How to build (and break) habits

You probably know what habits you ought to be doing. Wake up at 5am, drink a gallon of water a day, and eat a whole-food diet with absolutely no refined sugar at any point. 

Social media has meant there's constant pressure to do the right thing. Do what's good for you - why wouldn't you? 

Well, it's more complex than that. 

Through neuroplasticity, your brain has physically altered itself to accommodate your current habits. Need a biscuit with your cup of tea? Your brain will expect it. You probably don't even notice yourself reaching into the biscuit jar.

You're not a weak person for this: your brain has been programmed to do it! 

Thankfully, you can master your habits: but it takes time, patience, and discipline.

This article will give you a brief primer on breaking old habits and forming new ones. 

How habits work: 

When we perform behavioural patterns that are repeated often, they become a part of us. 


The neural pathways in our brain physically change to make that habit more automatic. On top of that, the action occurs with minimal conscious awareness. 

Have you ever forgotten whether you actually brushed your teeth? Or maybe you can't recall the journey when you drove to the local shop yesterday. 

This is because you don't have a vast awareness of it: you go into auto-pilot. This is hugely beneficial, though; if you can learn how to master your habits, you can make tasks like going to the gym and eating healthily just another part of your day. 

The old 'it takes 21 days to make a habit' was actually a theory by a plastic surgeon in the 1960s. Unfortunately, it's not really based on any hard science. 

In reality, there's just no magic number. It can take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to form a new habit. 

Your mileage may vary, but I recommend giving it 30 days before you bail on the habit. If you don't feel a difference after this time, and it's not gotten even a tiny bit easier, you may have to re-assess. 

The habit loop: 

You will need to understand the habit loop before successfully breaking and/or forming a new one. All habit loops contain 4 components: a cue, a craving, a response, and a reward. 

For instance, let's say Tom is trying to do his homework. 

There is a cue: he feels bored of studying. He then craves a break from the boredom. As a response, he starts scrolling social media. The reward is pleasurable distraction and relief from boredom. This habit is reinforced, and Tom will crave social media scrolling the next time he gets bored of studying.

So how can we use this habit loop to build positive habits? 

Change the response to a more desirable one. Here's how it might look: 

There is a cue: he feels bored of studying. He then craves a break from the boredom. As a response, he sets a timer for 15 minutes and takes his dog for a short walk. The reward is pleasurable distraction and relief from boredom. This habit is reinforced, and Tom will crave a walk the next time he gets bored of studying.

To form an entirely new habit, like going to the gym when you wake up, you need to ensure there's a cue, craving, response and reward, such as:

Cue: You wake up. 

Craving: You want to start your day and accomplish your workout. (This will take time! At first, you'll want to crawl back under the covers) 

Response: You get your gym clothes on and head to your workout.

Reward: You feel energised from your workout and feel positive about yourself. 

Start with one habit 

Let's be honest - how many times have you tried and failed to incorporate a habit permanently into your life or break one that's been bothering you for years?

Don't make things harder than they need to be. Focus on one challenging habit for 30 days at a time. That doesn't mean you can't do other things, but your goal habit is the main priority. 

Imagine how much healthier you'd feel and how fulfilling your life would be if you had just a few new healthy habits? You can easily achieve that in just one year. That time will pass anyway - so make the most of it. 

Hold yourself accountable. Get a wall calendar, or draw a chart of the next 30 days on a piece of paper and pin it somewhere you'll see daily. Each day you manage to perform the habit, tick it off - mission accomplished.

Another simple way to increase your motivation is to instil simple effortless habits into your day. Try taking a daily multinutrient or stretching while you brush your teeth. These micro-habits help to spike your dopamine, and improve your confidence. 

Have a 'why' 

Think about why you want to achieve your habit. If you're drinking more water just because someone on TikTok said you ought to… you will probably fail. 

But suppose you truly envision how it feels to be a person that drinks more water. You might imagine yourself with beautiful skin or with much more energy. In that case, you are far more likely to succeed. Imagine how you would look and feel. Close your eyes and try to imagine yourself in that situation. 

Or if you want to drop 4 lbs a month. Picture how incredible it would feel to be at your goal weight. How much easier it would be to exercise, have energy, and find clothes that make you feel good.

When you've decided on your why, write it down and place it somewhere you'll see it every single morning. Try above your bathroom mirror or on your wardrobe. 

Reflect & reinforce: 

After each day of your habit challenge, try and journal. Yes, this might seem like another habit you have to add on, but bear with me - the benefits are incredible. 

By reflecting on how you feel after you accomplish each habit, you will convince your brain to continue to do it. If you feel significantly better after exercising, you are far more likely to do it. 

If you bail on your workout and order a pizza, you'll likely feel low energy afterwards. 

Whether you successfully performed the habit you wanted to, or fell back into old ways, document it! This can be in a physical journal or as simple as a 60-second note on your phone. Do this daily, and you will convince your brain why you don't want this to be a habit. 

This technique is a form of self-directed neuroplasticity. Consciously reflecting on your habits regularly helps to adjust your brain, meaning you're more likely to stick to the habits that have a net benefit over the ones that hold you back. 


If you've been hitting the snooze button for a decade, don't beat yourself up for sometimes failing on the early morning starts. You are human, life is stressful, and sometimes our discipline falters. 

Just shake it off, remind yourself of your 'why', and get back after it tomorrow.

Until next time,