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3 simple tips how to make and break a habit

We all have habits.

We usually separate them into good ones we want and bad ones we don’t want.

At some point, we all wish for habit change but we all struggle with it.

Why is this! And what can we do about it?


What are habits anyway?

Let’s start by getting the basics nailed down. Habits are a learned behavior like driving a car, reaching for chocolate, brushing teeth, running, smoking, or playing an instrument. They happen automatically and unconsciously.

They usually have a trigger like a special time where we brush our teeth or take a break. Or a special location or environment like a place that urges us to drink, the driver seat that has us know how to drive, or the gym for a workout routine.

A happening also functions as a trigger, like hearing the message peep for grabbing the phone or seeing a pizza commercial for ordering Pizza. Last, an emotion like sadness (or boredom) can trigger eating chocolate or smoking while exhaustion (or fear) can lead to delaying a duty.


Basal Ganglia – where the habit happens.

The actual habit uses real existing connections in our brain. These connections were made over a longer time and with lots of training, and are there to make our lives easier and help our survival. They are located in the so-called basal ganglia (see my post on basic brain facts for more information).


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To understand this better, let’s imagine following scenario. My kids and I have lunch, chatting away.  I just filled my plate with another portion of spaghetti. I don’t remember doing this. Staring at my plate I say to my basal ganglia: ‘What did you do to me?’ My basal ganglia is irritated and a little offended: ‘I only did what you taught me to do’.

And it’s true. My basal ganglia worked really hard to get to this point, making new connections for months and years. Using these connections now to make my life easy and have me do things automatically and without stressing myself about it. Things like driving my car, playing my favorite songs at the piano, but also overeating.

‘Sorry!’ I tell my basal ganglia, ‘I’m grateful for all the good habits I have, but some habits have to go!’


Forming and breaking a habit

While a habit is an automated behavior, habit formation is the process by which a new behavior becomes automatic.

Breaking a habit on the other hand works by ignoring it and just not doing it. This way the existing connections will break down. It helps to be consciously aware of the unwanted habit and by doing something else once we feel it triggered. We can also try to avoid the trigger.

Knowledge is important if we want to change our habits. Understanding is always the first step to change. However, practical and achievable steps have to follow. These 3 simple tips will help you to form a new habit.

 1.      Choose a new habit that is easy and small

The smaller the better! If you try to take on too much you set yourself up for failure. Choose a small habit, something that works for you and fits in your general lifestyle. And do just one habit at a time.

Here are some examples:

  • If you want to get into the habit of regular exercise then start with an exercise that is ridiculously small. Do only 10 minutes a day, or 5 minutes. Focus for now on the habit and focus on the big result later.
  • After a foot injury, I’m in the process of losing the weight I gained by sitting around. My temptation is carbs and I seem to struggle with portion size. So, I decided to eat no carbs after sunset. Normal food all day, normal breakfast and lunch with the family, but no more carbs after sunset. No more pasta attacks after the kids went to bed.
  • My friend is in a similar process. Her weight gain was the result of a stressful lifestyle as an emergency physician, and lots of food was a reward for crazy working hours. Her struggle was mindless snacking. So, she decided to eat only 3 meals per day. Nothing else. No restriction on what to eat or how much, just sticking to three meals a day.
  • Jeff Goins, who teaches writers at Tribe Writer, suggests starting a writing ritual by only writing a few minutes per day (or a small amount of words per day). Like with exercising, it’s important to focus on the habit, the writing, first and focus on the big result like publishing a book later.

Do you see what I mean? In all examples, small new habits make it easy to start. It is important to choose a small habit that is realistic and achievable for you personally and that works in your specific situation.


2.      Practice your new habit

The strategy is to practice, practice, and practice. Repetition is increasing the connections in your brain, especially in your basal ganglia, up to the point where a habit or activity happens automatically. Research has shown dramatic improvements in habit formation after a practice routine. This goes for as well motor as cognitive behaviors, starting with cigar rolling and ending with faster thinking and problem solving. 


The amount of time it takes to develop a new habit is different from person to person. Don’t let anyone force a number on you. It can take between weeks and months.  So be patient. Most important, setbacks are absolutely normal and no reason to stop practicing a new habit. Never ever!!!

Once again, in the first months, it is more important to practice the habit than it is to make progress. Once we developed a new habit, we can worry about making progress.

3.      Reward yourself

A reward is a benefit we gain from doing a habit. Charles Duhigg, who is famous for his ‘Habit Loop’, points out that the reward is often forgotten when people talk about habit change. He stretches that trigger, the actual habit and reward are equally important.


Habit Loop after Charles Duhigg


The wonderful short term reward we all know and love is dopamine. Somehow, as a reward, we usually want the instant benefit rather than long term benefit. Our brain values immediate reward more highly than future rewards.

Let me give you an example.

A woman, let’s call her Jenny, was taking care of her mom who suffered from lung cancer. Without a doubt, her lung cancer was the result of years of heavy smoking. The crazy part of the story is that Jenny was a heavy smoker herself. Obviously, the immediate reward of smoking a cigarette was more important to Jenny than the knowledge that her mom’s suffering was a consequence of smoking.

What can we do now?

The good news is that the reward here is not really the cigarette, it’s the released dopamine. And dopamine in itself is a good fellow. If we manage to find better ways of getting dopamine, we can replace the bad ways like smoking, overeating, consumerism and even drugs.


Proven examples of activities where dopamine is released are:

  • Music
  • Exercising and running
  • Special quality healthy foods
  • Looking forward to something
  • Relationships & friendships
  • Comments or likes at social media
  • Moments of achievement


Habit change is a complex topic but once we understand the basics it is easy to tackle.

While habits are located in a brain area called basal ganglia, this area is different from conscious thinking and willpower.

Habits take some time to form and take some time to break down again.

To break a habit we have to ignore it and do something else once we feel it triggered.

There are 3 simple ways to form a new habit, choosing a small habit, practicing it and including a reward for it.

Take control of your habits. Take control of your life. Click To Tweet

Final thoughts

Do you have a habit you want to change, ignore or form?

Can you think of a small achievable behavior to develop?

Can you think of a reward for it?

I hope all this information gives you an idea how you can successfully develop your habit.

Try it, start and keep practicing.


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Hi I'm Ilka, a self-development writer and lovable scientist with a knowledgeable expertise in brain science. I help people realize the power our behavior has on our brain - and the other way around.

Dhaval Parmar - December 20, 2016

Hi Ilka,

I agree,Habits take some time to form and take some time to break down again.

    simplyilka - December 20, 2016

    Hi Dhaval!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and welcome to my blog 🙂

    The time it takes to change a habit is the reason no 1 why people give up. Unfortunately, there is no other way. It does take time.

    Thanks for stopping by. All the best to you, Ilka

Ravi Chahar - December 20, 2016

Hey Ilka,

I have always tried to develop some a new habit which is good for me. Sometimes, it’s really hard to give up your old habits.

If you have been smoking for a long time and suddenly think to give up the habit then it’s not going to happen. It will take some time.

You have to pull the trigger.

It’s good to know the biological functioning about it.
Thanks for sharing with us.

Ravi Chahar recently posted…11 Proven Tips to Choose The Best Domain Name For Your Blog.My Profile

    simplyilka - December 20, 2016

    Hi Ravi!

    Thank you, for sharing your thoughts. It is hard to quit a habit because it is etched in our brain. To quit smoking is especially hard because of the withdrawal symptoms and the nicotine cravings your body experiences. Maybe I should do a separate post on quitting to smoke?

    I’m glad you valued the biological information.
    All the best, Ilka

Ella - December 20, 2016

Hey Ilka,

great post with lots of background information. No wonder it is so exhausting to change a habit when it takes so much effort to change the brain. Of course it makes sense to change one habit at a time. But once I get the idea to change I want it all, right away. I guess patience is the lesson to learn for me here.

    simplyilka - December 20, 2016

    Hi Ella!

    Thank you for your lovely feedback. It seems that lack of patience is something lots of people struggle with. We are used to getting up and buy right away what we want. But our body doesn’t work that way. I’m glad the science behind it makes sense to you. Maybe you can put the knowledge into action now.

    Take care, Ilka

Janet Burton - December 20, 2016

Ilka, I like the concept of starting with really small bites. I wanted to start meditating and froze at the thought of spending 15 – 20 minutes sitting still. I started with just 2-3 minutes and now start every day with 15-20 minutes. I am getting so much benefit from it that I really feel like I am missing something if I don’t start my day with it. But this would never have happened if I did not start out small and commit to doing it every day for a month.
Janet Burton recently posted…Shining a Light on GivingMy Profile

    simplyilka - December 20, 2016

    Hi Janet,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. This is the perfect example for successfully forming a new habit. You started because your goal was small, and then you practiced it until it became a habit. And now you enjoy the reward of feeling great after your meditation. You just confirmed that it really works 🙂 I truly love this.

    Have a wonderful and peaceful week, Ilka

Mary Jo - December 24, 2016

very interesting post Ilka! I especially can get on board with creating micro habits, just to get the practice of the habit down. Do you read ZenHabits with Leo Babauta? He talks about mini habits, too. Like just floss one tooth a day, to start the daily habit of flossing your teeth. I always had a problem justifying even the mini task, thinking “it’s not going to make a difference if I do 20 crunches a night.” But the way you explain it, to do the small task as a way of creating the habit of doing the thing – that I can do!

Mary Jo (aka MJ Camp)

    simplyilka - December 26, 2016

    Hi MJ!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, I do like Leo’s blog. I like the idea of keeping it simple and I think he gives tons of great advice.

    I’m glad I could give you some background information about why it is important to tart small. For me, it is also easier to do something if I see the use and a benefit behind it.

    All the best to you, Ilka

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