How to Trick Your Brain to Create a New Healthy Habit

Have you ever started a diet or exercise program but didn’t stick with it? If you are like millions of other people, you’ve set out with the best intentions but failed to keep the momentum going. I’m going to explain why relying on motivation and willpower doesn’t work and what works instead.

When you begin any new self-improvement program, you’re enthusiasm is high and you’re motivated by the pleasure of what you want or the pain of what you don’t want. But motivation naturally diminishes with time.

When your motivation wanes, you rely more on willpower. But no one has an endless supply of willpower. It’s a resource that gets “used up”. Every time you will yourself do something you don’t really want to do, you use up some willpower. Every temptation you pass up depletes your willpower reserve.

By evening, you may find you have no willpower left. That’s why most people blow their diet in the evening after eating healthy all day.

If motivation and willpower aren’t working for you, there is another way!

95% of our life is dictated by the subconscious mind, the part of our brain that runs our lives on autopilot. This is why you can do everything from brushing your teeth to driving a car without thinking about it.

By consciously deciding to create a new habit, you can harness the power of your unconscious to create a new neural pathway. Once a new habit is established it becomes easy to do –motivation and willpower are no longer required!

Here are 7 steps to turn any desired new activity into a habit. Once a habit is established you’ll find yourself doing effortlessly. These techniques can be used for any habit you want to make or change – diet, exercise, meditation, stress reduction, sleep habits, and more.

Set Small Goals

Setting big goals is exciting but starting with small boring goals is more likely to lead to success. Some examples of small changes would be to meditate for 10 minutes, replace one unhealthy snack with raw veggies, or walk 15 minutes per day.

Taking small actions tricks your brain. Your subconscious likes to be in control – it doesn’t like change. A big change often sets up subconscious resistance, but you can sneak a small change by it.

Use Triggers

A trigger is something that leads you to automatically doing something else. Smokers, for example, are triggered to smoke after a meal. Use triggers to your advantage. If you commit to always meditating after breakfast, after a few weeks you’ll automatically think about meditating after your morning meal. Visual triggers work well, too. Lay your workout clothes on the bed in the morning will encourage you to work out when you get home from work.

Do it Early

Exercise or meditate in the morning when your willpower is high. You’ll reap the rewards all day! Make a healthy dinner ahead (I love my crockpot!) so you don’t come home starved with nothing to eat.

Be Prepared

Make sure you have everything you need to ensure your success. If you want to start a walking program, get comfortable walking shoes and a pedometer. People who wear a pedometer walk 27% more than those who don’t!

Make it Convenient

The more difficult and time consuming it is to take an action, the less likely you will do it. This is why so many people who buy gym memberships drop out. It’s just not that convenient. Get everything you need ready ahead of time so that when it’s time you can, as Nike says, “Just Do It”.

Make it Fun

If you don’t enjoy doing something you aren’t going to stick with it. Find ways to make your lifestyle change as enjoyable as possible. Exercise with a friend, learn to cook healthy foods that are delicious, or find a meditation program that really resonates with you.

Don’t Break the Chain

When Jerry Seinfeld was an unknown, he created the habit of writing new material daily using a wall calendar and a red marker. Every day he wrote, he put a big red “X” through that day. He didn’t want to see any blank days that “broke the chain”. Use this technique for one month and you’ll find your new habit will largely be formed.

By using these steps to create a habit you are tricking your brain to create a new neural pathway. Once the habit is formed you can use it to serve as a gateway to bigger changes that can truly change your life. A journey of a thousand miles really does begin with a single step.


Deane Alban is co-founder of BeBrainFit.com and author of Brain Gold: The Anti-Aging Guide for Your Brain. She has taught and written on a wide variety of natural health topics for over 20 years. Her passion is teaching others how to rejuvenate their brains and overcome the common, but avoidable, problem of midlife mental decline. Sign up for “Brain Builder” – her free newsletter for the latest natural ways to stay mentally sharp for life.

24 Responses to How to Trick Your Brain to Create a New Healthy Habit

  1. Natalie says:

    All good suggestions. I think it is easier to create a new habit than it is to eliminate an old one. Let me add one more suggestion.

    Get clear and focus on Why you want this new habit. Make sure this ‘why’ is very specific and personal. It’s not enough to say “Be Healthier”. Say “To be there to help my grandchildren learn about gardening” or “To walk the whole flea market, seeing all there is to see without getting winded or tired”.

  2. Dan Erickson says:

    Great points. My problem is time. I have to choose my early-morning routine and I’ve put blogging/writing on top. This leaves less time for exercise. We can’t do it all.

  3. Paul says:

    Love it and Love Natalie’s add on. may I suggest one more. Willpower does indeed wain so use the much more powerful shift in BELIEFS. This goal is important to me because…..(as Natalie suggested) I Deserve this because…… I am capable of this because…. This will enable me to…… Others will benefit by my achieving it because…. Build up genuine BELIEF power… Trumps will power every time .

  4. @creativedynamic says:

    Like the “don’t break the chain” one. Big Red cross would motivate me!

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  6. Well done Deane. This is true.

    I have one suggestion for you to consider for future articles. A lot of research backs up what you said: willpower being limited, having more energy/willpower in the morning, small goal superiority, triggers, neural pathways. If you cited even just one or two sources, it would show readers that this is more than a baseless opinion article (of which there are plenty).

    For example, studies show willpower is limited because it uses up tremendous energy in the brain (glucose). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/01/self-control.aspx

  7. ltdream says:

    I really enjoyed this article. The tips are practical and really does make change sound easy. We always feel that we have to suffer nobly in order to change, but that’s not true. Just like become runner, you have to start slow and get stronger over time.

  8. Emily says:

    Good tips. The article below is also a good one on creating new habits and has a couple of things in common with this article: http://yourbrainatwork.org/how-you-can-train-your-brain-to-create-new-habits/

  9. Deane Alban says:

    Hi Stephen, This was my first post on PTB and I wasn’t sure if listing resources was allowed – I don’t see any other posts that have them. Do you know? Thanks!

  10. Mary Slagel@Shape Daily says:

    I really like the idea of the calendar. My only fear is that if I accidentally let one day slip and saw that on the calendar, it’d be a slippery slope and I’d start slacking.

  11. sadiya says:

    I really love this website n all articles ….thy really help a lot

  12. Rafael Hernampérez says:

    Great! Easy and usefull. Thanks a lot for your tips. I’ll try to become true 😉

  13. Yes it is allowed to my knowledge. Most of the articles I’ve written for PTB include resources. I brought it up because I could tell you knew the research. This article has great advice.

    My PTB article on willpower and glucose has some resources cited throughout – http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/3-valid-reasons-to-consume-sugar/

  14. Deane Alban says:

    Thanks and I’ll keep that in mind for any future posts!

  15. itsmenicole_y says:

    Nice suggestions. Great. <3

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  21. BrainSmart says:

    {The Power of Habits and How to Break Them} How the habit loop forms in our brain and how to interrupt it: Very interesting article on the FB page written by a top neuro-scientist . Can be found (three articles down) here : https://www.facebook.com/Brainsmart

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