One reason people fail to stick to healthy habits is their brain fights their efforts. Despite good intentions, your brain seeks safety and predictability. It likes things that are easy and familiar because those things are safe and help maintain homeostasis. It’s one reason people gravitate toward foods that taste good or are comforting, even though they may not be the healthiest choices. Your brain likes predictability and sees drastic lifestyle changes as a threat.
Despite your brain’s efforts to keep the status quo, your brain is malleable enough that you can rewire it. Brains have a characteristic known as “plasticity,” the ability to change and form new connections. Neuroscientists have found that even when people are “hardwired” to do something a certain way, they can still change their behavior through conscious effort. Then, through repetition, these behaviors become habits.
Studies show it takes at least 21 days to form a new habit and, sometimes, longer. However, there are ways to make adopting new habits easier. With enough practice, these new pathways become automatic so that you stop relying on willpower and start relying on habit instead.
You can flex your willpower just like a muscle
What role does willpower play in forming new habits? Most people think of willpower as finite, like a battery you drain and must recharge. When you do something that requires willpower—whether it’s eating less junk food or going for a run every morning—you use up some of your willpower and reach a point where your willpower reserves dwindle, and you fall back into old habits and rituals.
But what if willpower was like a muscle – the more you flexed your willpower, the stronger it got? That is what happens when you practice self-control. When you resist temptation or do something against your own desires for long enough, your brain starts to change. The region responsible for regulating behaviors associated with self-control—the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC)—becomes larger after people practice self-control techniques over time (University at Buffalo).
This means that exercising self-discipline becomes easier over time as your brain adapts but even when you stop practicing self-discipline for a while (or go through periods where there are fewer temptations), those increased neural connections remain ready and waiting when you need them again.
It takes time to break bad lifestyle habits
Even with new neural pathways in place, you still must stay vigilant to stay on track. Why? Because your brain will seek out what it knows (the old neural pathway) and avoid what it doesn’t know (the new path). The chance of reverting to old neural pathways increases when you’re under stress. That’s why people revert to old habits when their lives feel out of control. These habits feel safe and bring temporary comfort. But the more ingrained the habit, the easier it is to maintain and fall back on, even during times of stress.
Habit formation is a powerful phenomenon that allows you to do things automatically without thinking about them. It takes time to build and reinforce activities to the point that they become habits. So, you need to put in the time and effort to practice new habits until they become automatic. The same thing happens with any other habit—you must repeat it enough times, so it becomes second nature. This isn’t easy because our brains are wired for survival, not for happiness and success. But there are ways to help it along and make it easier for your brain to accept a new, healthy habit.
The basic framework for changing a habit:
- Identify what needs to change
- Create a new behavior (one that will help you reach your goal)
- Reward yourself for doing the new behavior
For example, suppose you come home after a long day at work and eat a doughnut and plop down on the couch. But your goal is to eat healthier and spend less time on the couch. Therefore, you need to create a new behavior or habit.
Instead of grabbing a doughnut when you get home, choose a healthier snack alternative, like raw veggies and hummus. Then, take a walk after your snack or do a quick HIIT routine. For every day that you do this, reward yourself. It could be a warm bubble bath or putting money into a jar, so you can save up for something you want in the future. Make yourself feel good for changing your behavior. Your brain will learn to associate that activity with pleasure.
Here are some other ways to increase your odds of success when tackling new lifestyle habits:
Don’t try to overhaul your life in one fell swoop. Choose one thing you know will make a difference, like drinking more water or making sure you get enough sleep each night. Once you’ve mastered that one habit, move on to another one.
Change One Thing at a Time
Don’t try to change everything at once because then it will feel overwhelming and impossible! Instead of worrying about all the things you want to change about yourself, focus on one small challenge at a time. Then, ensure it gets done before moving on to something else. Then when that habit is firmly in place, move on with confidence knowing that you can do anything!
Write Down What Works
Keep a journal of what you’re changing in your life and how it feels as you make those changes. Think of the long-term benefits of making healthy choices—not just what you’ll look like in a swimsuit next summer, but how it will affect your overall health and well-being. This will help convince you that it’s worth the effort.
Give yourself time and don’t get beat yourself up if you fall back into old habits now and then. Acknowledge and get back on track, reminding yourself again why it’s important to do so. Knowing your “why” helps you stay motivated.
Rewiring your brain to have healthier habits can seem like a daunting task but it’s possible to do so. With some practice and patience, your brain can build new neural pathways that will help make your goals a reality and a habit that’s part of your life, rather than something you struggle to do.
- “Neuroplasticity: How to Rewire Your Brain to Change Old Patterns.” 12 Nov. 2021, https://psychcentral.com/health/what-is-neuroplasticity.
- “How to Rewire Your Brain: 6 Neuroplasticity Exercises.” 16 Jun. 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/rewiring-your-brain.
- “Better habits, better brain health – Harvard Health.” 01 Sept. 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/better-habits-better-brain-health.
- “How to Change Unhealthy Habits | Psychology Today.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/renaissance-woman/201607/how-change-unhealthy-habits.
- “How Neuroplasticity Can Help You Get Rid Of Your Bad Habits.” 21 Nov. 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/archive/au/entry/how-neuroplasticity-can-help-you-get-rid-of-your-bad-habits_a_23283591.