The foolproof route to healthier habits

Habits are the things we do on repeat. These small actions add up to the experience of life that we have, not just in terms of progress and personal growth but how we see ourselves and the world around us. And, consequently, how resilient and able to cope we are.


The really challenging thing about habits we’re not so fond of is that they can start to feel like they're part of us, especially when we've been doing them for years. Sometimes, they are developed in response to something that happened in childhood and we can then carry them through into an adult life where they don't really belong. That’s when they can become toxic and keep us trapped in a sad and non-resilient place.

So, what does it take to form new habits? Well, the intelligence on 21 days has been debunked many times, so if you've tried to do that and failed then it wasn’t your fault. It actually takes 18-254 days according to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Habits, depending on who you are and what the habit is - some habits take longer to form. You'll also find it harder if you have a lot of something called ‘limbic friction,’ which can arise if you're too tired or too anxious or distracted.

If you have a menstrual cycle then where you are in that will also have an impact on how easy you find it to drop old habits and form new ones. This is all about self-awareness and working with who you actually are not some external standard defined on the internet or by motivational accounts on Instagram. This is always the starting point for resilience - what you need to be resilient will be different to the next person so self-awareness is key.

This is what is crucial with habits:

a) being aware of the habits you have. 


b) being aware of why you have them.

How does it serve you to keep those bad habits?

We don't really do anything as humans unless there is a "benefit" in it. That is the motivation for doing whatever we’re doing. It's not necessarily something that will actually be good for us but it's something we do because we see a reason for doing it. For example, maybe you feel like you've picked up on the signs of someone losing interest in you romantically and you fear rejection so you dump them quickly. You might actually just be destroying something with potential because you fear vulnerability. But it makes sense to you because it feels like protection. That's what I mean. If you want to be truly resilient then you need to develop an awareness of the habits where this kind of payoff is involved.

Here are a few examples of an action that actually isn’t very helpful to personal growth but which seems to have a “benefit.”

  • Instantly saying no to everything before you’ve even considered it. This is a defence mechanism that can keep you from stepping outside your comfort zone. But it can also make sense to us, as it removes risk and avoids the vulnerability of growth.
  • Keeping a tally of all your disappointments. We may do this consciously or not and it feeds our sense that the world is hard and people are ‘bad.’ The benefit here is you get to feel like a victim, which is a comfortable place to be in terms of not having to take responsibility.
  • Frequently saying "I should." How many times do you hear yourself saying this in a day? The word “should” is almost always an indication that you’re disconnected from what you genuinely feel and that you’re judging yourself against someone else’s standards. One benefit is that you never really have to express yourself. You're not saying “I want,” or “I will” so you don’t have to commit or risk failure. A “should” is vague, which is why it can feel protective, but it's also judgmental and feels paralysing.
  • Relying entirely on others to validate you and for your self-worth. While we all need some external validation, being reliant on it is not helpful. The benefit here is that you never have to put the work in to validate yourself. Or face up to feelings of low self-worth. It could also be motivated by something like a desire to avoid the risk that you might not fit in with existing friendship groups (or family) where reliance on external validation is a habit if you suddenly become confident in your own skin and no longer needy of input from others.

A foolproof way to form new habits

So, here’s that foolproof route into forming new habits that I promised you: start working with yourself and not against yourself. What do I mean by that? There are a number of key components:

Stop comparing yourself to other people

Comparison kills resilience, growth and joy. As I’ve said, we are all different people and the process of forming new habits will be different depending on you and on the habit. It’s great to be inspired by other people - or to use their timelines for guidance - but also important to be flexible enough to know that your progress could look very different.

Strengthen your understanding of you

I often come across the view that self-knowledge is navel-gazing and an indulgent waste of time. To which I usually reply “how do you expect to navigate the world, show up for other people and live the life you want if you have no understanding of why you do what you do?” This is just basic intelligence - if you use a computer you need to know how it works. Maybe you read the user guide, or maybe you learn as you go - either way, to get the most out of it you need that understanding of systems and processes. It’s just the same with you - get to know yourself and life becomes less confusing and hard because there’s no knowledge barrier. In the context of resilient habits, this is to start noticing the current habits you have and understanding where they might have come from.

Be honest about your barriers

Start looking realistically at the barriers that you put in the way of having the habits that you want. Do you self-sabotage a positive evening routine by self-soothing with Netflix for five hours and telling yourself that’s resting? Do you choose habits that are impossible to achieve so that you can’t keep them up for more than a day? Get really honest about why things haven’t worked out the way you wanted them to so far.

Work with where you are right now

Growth is always a combination of thinking big and being ambitious, alongside working with what you have. If you’ve got a houseful of children then an hour of peaceful meditation and a slow start to the day probably isn't going to be a realistic habit. But you could get 15 minutes in. If you’re someone with a cycle then starting a new exercise routine on the first day of your period is probably going to mean you hate the first session and give up shortly after that - so you could wait a week. I do kind of hate the word ‘realistic’ because it always seems to be used against people who are enthusiastic about life in a way that others find unnerving. But in the context of habits, a little dose of reality is sometimes necessary.

Change your view of consistency

Consistency builds habits. But consistency doesn’t mean showing up in the same way every day, it just means showing up. If you want to build a new habit around being more active, for example, then trying to force yourself to do an hour run every day regardless of everything else happening in your life isn’t necessary for consistency.

Be flexible and compassionate with yourself - this isn’t giving yourself a free pass or an opportunity to give up it’s simply saying “I will stay committed to my activity habit but maybe today it looks like a gentle walk and some Pilates, not an hour-long run.”

Be compassionate

I’m saying this again because this is the root of resilience. If you can’t be compassionate to yourself then you might achieve your goals for a month but the first moment that something doesn’t quite go to plan then everything will come tumbling down. Compassion is what allows you to say to yourself “ok, this failure is just part of being human I will try again tomorrow.” rather than “this failure means I’m a failure and I’m just going to give up.” 

Establish your non-negotiables

Have five daily non-negotiable habits that you do every day. This is a great way to start getting into the habit of respecting your habits (!). Pick five things you know will be good for you and help nurture growth, whether that’s an hour of fresh air, some quiet time, being creative, social connection or more sleep.

Building positive habits is something anyone can do. If you’re looking to live in a more empowered way, shift to a powerful optimistic and flexible mindset and achieve big ambitious goals (or any goals) then the things you do on repeat really matter.

Habits - examining your bad habits and defining new ones - is all part of the process of working with a resilience coach like me. I can help you to create a practical, achievable blueprint for what you want to achieve this year, based on who you actually are, what you need and how you work. Book in a free discovery chat to find out more.

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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Winchester, Hampshire, SO23
Written by Alex Pett
Winchester, Hampshire, SO23

Alex is an ICF trained and NLP certified coach focused on helping people to deepen their resources to adapt and bounce back - and go on to thrive. She helps clients build confidence and self-belief, recover from burnout, develop self-assurance, intuitive connection and move beyond limiting beliefs. Clients achieve tangible change in 6-9 sessions.

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