Making new habits: Why can it be difficult?

“A GOAL without a PLAN is just a WISH.”


We have all struggled to break an existing habit or implement a new habit. Why? What makes it so difficult? We’ll cover all you need to know in the following sections:

1. What are habits?

2. What is the process to change a habit?

3. Where do we get stuck?

4. Tips for success!


1. What are habits?


Habits are simply behaviors that we repeat on a regular basis. Some of our habits occur almost automatically. Often, we don’t even notice the forces that maintain our habits: Cues and Rewards.


We have cues that trigger certain behaviors. Cues can be anything prior to a behavior that increase the likelihood of that behavior. Cues can be things in our environment, body, or routine, as well as places, spaces, sounds, smells, and even people. Often there are several cues working at once to prompt a particular behavior.


Cue examples: An alarm may trigger you to wake up and check social media. A “ding” may cue you to check your calendar for your next meeting. Being in the living room may trigger turning on the TV. Feeling tired may be a cue to drink coffee. Smelling something tasty may change what you order for lunch. Socializing with friends may be a cue to go out for drinks.


We also have rewards that follow the behaviors. Rewards can be anything during or after the behavior that reinforce our habits and make us more likely to repeat that behavior. Rewards can be things like emotions or sensations we enjoy, positive thoughts, happy chemicals like dopamine, gifts, treats, being praised or noticed by others, getting recognition, and even money.


Reward examples: Happy chemicals are released in the brain during/after eating. You feel more awake and alert after drinking coffee. You have a great time with a friend every time you get together. You receive a praise or a promotion for your hard work. These increase the likelihood that we would maintain our behaviors: If you have a great time with someone, you are likely to meet them again. If you have lost a couple pounds, you may continue a diet.


Cues and rewards shape our behaviors. With enough cues and rewards, our everyday behaviors are repeated and over time become habits and routines. We often carry out our habits almost automatically, mindlessly, without thinking.


2. What is the process to change a habit?


The Stages of Change Model shows the different stages of trying to develop a new habit. There are six stages in this process. The Precontemplation Stage describes when a person is not even thinking about making any changes. The Contemplation Stage is when a person recognizes there is a habit they may want to change but is not doing anything about it yet. (e.g., “I really should do something about my weight.”) The Preparation Stage is when a person begins planning and taking small steps to ready themselves for a change (e.g., considering their options, researching a diet plan, joining a gym, recruiting support from a friend). The Action Stage is when a person starts implementing the change to try to build a new habit (e.g., started walking 30 mins/day). When things go well, the Action Stage proceeds into the Maintenance Stage, where the person is able to maintain the change, and has successfully developed a new habit.


Ideally, we would like to proceed through those stages without any hiccups, but that is rare. This is why there is a sixth stage: Relapse. When we are trying to implement these changes and turn a new behavior into a habit, we have small slips-ups when we fall off track (lapses) and even big slip-ups when we get completely derailed and return to our old habits (relapses). Lapses and relapses commonly interrupt the Action and Maintenance stage. This is normal! That’s why they are recognized as one of the stages of change. We can expect hiccups when making a change.


Additionally, these stages of change are not linear. The model is typically shown as a cycle, but we do not proceed through each stage in a linear fashion. It also takes A LOT to successfully transition from Preparation to Action. We can lay the best plans and still have difficulty following through and turning those ideas into action. That step from Preparation to Action is a more of a leap. It takes very little for things to go poorly, and a lot of things need to be in place for things to go well.


3. Common pitfalls: Where do we get stuck?


There are many challenges and barriers to developing a new habit. Often, developing a new habit has two parts: it is not just about adding a new behavior, but also discontinuing or changing an old behavior.


Old habits are hard to break for many reasons. First, cues are powerful! When we are not actively thinking about it and mindful of what we are doing, that behavior seems to happen automatically. The cues are working, even if we don’t notice them, so often the existing habit is not even an active or conscious choice. Second, rewards are powerful! That old habit is hard to break because it is probably working for us and serving a benefit in some way. When we drink that cup of coffee, we are rewarded with alertness and productivity, happy chemicals from consuming something tasty, and alleviation from that groggy feeling. When we watch TV at the end of the night to unwind, it is effective in helping us relax and we have something to talk about with colleagues the next day. The rewards of that action keep us coming back. Third, repetition is powerful! The existing habit is often deeply engrained in our procedural memory. It has become your auto-pilot or default-mode. The rote nature of this habit gives it momentum and “staying power,” and requires thought and effort to override. Between of cues, rewards, and repetition, breaking the old habit is half the battle to forming a new one.


Then there is the other half of the battle: forming a new habit. Many challenges can arise when trying to form a new habit.


One of the most common reasons people are not successful: we want to make the change all at once. If the goal is too ambitious, it is neither realistic nor sustainable. We want to go from eating a hearty dinner and dessert every night to eating salads. We try to go from no exercise to walking 1 mile/day. Although this “cold turkey” approach works for some, a gradual approach is more effective for most people. Instead, make that a long-term goal that you will achieve 4 weeks from now. Then, set small goals in a gradual or stepwise fashion to work up to that goal. (Eat salad 2x/wk the first week, 4x/wk the second week, 6x/wk the third week, 7x/wk the fourth week; walk 0.25 mile/day for the first week, and increase each successive week to 0.5 mile/day, 0.75 miles/day, and then 1 miles/day.) People often try to do too much too quickly.


All-or-nothing thinking is the Achilles heel of the “cold turkey” approach. Perfectionism can be our worst enemy in sustaining a behavior change. If we miss one day or fall off track oven once, then we have not met our goal. (Imagine setting the goals to floss daily for the next month, and then missing on days 5 through 7). That slip-up is often mistakenly interpreted as a failure, as if we are starting back from square one because we broke the streak. We overlook the fact that any change we made was still progress – flossing 4 times per week is far better than 0, and still an objective improvement in your dental health regimen. Furthermore, with all-or-nothing thinking, a lapse can quickly put you at risk of a relapse: “I already had a sweet treat at breakfast, so now I might as well have a total cheat weekend.” This all-or-nothing thinking is related to another common pitfall: People don’t prepare for lapses or falling off track. Lapses and Relapses are common (often inevitable) stages of the change process. Expect them. Maybe even plan for them! Look at the week ahead and decide which days may become “cheat days.” (I have too many meetings on Wednesday to make time for a long walk. Friday I’ll be out with friends and I am going to want to eat dessert.) Plan ahead for the lapse and give yourself permission. After a lapse, have some self-compassion and forgiveness to help you recover and get back-on-track. The ability to recover from lapses often separates those who succeed in effectively changing their habits from those who don’t.


Next, let’s talk about cues and rewards. People often don’t implement enough cues. Try adding reminders, alarms, and alerts, telling friends, putting visual post-its, writing it on your planner/calendar, having your exercise clothes and sneakers ready by the door, putting the healthy foods at the front of the fridge in plain sight, stowing away snacks in places that are difficult to see/access. Cues help you to be mindful about actively choosing that new behavior. Second, insufficient rewards is another common pitfall. Sometimes the new behavior doesn’t have any immediate rewards, and people forget to add their own rewards. People often mistakenly believe they can/should follow through with the behavior on will-power alone. But that myth is a recipe for lapse or relapse. Apply some small (or big!) effective rewards – a piece of chocolate, 15 minutes of your favorite game, a stand-up comedy clip, an outing with friends – immediately after doing the behavior. This increases the likelihood of turning it into a habit.


There are also many other mental and behavioral barriers to building a new habit. Doing something new is hard. Making a change can be difficult. You are rewiring your brain – you are trying to make your brain learn a new way of doing things. It requires far more effort to change than to stay the same. Change can also be scary. You may be trying something new that you have not tried before. There are unknowns. There is a risk of not succeeding. Furthermore, we are often excited about the new habit, but we sometimes overlook that new behaviors also have downsides. There are almost always cons to starting the new behavior that we often minimize or overlook. For example, the new habit may take time or cost money. A new exercise regimen may not feel good in the beginning - you may feel pain and discomfort. We may not like the taste of salad, we may feel hungry sometimes on a new diet, we may lose the social aspects associated with our former habits. There are plenty of reasons NOT to do this new behavior, and these forces may deter us from following through with the behavior. Relatedly, sometimes people have not honed in on their reasons for making the behavior change. You need to find your “why.” Really think about all the reasons this new behavior is so important to you. Remembering your “why” can help with motivation when you are struggling to follow through.


Finally, people underestimate the amount of supports and scaffolding the need to add around this behavior change to make it possible. Add as many supports, reminders, structure, and specifics as possible.


4. Tips for success!


Be flexible! As you get started, you may notice new or unanticipated challenges, and you may need to make some adjustments. If you are not meeting your goal, look out for ways to make it more feasible, easier, or more enjoyable for yourself. It’s okay to (a) adjust the goal or (b) boost the supports you put in place.


Make it routine. Do your new habit at the same time and same place everyday, at least in the beginning. The habitual nature helps engrain this in your procedural memory so it becomes more automatic.


Do the first step in the sequence. Usually, if you can simply commit to doing the smallest first step in the sequence, you are likely to do continue on the cascade of the remaining steps. (If you’re trying to exercise more, just put on your sneakers. If you’re trying to eat more fruits/vegetables, just rinse and chop them. Once you’ve started, you may find it hard to resist doing a short workout or nibbling on those veggies!)


Plan ahead. Set the stage for the habit. Put your floss on your phone before you go to bed. Use your last bathroom break of the day to change into your workout clothes so you don’t have to stop at home and change before going back to the gym.


Pair it with something you already do. Tether the new habit to an existing part of your day. It’s easier to add a habit to one that is already existing, than to build a new routine from scratch. For example, if you’re trying to floss daily, keep the floss out next to your toothbrush and plan to floss before brushing your teeth. If you always make a cup of Coffee/Tea, keep the floss next to your pot, and plan to floss while it’s brewing/steeping before you start sipping. Pair your goal to call family weekly with your weekly drive to the supermarket.


Make it a SMART Goal. Make your new habit a SMART goal.

- Specific: When, Where, and how will you do this habit?

- Measurable: How much will you do? How often?

- Achievable: Realistic, bite-sized, paired with something that is already part of daily

routine

- Relevant: The habit aligns with a goal or value that is important to you.

- Time-bound: When will you start? When will you complete this by?


Plan for lapses! Expect them! Schedule them. Have a plan in place for what to do if you have had a lapse (call a friend and make a plan to follow-through on your new habit the next day). Remember, a lapse is not a failure; it’s just one of the six Stages of Change that you will inevitably experience as part of the change process when building a new habit.

Tips in a nutshell:

  • Make it Realistic:

  • Don’t pick a habit that feels like torture. The feeling of punishment is difficult to overcome and may thwart your motivation!

  • Make the change gradually. Break down a big long-term-goal into gradual change over time.

  • Aim for small changes first, and add later. Initially, make the habit change so small you almost can’t fail.

  • Make the habit a SMART goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

  • Ask yourself: Is there a way I can make it easier for myself?

  • Ask yourself: Is there a way I can make this more achievable and realistic?

  • Be flexible when figuring out the best way to work-in this new habit.

  • Break down big habits into smaller steps or parts. (Instead of working out for 30 minutes a day, do 10 mins x 3 times.)

  • Try out the habit a few times and make adjustments. Ask yourself again: Is there a way I can make it easier or more realistic and achievable for myself?

  • Sort out Practicalities and Logistics:

  • Streamline the habit: Have everything you need visible and ready.

  • Add lots of cues, reminders, alarms.

  • Use technology, apps, or trackers.

  • Put it on your calendar or planner.

  • Make it routine (e.g. same time each day).

  • Pair it with an existing habit or routine, or something you already do.

  • If nothing else, aim to do the first step in the sequence.

  • Plan for lapses! Expect them, schedule them, and practice recovering from them.

  • Have your Rewards ready.

  • Boost your Motivation:

  • Use rewards!

  • Affirm your goal/intention: write it down, state it out loud.

  • Talk about the habits you are trying to change with others.

  • Pick a habit you are excited and passionate about.

  • Pick a habit that is important and meaningful to you.

  • Practice positive self-talk and self-compassion.

  • Be a cheerleader (not a bully) to yourself.

  • Tell yourself you CAN!

  • Make a list of all the short- and long-term benefits.

  • Name your reasons. Find your “why.”

  • Make a short and catchy Mantra!

  • "I can ______."

  • “I am doing it for _____."

  • Post it visibly in the space where this habit will occur.

  • Say it aloud to pep yourself up!

  • Use Social Supports

  • Tell someone your goal/intention

  • Ask them to help hold you accountable.

  • Invite someone to join you in setting this goal or making this change.

  • Join a group with the same goal.

  • Befriend and surround yourself with people who have the habits you are trying to develop.

  • Seek professional support from a therapist or coach.

If you would like professional support on how to implement healthy new habits in your life, please reach out. Our staff is ready to support you as we discuss ways to overcome these challenges. Contact us at 1-833-QHCARES or visit our website at https://www.qhealthonline.com/


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