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Why building habits is a challenge

Why is it that developing new habits is such a challenge to all of us.



We have all experienced trying to change the way we do things; getting up early/late in the mornings, eating a better diet, what exercises we do. But at some point, for some of us that could be sooner rather than later, we either hit a road block or we suddenly notice we’ve slipped back into our “old ways”. 

Sadly it is all down to the way our brains are wired.  Neuroscientists say that our bodies instinctively do something because of the “basal ganglia” part of our brain which is the part that encodes habitual behaviours. It allows us to follow our usual routine without us having to “think about it”. For example, how many of us complete a car journey or long run and then can’t remember how we got to the end of the trip. 

The basal ganglia has given us behaviour habits we can perform on autopilot. 




What happens when we do try to change something? It just feels wrong. Taking that new route needs some thought, holding your spoon whilst eating with the different hand may cause you to spill hot soup in to your lap. But this cutting against the grain is the reason why we find it difficult to change a habit. 

However, the saviour is the “prefrontal cortex” part of our brain. We activate this part when making a decision. It is responsible for conscious thought and planning; it tells which habits are triggered. 

Our brain will resist any new habits that we try to implement. Things will not “feel right”, or “feel natural”. But this should not stop us from forming new, improved habits. These new differences can become habits if we are disciplined and work hard to allow them to become embedded in the basal ganglia. 

Changing habitual behaviours may mean having to enlist the help of family, friends or a coach.  Alternatively, some people find it helps to write post it notes everywhere (not necessarily just on the fridge!) or use other, some might call them weird, ways to make themselves stop and think before repeating the behaviour they are trying to change.  Someone we know found that hiding his running shoes at the back of the wardrobe instead of keeping them by the front door gave his brain time to engage the prefrontal cortex and remind him he should warm up thoroughly before setting off.  

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