Why do we struggle at forming new habits?

There are many of us who want to become better than we currently are or achieve more in life. For this we try to either learn a new skill, improve an existing skill or start new habits to help us reach our goals. What stops us from reaching there ?
I’m sure there are many who have tried repeatedly and failed and we cant really understand why?

Let’s look at an example : A young woman wants to lose some weight, dedicate some time to reading books and start eating healthier. She sees women on TV who are leaner and look gorgeous and aspires to look the same way. She decides, enough is enough and from next Monday her life is going to change drastically and she will fulfill her dream of looking as stunning as a Bollywood Actress.

She starts browsing through the internet, to look for ideas and workouts . She eagerly awaits for Monday morning to begin her new routine.

Sunday evening turns out to be a fun filled one spent with friends and family and by the time she turns in to sleep , the time is past the midnight hour. She still remembers her commitment to change her life and sets her alarm clock to 5.30 am.

The next day, she wakes up with a start at 7 am, not realizing that she has been hitting the snooze button since an hour and a half and the time to exercise has already passed. She’s late for work and has no time to exercise . She leaves home in a hurry and has no time for breakfast.

After a hectic Monday morning schedule , she is low on energy and has lack of sleep. She craves for some coffee, cookies and pastries available in her office canteen. After her busy day, she returns home too exhausted to exercise and just manages to cook some supper and spends time watching meaningless television for the next 3 hours.

The day comes to an end and she feels exhausted, angry at herself, guilty and ashamed .

How many of us have gone through a similar situation, where we have set goals and repeatedly fail to achieve them? Why is it so difficult to set new habits. Related to the above example, lets talk about Top 5 problems associated with forming new habits and what to do about them

1. Let’s start from NEXT MONDAY: Many of us do have this psychological block in our head, that if we have to start something new , we might as well begin next week. However, Monday morning is probably the worst day to begin something. As the new week begins, we don’t have enough time to adjust to our New schedule. If the day doesn’t start off well, that results in a snowball effect and ruins our entire plan. The smarter thing to do is start the same day or if some preparation is needed, start the very next day. This may involve going to be early so that you can get up earlier.

Technically each day is same as the other, so there is no point in waiting for the “right” day, to begin something. Your mind plays tricks on you and comes up with excuses to avoid pain or discomfort that is associated with moving out of your comfort zone. Today is the “right” day.

2. Taking on too much at one time : If you decide that you will start exercising everyday for an hour, meditate for one hour, read a book every day, listen to the daily news, spend time improving your typing speed , take your kids to the park and teach your dog new tricks everyday next week, its more likely that you won’t manage them all. It’s better to think about one area of your life that’s most important to you or that you are neglecting the most and then decide on what needs to be done to improve in that area.

3. Unrealistic goals : If you decide that you wants a physique like Chris Hemsworth from Thor or play the guitar like Jimmy Hendricks, don’t assume its going to happen in just a few days or even a couple of months. These individuals have dedicated several hours of effort everyday for months and years on end to achieve that result. If you feel, you can do the same by just doing a couple of push-ups and taking a few guitar lessons, you are fooling yourself. Set small targets, so that you can measures your progress and get motivated from the results. If you set unrealistic goals, its very likely that your not going to achieve them. Everything takes time and effort , don’t rush and take shortcuts to get results quicker.

4. Short term enthusiasm: When we set our sights on a new target , we are pumped with adrenaline and want to achieve it as soon as possible. In the case of exercise, we decide that we will begin exercising daily for an hour. With initial gusto, you might follow it for a week. But later on due to some reason or the other we don’t find that time, energy or will power and end up not doing any exercise at all.

The best way to tackle this is to start small. I mean really small. SO small that that it’s stupid if you can’t do it. then increase the task in small amounts till you reach your goal. For example, instead of a high intensity 60 min workout , start with a low intensity 5 min workout . Just put on your shoes and go for a small walk. Whats important in the first 1-2 months is consistency, it doesn’t matter how much effort you are putting. Once the habit pattern is formed, you can always increase the effort .The habit would include what time of the day you perfom the task, what you do immediately before you perform the task (trigger) and what happens immediately after you perform the task (which acts as a reward). The reward doesn’t have to be chocolate bar or some unhealthy snack, it can be a refreshing protein drink or a flavorsome healthy snack or even an activity you enjoy doing.

It always best to start a new habit and associate it with other existing habits . For example,if you want to increase the amount of water you drink everyday, you can decide to have a glass of water immediately after you brush you teeth or after you have your tea/coffee or even have a sip of water at you desk everytime you send an email (if you send out a lot of emails). This way the brain start associating one activity with another one and before you it , you’ve developed a new habit.

5. Patience and Persistence: According to some studies, It takes atleast 21 days to form a new habit. These initial days are the most challenging and daunting. It takes immense willpower to achieve big goals, so its advised to set small goals, form a pattern and then scale up. In the beginning, there may not be visible changes, but need to stick to your decision until the habit is formed. Now, 21 is not a magic number .It just means that if you’ve complete 3 weeks it becomes very probable that you will continue the new pattern. Unfortunately this applies to both good and bad habits. So, be aware of what you do throughout the day. Is there any particular activity that you definitely don’t want becoming a habit? Its best to break a pattern, when its being formed the first time.

The most important point of all is, DON’T GIVE UP…It’s ok even if you haven’t succeeded several times. Self Improvement is a process. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You learn a lot from your mistakes. Look at what you can learn from your failures and try again….and again…till you achieve what you set out to do.

Dr. Alvin Alva is the Co-Founder of Type a Thought and a Pathologist by profession.