Expert review by:
Dr Melissa Oldham

Habits can be both beneficial and detrimental to our health and wellbeing. This is why it is important to evaluate our habits and consider how we can establish new healthier behaviours into our routine. 

A habit is a behaviour that we repeat on a regular basis, and these often happen automatically without much conscious thought. Habits are formed by making behavioural associations with particular actions and contextual cues by repetitive patterns of behaviour. Our brains programme our behaviours in this way to allow us to focus on the conscious decisions in our day that take priority, rather than using up all our brain power on brushing our teeth or getting dressed. While there is good reason for our minds to process in this way, it can mean that some unhealthy behaviours can be worked into a daily routine without much consideration. Research has also shown that habits can outweigh intentions when it comes to some health behaviours.

A study from Duke University revealed that over 40% of our daily behaviours are determined by habits. This suggests that there is huge potential to influence your life by eliminating bad habits and creating good ones instead. Pretty empowering eh?

Breaking bad habits

Breaking bad habits can be tricky, especially if you have been doing them for a long time. But the brain is a very clever organ. It is malleable and can adapt and evolve over time through something called ‘neuroplasticity’. We can actually rewire the brain, through repeating new behaviours, to function differently. 

Think of it this way. The neural pathways in the brain are a bit like pathways in a forest. If you walk the same route everyday through the forest, that pathway will become wide and clear as it gets used overtime. If you stop using that pathway, and start walking a new route, then the old pathway, with discontinued use, will eventually become smaller, less easy to walk down, and eventually overgrown and unable to use. Equally, the new path will slowly, over time as you walk down it each day, become easier to walk down, with fewer obstructions, until in time it is a clear wide pathway that is easy to use. 

This reflects the process of breaking bad habits in the brain works. Initially, the brain wants to walk down the old pathway, because it’s familiar. But the longer that you practise the new habit in replacement of the old one, the bad habit will slowly fall out of your subconscious behaviours and be overwritten with your new habit. 

Implementing your new habit will take time, practise and motivation. As time goes on, the easier it will become until you no longer need to think consciously about this behaviour at all –  it just comes naturally. Below is some advice on how to break habits and change behaviour.

How to create positive habits

  • Evaluate your daily routine – what behaviours benefit or hinder you? 
  • Choose one of these to work on at a time and focus your attention on it.
  • Create an action plan. Write down or verbalise your intention to change this habit.
  • Monitor your progress. Either choose to hold yourself accountable for this change, or ask someone else to check in on your progress.
  • Remind yourself regularly
  • Celebrate your success!

Evaluating your habits

This may be easier said than done. If your habits are deeply ingrained in your routine, you may not be consciously aware of its impact. So, start off looking at your life with a birds eye view. What aspects of you are you happy about? Which aspects might you wish to see improvements in?

Create an action plan

Once you have decided on an area in which you’d like to make improvements, you can begin to hone in on particular behaviours that can help you reach this goal. It’s a good idea to create an action plan where you write down specific behaviours you will target.

For example, if you would like to improve your productivity throughout the day, you may wish to start off by introducing a proper sleeping schedule so you are able to wake up fresh and ready to tick things off your to-do list.

Once you have established a sleep schedule, you can move on to evaluating the next behaviour that might have a positive influence on your goal, such as keeping a diary, or starting off your day with 10 minutes of yoga or meditation

Once you have decided which habit you are going to focus your attention on, write it down somewhere. Include the reasons why you want to change this habit, and what benefits this will likely have on your life. Writing your intentions down helps to solidify your aims and allows you to hold yourself accountable.

Monitor your progress

It can be beneficial to keep track of your progress throughout the behaviour change process. Habit changes can be small, incremental edits that you may not notice day to day, but over a week or so, you can see how far you have come by reflecting on your journal entries. 

Remind yourself regularly

If this new habit is something you are incorporating into your life at a similar time each day, set a reminder on your phone or pop a note somewhere that you will see it to remind you to carry out this new behaviour. Alternatively, tell someone close to you about what you want to change, and ask them to encourage you to stay on track. 

Finally, celebrate your successes!

Behaviour change is difficult, if it weren’t, we would all be living picture perfect lives. They take hard work and dedication, so reward yourself for your achievement. 

How to maintain a positive habit

One of the reasons why attempts to change habits can fail is because the old neural pathway never disappears, and once you begin to walk down that old path again, it doesn’t take too long for the road to clear and for you to fall back into old patterns. 

This is why it is important to continue to check in with your new habits for a while after you form them. Keep referring back to the reasons why you wanted to make this improvement in your life, and don’t be hard on yourself if you notice things slipping back. Simply refocus on your goal and keep working on it until the old habit is a distant memory. 



Take the challenge



Sources: Neal, D. T.; Wood, W.; Wu, M.; Kurlander, D. (2011). The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1428–1437. doi:10.1177/0146167211419863 

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This