Advice on breaking and making habits

In her weekly column Dr Michelle O'Driscoll looks at how we can make and break habits that will boost our wellbeing
Advice on breaking and making habits

It takes 21 days to form a habit. Picture: Stock

BREAKING the habits of a lifetime and creating new ones can be an excellent way to boost your wellbing.

Habits are the building blocks of our day — simple steps that combine to form a more complex picture. They have the potential to improve everything from our headspace to our blood-pressure if harnessed correctly.

But creating new habits and approaches to our health and wellbeing is easier said than done.

We tend to continue what we’ve always done, in the hopes of a different magical outcome. Below are some things to consider.

Repeat it enough times and it becomes automatic

It is estimated that habits take 21 days to form, in order for the neuron signals in the brain to wire together strongly enough to make something habitual. Why then does it take such effort to break them, or to persevere long enough to form new ones? It’s because the brain loves the path of least resistance.

Think of it like walking through a field of corn, growth towering above your head with no obvious path through. The first time making your way across that field you have to fight, navigate carefully, force a path to appear. The second time the path has been slightly trampled and is easier to traverse. By the tenth time, it’s a brisk walk across the field with minimal effort required.

The same goes for our brains and our habits. The neurons that fire together wire together.

Repetition is key. Keep trampling down that path, reducing the resistance and increasing the likelihood that this will become your go-to choice of action.

Take the silver linings

The saying “never let a good crisis go to waste” has never been more apt. As we begin to emerge from our lockdowns and survey our lives, routines, and habits with new perspectives, now might be just the right time to implement some change.

Take the time to ask ourselves “What have we learned? What do we want to take away?” While these questions are applicable in terms of our career choices, our social engagements, or our to-do lists, it’s also useful to apply them to our physical and mental health.

Because of the pandemic, we have had to pivot and adapt. New habits and routines were forced upon us. Some of these changes were difficult, detrimental even, but had to be done temporarily for the greater good. But others may have ended up being useful, insightful, changes for the better.

Maybe you’ve cut out your commute and gained valuable hours back. Can this be maintained to some degree? You might have started eating a proper breakfast as a result, and this could be continued. You may be after rediscovering a love for hillwalking, or have taken up a new instrument. Keep these little wins, these silver linings in order to continue to boost your wellbeing.

Increased awareness is the most important first step

We often try to create new habits, but spend so much of our time on autopilot that we don’t notice ourselves reverting to the old ways of doing (or not doing!) things. We don’t tune into the barometers of our bodies that hint when we’re getting hungry before we’ve reached for the quick sugar fix. We don’t notice the emotions of boredom that creep up just before you start scrolling on your phone. We are not aware of the thought patterns that usually tend to lead to us talking ourselves out of going for that walk.

There is an excellent poem, Autobiography in Five Chapters, that is worth looking up to illustrate this very important point.

Awareness is the first step. Only when we’re aware, awake to our experiences and our current habits will we ever be in a position to change them. And even then, it takes repetition and perseverance.

Know your why

Creating habits for the sake of it leads to disillusionment and a lax approach. For that required discipline to come more naturally, it really helps to note why you want to make this your new habit.

What’s in it for you? Is it because it makes you feel good? Does it reduce the stress in your day? Does it clear your head, or increase your connection with loved ones?

At times when you’re about to veer away from sticking the course, use that as the carrot. The tricky piece here is that the carrot isn’t always immediate. You may not get the instant kick of chocolate, but long term you feel much better to have not over-indulged. You may find the mindfulness session boring at the time, but it’s afterwards that you notice the reduced reactivity of the mind.

Breaking old habits and forming new ones involves discipline in repeated, diligent amounts.

Awareness of tendencies and triggers is key to intervening if you’re prone to slipping back into old patterns.

If successful, health and wellbeing can really benefit, so identify your why and go for it!


Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company. Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through her company InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally. See

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