How To Change — Now You Know The Neuroscience

Photo by  sydney Rae  on  Unsplash

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

In my previous article Why it is so hard to change — the neuroscience made simple I outlined how we learn new activities, how they become habits and most importantly… why it is so damn hard to make change after a habit has formed. In this post, I present you with the steps you need to overcome your brain’s barriers to change.

Step 1. Forgive yourself

Before starting to change any behaviour, learn to forgive yourself.  Why? Change is much harder than we imagine. Remember the field analogy in Why it is so hard to change — the neuroscience made simple? This illustrates the kind of journey change involves and why we often find it hard, slip back into old habits and on occasion give up. It isn’t because we don’t have the willpower. It is because it is genuinely hard. So decide now to forgive yourself for any slips that happen!

Step 2. Get realistic about timescale

Change takes time. Have you heard that it only takes 21 days of repeated behaviour for you to create a new habit? I have. IT IS NOT TRUE. The 21-day theory has not been replicated or validated in scientific research.

A real-world study on this topic with 96 participants indicated that sustainable change in behaviour can take between 18 and 254 days. The length of time depends on the activity itself. For example, drinking a glass of water after breakfast took 20 days to become a habit in this experiment. Eating a piece of fruit with lunch took double this amount of time. While adding an exercise regime (50 sit-ups after morning coffee) still hadn’t become habitual for one participant after 84 days.

In short, some changes will come more quickly than others. The harder and less enjoyable the activity, the longer the commitment needed for it to become a habit. The good news: the more dogged you are when you start the new habit, the more likely it is that the change will stick. If you are patchy from the offset, sustainable change will be far harder to achieve.

Step 3: Create the energy you will need to persevere

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going” - Jim Rohn 

Think about your motivation. Ask yourself: Why am I wanting to change that specific behaviour? Is it because I truly want to or because I think I should?

If the motivation for change doesn’t come from a place of "I WANT TO", you are already starting from a one down position. If it comes from a place of ‘I should’ you are starting from a feeling of inadequacy. A feeling that does not generate sustainable energy or motivation. This means you won't be spurred along with excitement (or the energy you need to sustain your attention in the task) and are unlikely to feel able to push through when you face any (very normal) resistance to continuing with the new behaviour.

To make a sustainable change think about what you are REALLY motivated to do. Create statements such as "I want to do…. (insert activity here) because that will mean I can… (insert specific reason and goal here)". The more specific you are about the behaviour you want to change and the reasons for it, the more likely you are to motivate yourself to make that change and continue on the days when you just want to give up!

Step 4. Prepare for barriers

Think about the factors that will get in the way of your new behaviour. Barriers pop up each day, it's normal. Stress and tiredness are two of the usual suspects (which we know from the previous article shuts off the prefrontal cortex, sending us back into old habits). Changes to your schedule are another.

Be realistic about this. Think about times you tried to create change in the past. Think about what went well and what got in the way. Plan a step by step plan outlining how you will overcome these barriers. Write them down somewhere that you can refer back to when the inevitable happens. Ensure you add: 'forgive yourself" to the list of steps.

Step 5. Enlist help

Accountability is a critical factor in the success of personal change and growth. Therefore enlist the help of a supportive friend. Tell them about the change you intend to make. Tell them about the barriers you think may get in the way of change. Let them offer support, reflect back your achievements and hold you accountable for actioning the plans you have made.

Set up regular times for your friend to check in on you and your progress. This will spur you into action. Even better, make the change at the same time as a friend, so you can motivate each other.

Step 6. Decide on manageable steps AND get started right away

"To make a habit-like practice stick you must make it small enough for it to be unfailingly consistent from the very beginning. Floss just one tooth, do just two pushups, walk for three minutes, drink just one glass of water each day, write a single paragraph, or perhaps, practice just one measure of music for 5 or 10 minutes." - Dr BJ Fogg

Floss just one tooth! You read it right. Consistency is the most important thing here. Break the change you want to see in your life down into manageable and realistic steps. Gradually increase the task when you can unfailingly repeat the first step.

Stick to your plan, even if it feels tempting to do overdo it sometimes.

The most common mistake I see people (and myself) make is illustrated by this example: Person plans to do new exercise for ten minutes each day. Day 1 goes well. On day 2, it feels good so they decide to keep going. They maybe spend 30–45 minutes completing the task (or even longer). Day 3 arrives. The person feels like they suddenly don’t have the time for the activity as they can’t spare 30–45 minutes.

Creating habit involves repetition. Focus on the frequency of the behaviour rather than the duration.  Be mindful, start small. So small that the first step barely disrupts your usual life at all. Build from there. Start now!

Step 7. Engage the prefrontal cortex

We know from the previous article that we need to engage the prefrontal cortex (the area responsible for sustained attention) in order to learn our new task. We also know that the prefrontal cortex requires large amounts of energy, without which it simply disengages, taking with it our ability to attend to attend to the task at hand, sending us back into our old routines.

To ensure we have enough energy for the prefrontal cortex to function: ensure you have a good sleep pattern, eat well and take regular exercise. Minimise unnecessary drains on your brain's resources by removing distractions from your environment and calendar (your brain will burn through far more energy if it is having to juggle multiple tasks at once).

For a real boost to your ability to sustain attention, practice meditation. Over time, meditation increases the thickness of the prefrontal cortex (wow!), increasing our control over our wandering mind. Click here for a meditation exercise. 

Final point, learn how to manage stress. Stress activates the fight-or-flight response, switching off the prefrontal cortex. Learn these skills here.

Step 8. Reward yourself AND document your successes

Associate your new behaviour with a reward. Rewarding yourself increases the likelihood that you will want to repeat the activity in the future. If the reward is 'rewarding' enough (read: creates genuine pleasure and/or calm) it means that just thinking about the new behaviour will activate an anticipatory feel-good buzz rather than a sense of boredom, frustration or other (less motivating) experience.

The reward needs to occur immediately after the new behaviour occurs, so that the brain can associate the two behaviours (create a pathway between the behaviour and the feel-good feeling). If there is a large gap between the two activities you won't feel the benefit as strongly. Here are some suggestions for rewards. 

Additionally, note down every small success. This will further motivate you towards your goal. Your brain won’t focus on small successes by itself. Therefore, each time something goes well, spend 10 seconds focussing on it, really thinking about the success and the feeling. This will improve your chances for remembering it.


If you only take away one thing from this article, let it be this step. To create change you need to REPEAT , REPEAT, REPEAT the behaviour!

Remember and visualise the 'path in a field' metaphor from Why it is so hard to change — the neuroscience made simple. Think about how many times it takes to walk over a patch of grass or crops to reveal a fully visible path. Now imagine that each time you practice your new behaviour you are taking one new trip through the field, getting one step closer to a new habitual pathway (in the brain).

You are ready! Change is on its way!

I realise this list was long. However, the message is simple: change is hard so increase your likelihood of success by being kind to yourself, getting energised, getting support, starting out small and repeating your steps!

Good luck to you all! Let me know how it goes.


I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.

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Sophie Mort