How to change our habits

We all have habits that we would really like to change, but we still just carry on doing them, and we perhaps don’t have the habits that we know we ought to have. For example, you probably think you should do more exercise, and you might even join a gym, but after a couple of months you somehow stop going.


I looked at why we find it so hard to change in a previous article from a different point of view, and here is another approach. See which works best for you – in the end, that is what matters.


Habits in themselves are in fact very useful, because they free up the brain’s resources to do more interesting things. Think about how you clean your teeth, for example. Actually, you probably don’t think about it, because it’s a very well established habit. You hardly notice you are doing it, and you might even be thinking about other things while you do it.

Try this experiment: next time you clean your teeth, do it with your non-dominant hand. It’s really difficult! That’s because you are using a lot of attention to complete an unfamiliar activity, but if you were to do it every day you would eventually find it easier.

Then there is driving a car, or even riding a bike. If you are an experienced driver, you probably arrive at your destination with little memory of how many times you changed gear, or even what route you took, if it was familiar. I remember when I first started driving, I had to say to myself out loud the number of the gear I was in every time I changed, but now it’s automatic!

On a neurological level, our neurons form connections, and those that are repeated will strengthen, and lo - you have a habit! These connections are very hard to break, and they never go away entirely. This is why, for example, even if you haven’t ridden a bike for years, you will soon remember how to do it when you get on again – the pathways are there.

The good news is that the pathways you don’t want can be overlaid with new habits that in turn will become embedded and strengthened.

How to do it...

The expert here is James Clear, who wrote a wonderful, concise book on how to establish new habits (Atomic Habits), which I thoroughly recommend to you. It’s all about the small but powerful changes we can make. Here are the principles for embedding your new habit,

  • Make it obvious; if you want to eat better food, make sure you have it in the house right under your nose. Say... a bowl of fruit on the table instead of a plate of biscuits. If you want to practice your piano scales, have the piano in a room you use often and keep it clear, so you don’t have to move ornaments and papers off before you even sit down and start. Keep your gym bag in the car so it’s ready on your way back from work.
  • Make it attractive; if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t do it. So, as regards the gym, will it help if you get some nice gym wear in which you feel comfortable? For food, find a nice recipe that you like the look of. For walking, join the National Trust and enjoy beautiful places! You can also associate with a habit you have that you like; for instance as you sit down to a nice meal, you can start to think of one thing you are grateful for (this is a beneficial habit in itself).
  • Make it easy; if there any obstacles, you are less likely to do it. So, have your gym kit packed and ready so you haven’t got to search for it. Have a tidy environment and a clear desk so that it’s easy to write the next chapter of your book. If your phone distracts you, put it in another room for an hour.
  • Make it satisfying; we know that next year we will be glad if we lost that weight, changed that unsatisfactory job, did the exercise – but we want it now! One way to do this is, say you are cutting down on eating out, put £30 in a savings account every time you don’t go to the restaurant, and spend it. This is immediate gratification.

There is lots more in the book, and I strongly recommend it to you.

So, if you could wave that magic wand, what habits would you like to be free of, and what habits would you like to have? It’s all out there waiting for you!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Nottingham NG5 & NG2
Written by Barbara Bates, Accredited Personal & Executive Coach
Nottingham NG5 & NG2

Barbara is an experienced and qualified personal and executive coach with a professional background in health, social care and nursing. She works particularly with professional people under pressure to improve resilience, well-being and effectiveness. She also offers Skype/phone sessions, and online coaching programmes, especially about well-being.

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