Habits: Your worst enemies … or your best friends?

“Don’t you have those moments?”, my friend exclaims quite forlorn. “When you feel like there’s something else you should be doing with your life?”

She has felt like this for a while now. And she increasingly feels she needs to find a way to change. It’s not like she thinks her life is utterly miserable. Or that she hasn’t done anything useful. But somehow it feels like there’s another path to take. She has tried to discover what that might be. And yet, she doesn’t get round to exploring it, let alone to actually making it happen. Unfortunately, a few of her habits – some quite subtle and seemingly benign – continue to get in her way …

This month’s Insight focuses on how to prevent habits from becoming your worst enemies in discovering what you want. And even better: How to turn habits into your best friends.


1. Why do we even have habits?

In a way, habits are your brain’s way of saving energy. To understand this, you have to realise that anything you do, think or feel requires the collaboration of millions of nerve cells. This is one of the reasons why your brain easily takes up 20% of your daily energy consumption in resting state. It’s a power house! Don’t worry if this sounds a bit unfamiliar. Just have a look at the article “Meet your biggest ally: Your brain“.

Now, in ancient times, our ancestors would regularly find themselves unsuccessful in hunting and gathering food. Famine was a constant threat and not spending any more energy than absolutely necessary could make all the difference in survival.

Of course, over the past millennia, humans have been able to change their environment extensively. Although famine still exists, many of us have unprecedented access to all kinds of fresh and processed foods and beverages. But our bodies and brains haven’t yet adjusted to this. Largely because those past millennia are just a blink in the 2.5 million years of human evolution. Our bodies and brains are still geared towards being as energy-efficient as possible.

When you have a habit, it means that (literally!) millions of brain cells have developed an ingrained pattern of signals across different parts of your brain. It takes little to activate this so-called neural pathway. In a way, it has become “automatic”. You don’t have to consciously think about what you’re doing. And energy expenditure is kept to a minimum.

2. Why are habits sometimes so difficult to break?

Basically, because habits were never meant to be broken! You see, your brain focuses on helping you learn and “automate” the behaviours that you seem to be doing more often (e.g. as you get into a habit). When you are still “in the habit” of doing something, the signal pattern in your brain is fully present and active. It is very easily triggered, which is why it can be so very difficult to break. Especially, when you’ve had that habit for a long time and have been doing it frequently.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? But why is it that we so easily fall back into habits we haven’t been doing for a long time? To understand this, we again need to go back to ancient times and the way our ancestors faced seasonal fluctuations.

For example, in the spring, our ancestors would not use any habits related to picking autumn berries. And they would would not use any fishing-related habits whenever the rivers would recede and dry out. But once autumn or the wet season would arrive again, those habits could be critical to survival. And it would be very inefficient – and possibly even fatal – if they would then have to learn everything anew as if from scratch.

What happens when you don’t use a habit for a while, is that the associated neural pathways become sparser and less active (again, your brain is saving energy). But when that habit is drawn upon again in the future, the brain simply reactivates the core neural pathway that is still there and physically increases its density and activity (also see the article “Too much to learn: Here’s what to do” for more insights on your brain’s amazing adaptability).

So – to put it simple – your brain not only helps you to “automate” behaviours, it also helps you to have them on standby in energy-saving mode for future use.

Bad news if you happen to have habits that get in the way of discovering what you want and that you may want to break.


3. Habits that interfere with discovering what you want

Discovering what you want is all about reflecting on your past and present experiences, exploring new worlds and parts of yourself, and enabling yourself to choose and live according to your choices (for some tips and inspiration, have a look at “Small & simple things to start with today“, “Burning through the fog in your mind” or “The art and craft of living of your own free will“).

The trick is to create the time, energy and courage to set out on this journey. Unfortunately, your habits can get in the way …

Take a look at your habits for a moment. You’ll probably have some obvious candidates that interfere with discovering what you want. If you always plan your time full of activities, little time may remain to reflect. Having a habit of crashing on the couch in the evening and staying there until bedtime won’t help you either. And always hanging out with the same people means that new worlds with other people won’t open up to you that easily.

Most people also have more subtle habits that get in the way. They are often disguised as “the right thing to do” or “being a good person”. Always saying yes to additional chores at work may leave you little time to explore new worlds. Continuously being there for that self-indulging friend drains you of energy you could have used in other ways. Hanging out with people who don’t encourage you (or even belittle your dreams) won’t help you muster the courage to try something new.

So what is your top 5 of habits – obvious or subtle – that are currently not helping you? Which ones would you like to break?


4. Breaking habits

But how do you break habits, if they were never really meant to be completely broken in the first place? What’s key is to find ways to not engage in those habits for a prolonged period of time. The longer a neural pathway is not activated, the sparser and inactive it will become (note again that it will not easily fully disappear).

So how do you keep yourself from engaging in a habit? Some of it is about commitment and discipline, but a lot is also about finding ways to deceive your brain a little bit! Most of all, it’s about getting creative!

So let’s have some fun! 🙂


a. Turn off the triggers!

Habits take place in a certain context: things that are always the same when you engage in that habit. It could be all kinds of things. The time of day. The looks of your environment. The sounds you hear. The feelings you have. You may not even be aware of some of it. But this context has become part of the signal pattern in your brain associated with that particular habit.

Now, breaking a habit becomes much easier when you take away as many associated triggers as possible. In a way you’re fooling your brain a little bit by trying to fake a different context.

Want to stop lounging in front of the TV all evening? Rearrange the furniture! Paint the walls! Sit on a different chair! Have tea instead of coffee after dinner! Get the dirty dishes out of sight! Let go of your after-a-day’s-work feelings by doing some expressive writing! And so on …

The more you manage to turn off the associated triggers, the less the signal pattern gets activated and the easier it will be to withstand the urge to just sit on the couch (of course, you’d need to avoid getting back into the habit once you’ve made the changes).

b. Commit to not doing something for a certain period

Another way to start breaking a habit – one that requires a bit of discipline – is to commit to just not doing something for a certain period. For example, commit to not turning on your TV for an entire week (trust me, it won’t kill you). What happens naturally? What do you end up filling your time with? Going through your social media (still on the couch)? Or can you fill the time doing something that helps you discover what you want?

c. Time to replace!

You could try and withstand a habit, but an altogether different approach is to do something completely different instead. To basically replace the habit with another one. Try going for something that is incompatible with the habit you’re trying to break, perhaps doing the exact opposite. Of course, preferably something that is helpful in discovering what you want.

So instead of lounging on the couch, go out for a walk and take a different route every time. Join some event you would otherwise not attend. Take on a new hobby or meet new people. Do something that would help you explore new worlds and reflect on your experiences.

It may not come easy. Your old habits might be pulling you in, while your new habits aren’t that strong yet. But remember: your brain will adjust and the new behaviours will become automatic too. The trick is to keep trying long enough, so your brain has enough time to physically adjust!

d. Tips for the difficult moments

All this said, there will probably still be difficult moments. Here are some thoughts on how to help yourself get through them.

1. Coach yourself

Talk to yourself! No really, talk to yourself! Out loud! …”I feel like sitting on the couch, but no, I will go out!”, “I don’t really like the taste of these carrots, but this is actually very healthy.” “Ok! Let’s do it! Let’s sit down to write some reflections!”

This way your brain will not only pick up on the (silent) thoughts you have inside yourself, but will also integrate the sensory sensations of speaking and listening, apart from the content of your words (remember that all of this activates nerve cells in your brain!).

2. Write!

Instead of succumbing to your old habit, sit down to write when it gets tough. Capture literally what you are thinking and feeling. The physical act of writing, the labelling of your thoughts and feelings in language, the visual input of your words on paper. They all help the brain to reframe and break the associations you don’t want (and while you’re at it, you might as well use it to discover what you want! For tips, let me refer you again to a tried and tested technique in burning through the fog in your mind).

3. Seek distraction

Get your mind on something else. Do something that will distract you.

4. Get help

If there’s anyone around who can help you through the difficult moments, get them to support you in any way they can.

5. Be patient

It’s ok to have a bad day. Be patient with yourself. Try to remember that your brain needs time to adjust and that for many of us habits can be rather sticky. Be happy with the steps you are taking. Don’t be too disappointed when you mess up a few times. In the long run it’s about continuing to try.

6. Stay fit

And last but not least, it definitely helps to be in a good physical and mental state, so that you are yourself fit enough to set out on your journey and so that your brain gets every opportunity to physically adapt. Continue to take care of yourself. Eat and drink healthily, do some sports, sleep well, manage your stress levels …


5. Refocus: Habits as your best friends in discovering what you want

Now, change focus! We’ve looked quite enough at habits that interfere with discovering what you want. Now let’s focus on habits that actually help you in discovering what you want.

Look at your current habits again. Which ones actually help you create the time, energy and courage to explore new worlds? To reflect on your experiences? To decide what to choose and to live according to your choices? Could you think of possible, new habits that could help you on your path (if you need some inspiration and haven’t seen the article yet, have a look at “Small & simple things to start with today“)?

Here are some tips around helpful habits!

a. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

If you already have habits that actually support you, hang on to them! Focus on nourishing them and help your brain to ingrain them still a little bit more. The more they are entrenched in neural pathways, the better they will stick, also in the long run.

b. Re-activate old helpful habits

If you once had habits that would be beneficial to you now, re-activate them. The core neural pathways in your brain are still there and only need a little bit of rekindling to start back up again.

c. Develop new helpful habits

Focus on developing new habits that would actually help you on your journey to discover what you want. Planning 20% of your time free to do something you’ve never done before. Getting up half an hour earlier to write a reflection on a new experience. Hanging out with friends who are supportive and cheer you on every Friday. Et cetera …

You may wonder how long it actually takes to develop a new habit. “21 days!”, is what you may have heard people say. Well, yes and no. These 21 days (or 3 weeks) are probably true for adopting relatively simple habits, such as drinking a glass of water at lunch or getting used to that person in the mirror when you’ve had extensive plastic surgery (the 21 days-finding originated in the 1950s through observations of plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz).¹

Fully adopting more complex habits, such as doing 30 minutes of yoga every morning, may take longer than 21 days. A British study by health psychologist Phillippa Lally and her colleagues – as an example – found that it took participants an average of 66 days before new health behaviours became fully automatic. That’s a good 2 months!²

How long it will take for you to adopt a particular new habit to the level where it becomes automatic, is difficult to predict. It depends on a number of different factors, such as:

    • How complex is the new habit?
    • Do you already have related experience (e.g. are there any pre-existing patterns in your brain)?
    • What else is going on in your life (e.g. how much focus and energy do you have)?
    • What state are you in, mentally and physically (e.g. does your brain have the time, energy and the right building blocks to make the necessary adjustments)?
    • Do you have people who can support you in the difficult moments (or are there people who actually make it more difficult)?

Don’t let this discourage you! The key message is that your brain is amazingly flexible. Put in the time and effort, and your brain will continue to adjust and new habits will become automatic.

So stick with it! Even when you mess up a few times. The messing up is not a problem for your brain. But do try again the next day. Repeat, repeat, repeat …

d. The role of habits in life-changing circumstances

Sometimes not knowing what you want is the result of circumstances that completely change your life. Such as when you’re diagnosed with a disabling disease or when you have to leave your country as a refugee of war. Or when your partner suddenly leaves you after 16 years of marriage.

When the changes in your life are absolutely overwhelming, habits can take on a very different role as stabilising anchors. They offer routines that are familiar and that can help create some form of structure in a day.

The can also help your brain as it’s working overtime, struggling to adapt. Habits draw on already existing neural pathways and can sometimes help your brain integrate all kinds of new signal patterns, making the required adjustments easier and quicker.

So when life changes all around you, whether by your own choice or not, try to stick to some routines, as small or futile as they may seem. So continue to get up at 7am, continue to tend to your attire instead of neglecting yourself in the morning, continue to pray or meditate, continue to have that little afternoon-chat with your neighbours, continue to do the sport or hobby you’ve always done.

Sticking to habits will help you buffer the impact of all that change, especially when those habits are neutral or even beneficial in character (also see “When life as you know it ceases to exist – How to face the challenging mix of priorities in life-changing conditions“).


Key sources for this month’s Insight: (1) Biological psychology, James W. Kalat (2014, 11th edition). Course Technology, Cengage Learning EMEA, UK. (2) Human Anatomy & Physiology, Elaine N. Marieb & Katja Hoehn (2016, 10th edition). Pearson, London UK, (3) BrainFacts at www.brainfacts.org, (4) the Dana Foundation at www.dana.org, and (5) SharpBrains at www.sharpbrains.com.

1. Maxwell Maltz’s original findings were included in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics. In 2015, this original work was included a new and adjusted edition with Dan Kennedy registering as co-author. It’s called “Psycho-Cybernetics: Updated and Expanded”.

2. For the original article, see Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How habits are formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.


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