You know you could improve your health with a few steps every day. But you haven’t started. Or maybe you’ve tried a few times but lost steam.
Don’t worry, it’s not just you. Human brains are slow to change.
Why? Our brains rely on habits, from how we grocery shop to how we respond to criticism. Reliance and repetition make things easier for the brain, giving it less work to do. That means even if some of your habits are hurting you, your brain resists changing them.
So it can take some mental gymnastics to build new, healthy habits. The good news: Research shows that lasting change is totally possible. By being aware of the thought patterns that get in the way of achieving your goals, you can work with your brain to build new ones.
Use these tactics to challenge less-than-helpful thought patterns to build new habits.
You’re focused on the ‘shoulds’ instead of the ‘wants’
“I should exercise more for my heart health.” “I should watch less TV and be social instead.” These big ideas might drive you to start changing. But studies show that knowing why we should make a change usually won’t keep us going with new habits long term.
Usually, our brains respond to the here and now. Research shows we need positive reinforcement to set habits — and we need it often.
Try this: Tie your new habit to something positive in your everyday life. Trying to set a gym habit? Find the positives: How exercise brings your stress level down. The extra energy you have throughout the week. An exercise buddy whose company you love.
Focus on the positive things you get every time you make a healthy choice. They’re a key ingredient to long-term change.
You’re mad at yourself all the time
You might feel like you need to be your own drill sergeant. But being hard on yourself can lead to a cycle of negativity: You’re waiting for slipups and punishing yourself for them. Then you end up feeling like a failure, and give up on making positive changes.
Here’s what the research shows: Negative self-talk doesn’t help you reach your goals — and can actually hurt you. You need to give yourself some kindness to break the pattern.
Try this: Be on your own team. You’re trying to figure out what helps you make healthy choices. Without judgment. Notice when you brain says “You’re not good at this,” or “You’re probably going to fail.” Talk to yourself like you would talk to a friend. Try “I’m working to make a change, I’m learning and I’m being good to myself.”
It might seem counterintuitive, but accepting yourself, flaws and all, can actually make you more ready for healthy change.
You’re overlooking the nitty gritty
Imagining how good you’ll feel when you’ve reached a goal is great. It’s the part where you get excited and motivated. But dreaming about the future can mean you’re not getting realistic about the obstacles.
There’s a difference between imagining yourself stronger from a gym routine and imagining yourself getting out the door earlier in the morning for a workout. To get to the reward, you have to be mentally ready for the things in your way.
Try this: Program your brain with “if-then” thinking. If you miss a morning workout, you’ll take an after-dinner walk. If you keep skipping your daily exercise, you’ll make plans with a friend to do it together.
That way, you’ll have solutions at the ready when you hit setbacks. And your bad days won’t knock you off course.
You’re comparing yourself to others
Comparison is an old habit of the human brain, whether it’s your body, your bench press or your health progress. And it can get in the way of reaching your goals.
Research links the tendency to compare ourselves with others to lower self-esteem. And that link carries through to how people use social media. If you’re measuring yourself against other people while scrolling, you might be making yourself feel worse.
But you can break the pattern.
Try this: Lean on supportive relationships. Schedule a walk or a coffee date with someone who makes you feel supported and supportive. Feeling connected to people you care about is linked to higher self-esteem and empathy.
If you’re feeling low after scrolling through Facebook, take a break from the constant feed. One study showed that limiting social media to just 10 minutes a day per social platform for 3 weeks had a big impact on feelings of loneliness and depression.
Spending less time and energy on comparing yourself with others can help you feel better and bring you closer to your goals.