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Unveiling the Challenge: Why Building New Habits is Hard

Nov 22, 2023

Before digging in…let’s just call out the fact that for many of us, building new, positive habits is just plain hard, and falling back into old, negative habits is just plain easy. With that said, that does not mean that you should not actively work to build new habits that support health, career, relationships, personal growth, or any other area of your life. Building new habits is a crucial aspect of positive change, however, this does not mean that it is smooth or easy. Think about it, if it was…we would all be engaging in positive, healthy habits all of the time.


I believe that when behavior change is hard, understanding why it is hard is more than half the battle. 


This is because when you understand what the obstacles are, and why they are happening, you are much more likely to be successful in managing them. In addition, and just as important, it is easier to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that what you are trying to do is hard, instead of beating yourself up because you experience challenges when working to create new habits.


5 solutions to obstacles that can interfere with building new, healthy habits.


Comfort Zones and Resistance

Your brain is wired to seek comfort and familiarity. Habits, whether positive or negative, create a sense of routine and familiarity, which your brain perceives as safe. When attempting to start a new habit, you are pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and your brain does not like this…at all. This triggers resistance from your brain, leading to feelings of discomfort and unease, and because your brain wants to keep you comfortable, it will pull you back into your familiar routine and habits. What is interesting about this, is that this still occurs, even if you really want to make the change. 


When experiencing the pull back to your comfort zone, the first thing you should do is acknowledge it. Know that your brain is trying to keep you comfortable and when it experiences discomfort, it sounds the danger alarm and pulls you back. Then, remind yourself why the changes you are trying to make are important. Remind yourself of what it will look and feel like if you stick with your new habit for a month, 3 months, 6 months, and a year. Also, remind yourself of what it will look like if you give up on your new habit. What are the consequences or negative repercussions of not making the change? Then, remind yourself that discomfort is a sign of growth and welcome it into your life. Doing hard and uncomfortable things builds confidence and positive emotions, so when you feel that discomfort, lean into it and keep going.


Cognitive Distortions and Limiting Beliefs

Your mindset plays a critical role in forming new habits. You may be carrying around cognitive distortions that are holding you back. A cognitive distortion is a way of thinking that does not serve you but that can show up almost like a habit itself. One common cognitive distortion is “all-or-nothing thinking”. When you experience this cognitive distortion things are either all good, or all bad. You are either 100% on track, or you give up completely. 


Let’s imagine someone wants to start a new healthy eating plan and they map out what they are going to eat for each meal for the week. Then, as planned, they start on Monday and at the end of the day on Tuesday, they are feeling really good about how well they have been doing. However, when Wednesday rolls around and they end up picking up fast food instead of eating the food they prepped at home, they give up for the remainder of the week and tell themselves they will try again on Monday. Or even worse, they give up completely and tell themselves they are not capable of eating healthy on a consistent basis. The reality is that getting back on track with the next meal or on the next day will still result in forward progress, however, all-or-nothing thinking will convince someone that they have ruined the week, that they have erased all forward progress, and that any further effort is not worth it.


When noticing cognitive distortions, the important thing to remember is that you should challenge them. Don’t accept them at face value. If you are telling yourself that it is pointless to continue with something, challenge that thought by asking: 

  • Is it really pointless? 
  • Is there no progress at all that can be made if I take the next best step? 
  • What advice would I give to a friend in the same situation? 


If you want more information about common thought distortions, grab my Guide to Understanding and Managing 5 Common Thought Distortions.


Additionally, limiting beliefs about your capabilities or worthiness can sabotage your efforts to change. If you are trying to do something new, of course it will feel challenging. Remind yourself of all the “new” things you have done before that used to feel challenging but that you are now competent in doing. If you are experiencing limiting beliefs, remind yourself to not define your future by your past. Also, if you are questioning your worthiness, ask yourself if ten other people you know would also agree that you are not worthy. You can also ask yourself “Why not me?”. Is there really a reasonable or logical answer for why you don’t deserve something? Both of these reflective questions will help you challenge that inner voice of self-doubt and remind you that you are both capable and worth it


The Instant Gratification Trap

In a world that often prioritizes instant gratification, building habits requires a shift in perspective. Many desirable habits, such as regular exercise, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, paying off debt or saving money, nurturing a relationship, or growing a career or business do not yield immediate rewards. This delay in gratification can be discouraging and frustrating, making you want to abandon your efforts prematurely because you don’t see the results you are looking for quickly enough. 


When this happens, remind yourself that slow and steady wins the race if you are looking for lasting change. Remind yourself that each day, you are taking actions that are moving you towards your goals or away from them. Remind yourself that every day you engage in your new habit, you are moving forward and when you don’t engage in it, you are either standing still, or likely moving backwards. Trust the process and one day you will wake up and start to notice the positive effect of your actions and consistency. The compound effect is always in play…even when you don’t see it.


The Role of Environmental Cues

Your surroundings significantly influence your habits. Breaking away from established routines requires a conscious effort to reshape your environment. Identifying and modifying environmental cues that trigger unwanted behaviors or habits while introducing cues that support new habits can enhance the likelihood of success. Do what you can to remove temptations that engage in the old habits that don’t serve you, and insert things that will make doing the new habits as easy as possible. 


Also, be aware of how other people influence your habits. Are you around people who exemplify the habits you are trying to implement or are you around people who engage in habits that are in opposition to what you want? Do what you can to surround yourself with people who will support your efforts and motivate you to continue when things feel uncomfortable. Also, consider limiting your exposure to people who are likely to pull you back into old behavior patterns, whether intentionally or unintentionally. As we reviewed above, you will likely have internal resistance to manage, so do what you can to minimize as much external resistance as is possible.


Lack of Consistency and Patience

Consistency is the key to habit formation, but it's often easier said than done. Life's demands and unexpected challenges can disrupt routines, making it difficult to stay on track. Impatience, and wanting immediate gratification, can further complicate the process. Learning to enjoy the process and not only the end result can help with this. Praise yourself for being the kind of person who does “________” (insert your habit here), instead of only focusing on praising yourself for achieving “______” (insert your end goal here). 


Believe me, you will grow so much more and gain so much confidence when you keep going, even when it feels hard or when you feel like you are not making progress. Create an affirmation that speaks to your habit such as, “I am the type of person who works out every morning.” or, “I am the type of person who saves X dollars each month.”, or “I am the type of person who goes to bed by 10pm each night.” This will remind you of the importance of the new habit you are building.


Checking in with yourself regularly and managing those negative thoughts, as well as your environment to the best of your ability will help set you up for success with forming a new habit. Remind yourself regularly that discomfort means you are growing and evolving into the next version of you and that you should lean into it instead of resisting it. You’ve got this!

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