Menu
Announcement: Want to share your story in the next Tiny Buddha book? Learn more here!

How to Create Lasting Change by Forming Habits That Stick

Jogging

To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did.” ~Unknown

Heroes inspire us all. They are strong, smart, and powerful. They manage to win against all odds. They will keep going no matter what.

They may feel fear but fear does not get them. And just when you thought that they were done, it was over, and that there was no way they could overturn the situation, they rise back out of the blue, strike, and win!

Then they cross the finish line. Glory awaits them. From now on everyone will remember them for the great people they were.

Oh, the path of glory.

We get addicted to this path. We want to be heroes so badly. And we fight, we do our best, we give our all, yet many of us are failing.

I didn’t recognize the reason behind our shortcomings until I realized that there are actually two types of heroes: the glory-focused type and the down-to-earth type.

Let’s take exercise and healthy eating as an example.

Many people decide to live healthier, especially in January with New Year’s Resolutions.

They believe that this time they will make it happen! Glory awaits them! And they march. Full-speed. They do very well—at least in the first few weeks.

Then they slowly start running out of steam. They cannot hold on to their diets as they did, and they skip more and more workouts. A large percentage of them will have quit by the second week of February.

No glory for the quitters, only blame and guilt. They didn’t try hard enough. They gave up too easily. They were lazy. Or, they just did not want to change badly enough.

That’s what I thought a few years back when I realized that, despite my best intentions, I had gained twelve pounds in two years, I was eating out most of the time, and my exercise habits were yo-yoing.

This is when I realized that if I let this trend continue, I would become fat and unhealthy in just a few years. Because that’s how pounds creep in—insidiously. We put on a few every year until one day we wake up and wonder how we got there.

I needed to find a way to change my lifestyle, and do so permanently. No more exercise five times this week, but no exercise next week. No more salads daily for two weeks, and then a more or less permanent break from vegetables.

I needed to create healthy habits—ones that stick.

So I got into researching how habits work, and here is what I found out, to my surprise:

The truth is that most of us who are inconsistent or quit our journey are not lazy, do not give in too easily, and did try our best!

We failed because we focused on pushing toward glory.

This approach is great for short-term quests. Motivation and willpower are great tools to tackle short-term goals. However, living healthier is a long-term lifestyle change, and it requires a different approach.

Motivation naturally drops after we get started with the quest, and just living life depletes willpower—going to work, doing things for our family we didn’t really want to do, going through a decluttering project that leaves us super-tired…

Why? Because this is how our brain is wired.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s divide the mind in the executive (or conscious) and habitual (or unconscious) parts.

The conscious part is responsible for your rational thoughts and speech, while the unconscious part takes care of your emotions and reactions, as well as everything you do when you are on auto-pilot: driving, eating, brushing your teeth, and so on.

Guess which part of your brain controls our habits? You are right; it’s the unconscious one.

Translation?

Well, you cannot, for example, decide that from now on you will be going to the gym six times a week for an hour and a half each time.

To be accurate, you can actually make this decision, but even if you do, it won’t matter—at least not after the first week.

Why?

Because you make these decisions with rational thought, using the conscious part of your brain. However, the conscious part of your brain has no control over habits.

You’ve just decided to alter your habits, but the unconscious part of your brain is the habits lord and the boss! What you have control of is maybe the following week, but the following year? No. This is under the boss’ authority.

Did the unconscious part of your brain agree with your well-thought-out resolution to become a gym junkie?

Not really.

If the boss does not approve the plan, then the plan does not get carried out. If you would like to live healthier and yet you don’t, then the boss hasn’t approved your plan yet.

This is why so many people quit their resolutions in February. They haven’t yet persuaded the boss! This is how I gained twelve pounds in two years—the boss had not approved any of my healthy-living plans.

So the question becomes: How can you persuade the boss to make a lasting lifestyle change?

The boss does not respond well to the glory-seeking hero’s journey. That hero’s journey is great for our executive brain, but not for our habitual brain.

Our habitual brain (the boss) actually responds well to the exact opposite—the down-to-earth hero’s journey.

1. Glory-seeking heroes attempt big change. Down-to-earth heroes go for mini change.

Big changes turn on your boss’ fight-or-flight response (run by the amygdala in your brain). When change is big, the boss chooses flight.

Try mini change instead to avoid waking up the amygdala. Five minutes of exercise a day may not impress your executive brain, but they do wonders with the boss.

2. Glory-seeking heroes take quests that are hard. Down-to-earth heroes take quests that feel easy.

Easy quests make you feel accomplishment and send positive messages to the boss to keep going.

The boss cannot wait to get more of that! It loves feeling accomplished. Habits are built and you are well on your way to success.

Now, I have nothing against glory-seeking heroes. I think they are awesome! But at the same time I think that the path of glory led me astray, and keeps leading astray many others.

Long-term success is not just about the amount of effort you devote, even though effort does work for short-term goals. Long-term goals need consistency.

In their quest for glory many people lose weight only to gain it back later. They didn’t have the boss’ approval. They didn’t build the habits that would help them with weight maintenance.

I’ve learned that if I follow the boss’ way, I will get the results I want. And I will get to glory. I will be a hero, not just for a few months but also for the rest of my life.

And I will do all that without guilt, trying harder, or self-whipping—evidence of a boss that has not approved the plan yet. Instead, I will do it with ease and comfort.

I now exercise five times a week consistently, I have learned to cook, and I eat at home every day! Oh, and the side effect? Losing the twelve pounds I had put on.

What change are you trying to create, and what mini step can you take today to start forming a habit that sticks?

Photo by whologwhy

Avatar of Maria Brilaki

About Maria Brilaki

Amazon Best-selling author, Maria Brilaki, is the founder of Fitness Reloaded, where she helps people start every day feeling unstoppable. To get more tools like "The BUT Technique" and become the happiest and most successful person you know, Maria has prepared a Free Instant Happiness Course - just for Tiny Buddha readers. Click here to receive it.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • http://friendshipsociety.net/ Eric West | Friendship Society

    Interesting take on habits. I hadn’t looked at it this way before. I think overall I’m a down to earth hero, but I certainly have my glory hero moments. I typically work on one habit or life change at a time. While I’m doing it I support that habit with reading to keep me motivated.

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    Awesome, it seems that you have found a formula that works for you. Keep it up!

  • Niloo

    I love the way you wrote this Maria. It’s not a new idea to me…I know that small, manageable mini goals are better than big swooping goals (and yet I still seem to keep making big swooping goals)….but something about the way in which you wrote this article really struck a chord with me. I’m going to check out your site and blog! Thank you for sharing this! :) Also, it’s so true…what you said…if you follow the boss, you WILL get the glory (it’s counterintuitive…but works!)

  • http://twitter.com/NickailaArnold Owl Lady

    I love this. Thank you and well done! X

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/William-Disharoon/1185532222 William Disharoon

    By putting too much on my plate I consciously gave in. I felt I was sacrificing too much. If, like Maria, I ate at home I would find extra money for those things I wanted to buy. It still takes time, but little changes work best – for those reading this and trying to change – Its excellent advice.

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    Hi Niloo! Both big and small change work, but…they are different animals :) Small change is the change of least resistance and that’s why it is usually by far more effective than big change. Follow the boss and find your bliss! :)

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    Hi William! Thank you for your kind words. Switching from eating out to eating at home was important to me too. I can proudly announce that 2.5 years ago I was eating out every day – now, I eat at home every day. And I am the one cooking! ;) I made it happen by taking small steps…

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    You are welcome!

  • Guest

    Thank you!

  • Vicky

    Cool post…and I relate to this. The only way I maintained a yoga practice is by not forcing it. It started with the hero 5 long practices a week but now it’s more like 3 little practices and/or some walking and anything that feels like pleasure. If for some reason I skip yoga for a while, my body craves it. Also, I realised that vigorous exercise for weight loss doesn’t work for me because my body / boss sees it as punishment. It just wants to compensate with a big treat like cake. So now, I exercise lightly doing what I love and eat food I love in moderation. It seems to work best :)

  • MathildaMoon

    I’m a perfectionist procrastinator. This is a great post…very compelling. Thanks!

  • http://www.sixsimplerules.com/ David Singer/SixSimpleRules

    Maria:
    Right on! Breaking down your big goals into small pieces and focusing on one at a time until it becomes a habit is the way.
    Great work!
    Best regards,
    David

  • Dolcevita

    Aha I see. That explains why I have not missed a single day yet since I started in October to do at least 10 minutes of yoga every morning (you tube if fab for videos to follow). Well, you learn something new every day :-D

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    You are welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    Thanks David!

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    You’ve found the secret!

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    Vicky, you are spot-on with the words “not forcing it”. Habits don’t come through force, they come through ease.

  • http://twitter.com/GabriellaWest Gabriella West

    I really liked this piece–the humor in it! Thanks for your insight.

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    You are welcome!

  • lv2terp

    Great explanation and labels of the conscious and subconscious when talking about habits…very clear, and well stated! I like this perspective, and agree with you! :) Thank you for sharing this post, it makes me assess my intentions and which hero I am trying to be when what I try to change/do doesn’t work out! hmmmmmm

  • cag

    omg, I get it…no wonder an all or nothing approach doesn’t work for me. ty!!!

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    You are welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    Be friends with the boss and you can make any dream come true! The boss IS powerful after all! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nilu-Dayananda/1567835324 Nilu Dayananda

    Very intuitive and funny article!
    Thank you

  • Zuupdesign

    Hi, I just want to share this great blog, it could help anyone in the future. Change the way you take your vitamins and supplements http://www.zuup.com/blog/index.php/pill-management-with-zuup-case-study/

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.koppel.3 Brian Koppel

    To place the BIG MOUNTAIN widget on your own website and into blogs, copy
    this code below and paste it into your website and blog. BIG MOUNTAIN
    needs your help to record our next album .

    Click on widget and it will take you to our BIG MOUNTAN kickstarter where you can make your pledge to BIG MOUNTAIN.

    With your support we will be able to start recording in April and we
    can have a new album complete by the end of May. We could have a new
    Big Mountain delivered to you in June.