Create a Better Habit for Creating Habits

April 21st, 2014 by Sit up a Tree

No pain, No Gain.” “Grit your teeth.”Knuckle down!”

Most of us have grown up with these messages, from teachers, parents and from society as a whole. It’s likely that you’ve been hearing it your whole life.

WorryBut despite the airtime these messages get, creating new habits doesn’t require struggle, pain, furrowing your brow or gritting your teeth. In fact if you’re doing those things while you try to create a new habit, it’s likely you are screwing up your chances … as well as your face!

Say, for example, you decide to sit down to write your novel every day, and each day you find yourself struggling but you knuckle down and force yourself and furrow your brow as you do it. What you’re really doing is creating a habit of struggling and stressing whenever you sit down to write your novel. Add into that all the other negative thoughts and physical actions associated with it and you are building a whole package of habits rather than the one you wanted. So not only are you actually making it harder for yourself to write that novel – you’re giving yourself wrinkles as well!!

If you’re lifting weights in the gym and you’re saying to yourself “No gain without pain”  every time you lift, you are reinforcing the pain message every time you lift. Whether or not you are actually feeling the pain!

Most of these messages got handed down from bygone days. Children were taught that good things were meant to be difficult. But these days we can look inside the brain with fMRI and actually see thought processes lighting up the brain. We understand so much more about how our brains work and this information is filtering through and changing the nature of living and the messages we fill our internal dialog with. Times have moved on!  And it’s time to update how we think about habits.

Create a Better Habit for Creating Habits 

white knuckles So is “knuckle down” really a good message? I don’t think so.

So often when we try to force ourselves to do things we are bringing a whole raft of negative associations and baggage with us. Nearly all of us grew up with the message that making yourself do something is meant to be painful. And our brains will do anything to avoid pain, so we even approach the idea of habit creation with some pretty bad habits! We tell ourselves “This is gonna be hard…

But I’m pretty sure when you think about creating new habits, what you’re really thinking about is creating new habits easily.  Showing yourself a rerun in your head of your past struggles with habit creation is not a habit you want to get into!!

Brains are GOOD at Creating Habits

Despite what we have been lead to believe about the difficulties of creating new habits, our brains are already surprisingly good at creating habits. They do it all the time.  Habits are procedures, formed by repetition, that are stored in a very old primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia. And when the basal ganglia’s autopilot has a pattern stored in it, you really don’t need to think about that pattern any more.

playThink how fast you adapt to the buttons on a new phone or game console, switch to a newly opened highway when driving to work or get into the habit of walking much further each day when exploring an exotic vacation destination than walking around your neighborhood at home.  We do things only a few times and the new pattern becomes set.

The flip side is that those procedures we replicate may not be the habits we were aiming to create. So, for example, if you sit down to study today and tell yourself it’s going to be hard and then after twenty minutes of gritting your teeth and telling yourself how hard it is and how you need to knuckle down, you decide to give up and go get a cookie, then the habit you have created may be one of:

a) studying = unpleasant but necessary
b) cookies = relief

Guess what’s going to happen when you sit down to study again tomorrow…?!

Be Clear on the Habit you WANT

It is important to get clear what habit you want to create. Your goal wasn’t just to create the habit of writing a novel. I’m pretty sure what you really wanted was to create a habit where sitting down to write is something you do easily.

It’s important to give your brain the right message about what you’re trying to achieve and let go of those parts of the habit that you don’t want. Like those added wrinkles from furrowing your brow!

So how do you give yourself a break and transform the forming of habits into a more pleasant experience?

STOP! Let it go…

Whenever you try to create a new habit it’s better not to get into the habit of thinking “this is hard.” If you find you are telling yourself how painful it is every time you step on the treadmill … STOP!! Just as soon as you notice yourself thinking that, gently let go of the thought process you want to stop running.

And don’t berate yourself for having had those negative thoughts either, as that’s probably just another habit you’ve hard wired into your brain’s circuitry by being hard on yourself in the past. Stop the thought process gently.

Now Plant some FLOWERS!

plant flowersThe next step is to plant some more positive thoughts in your head.

Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, refers to this as ‘planting flowers’ and it can really make a huge difference.

For me this might be to notice pretty things or bright colors in my environment. All those patterns on furnishings and clothing that were put there for us to admire but we never notice. Or the flowers that someone has planted. Noticing the beauty in things – even the decaying and defaced – can have a really positive impact on your thoughts.

You may find it useful to think about the positive benefits of what you’re doing.  Or list ways you are grateful – grateful for your health or grateful for the treadmill or your writing desk or grateful for the education that you’ve had to enable you to use them. Even just counting the ceiling panels in the gym is better than rehearsing negative thought patterns that will stick like glue to the good habit you’re trying to create.

Concentrate on just noticing your breath as it comes and goes. This doesn’t mean deliberately deep breathing, which in itself can create tension in your body, but just notice your body breathing. Try bringing your awareness to each part of your body in turn as you just gently carry on doing … whatever your new habit is.

Rinse and Repeat

If you find yourself again thinking that “this is hard” or “I know this isn’t going to work”and you almost certainly will because it’s likely that this is a habit you’ve created a habit like that whenever you create new habits! – then just repeat the above process. Let that negative thought go and plant some happy flowers.

Smile! Make creating habits a happy thing!!

Focus on making the process of creating new habits into a more pleasant experience for your brain, instead of a difficult one.

And the good habits will follow!!


An excellent book for learning about how to “plant flowers” is Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. Get it on Kindle here:

A great way to learn about how the brain creates habits is by reading Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit“.  Start reading it on Kindle here:

Happy Habits!


We welcome feedback – so share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or on the ‘Send a comment’ link at the top. I look forward to hearing how this has worked for you.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 21st, 2014 at 9:58 pm and is filed under Personal Development, Productivity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Create a Better Habit for Creating Habits”

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