can’t be focused on that all day. By specifying times and locations, you can give yourself cues that remind you of your vow. It even helps more if you write it down or say it out loud (to someone or yourself). This sentence should start with ‘If …, then…’, so ‘If I am on the couch and I am feeling hungry, then I will not eat chips’. These sentences are called implementation intentions. They can have a huge effect on our behavior, as silly as they may sound. By actually making this vow with someone else present, you also get the phenomenon of social pressure on your side. You probably don’t want to let that person down as well, which strengthens the effect.

However, quitting something can leave a void, which makes it harder to withstand temptation. Therefore, I would always recommend to replace the bad habit with a better one. So instead of taking a cigarette break, you go for a walk. Instead of taking those chips, you take some grapes. They offer the same effects (relaxation, being able to munch on something), but without the negative consequences. I therefore also use a lot of healthier versions of unhealthy foods, like my Healthy pizza recipe. This is also why I talk of changing your habits, instead of getting rid of bad ones.

The good habit

So actually, creating good habits might come with getting rid of bad ones. This is why, if you are trying to get rid of a bad habit, you should still keep on reading. We start with something very obvious, but it can be a major factor. It is to enable yourself to do the good behaviours. If you are going to eat healthier, you need healthy foods in the fridge. If you are taking a walk, you need to have a reachable route nearby and the most frequently used excuse: you need to have (read: make) time.

So let’s begin with time, since it is a major one. When taking on a project like changing your habits, you need time and mental space to do so. I don’t know any examples of people that were stressed out already that were able to completely change their behaviour. Luckily though, time can be made. For instance, I know I am always in a hurry in the mornings, which is why I prep my Overnight oats in the evening. This is why there is no excuse for me to eat something bought at the train station instead of having a home-made breakfast. And you can’t tell me that if you don’t have time to walk one block around the building, but you do have time to smoke. Time is also one of the reasons why I suggest to divide the goal into smaller habits. Changing one small habit does not cost a lot of time and energy so you can easily fit it into your schedule one at the time.

And in changing habits, planning is often important to enable yourself to act desirably. You can take food with you, meal prep or at least think of recipes or walking routes. You could also find replacement behaviours. For instance, some people are helped by replacing biting their nails by blowing on their nails or turning their rings around instead. Although these are not good habits, they are not as bad either. In planning all this, you need to find ways to make it practical for you. This can give you time to prepare things in advance and discover what are things that are easy to prep. This phase does take somewhat more work. Thus, you should sit yourself down on a weekend to think about it and make plans. For instance, it helped me to write down quick, healthy recipes in a notebook. Instead of having to think about what to cook every evening after work, I can just look in there for inspiration.

The next important factor is fun. If you hate doing something, it is harder to stick to it. This will keep you from changing your behaviour for the better. For instance, I don’t like group lessons when exercising, so although they work for some people due to group pressure. This gives me a negative feeling when thinking about my goal. It will then slim the chances of me sticking to the behavior. To avoid this, I invested some time into looking at sports I do like and I bought myself a cute outfit to motivate me. In eating healthy, I only cook things I love. This might cost a bit more, but it is better than living on boring salads. This is why I made the food overview in The Happy Brain diet. It is solely based on foods I already like, instead of foods that might be higher in the substances I need from them, but that don’t taste good to me.

To conclude

So, if changing your habits is something you want, a few things are needed. The first and most important one is using baby steps. They enable you to make time for it and believe that you can do it. In addition, it was also found that if you change one thing for the better, others are more likely to follow automatically. This is, because it changes the way you perceive yourself. A common barrier for behaviours is cognitive dissonance. By letting yourself believe you can change, you will improve at changing the other habits. Thus, these baby steps will create a beautiful domino effect towards your end goal.

The second step is to make the new behaviour satisfying. This will create a positive feeling when thinking about it, making the barriers smaller next time you do it, as a sort of Pavlov effect.

I hope this will help you to change any habit you seek to change. Which one is it for you?

Lots of love,


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Home » Mind » Self-care » Succeed in changing your most stubborn habits

Hi there! My name is Lisa and I am the author of Mind and Body Intertwined. I have a bachelor's and a master's degree in psychology. During my study, I found out how much the mind and the body are connected and it fascinated me, which is why I started my blog. Would you like to join me on this little corner of the world?

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