“Failure” of a new habit can be good for your brain (and other habit-forming tips)

Oct 18, 2017 | Change


All is not lost when you slip back to an old habit. In fact, it’s an opportunity for you – and your brain – when you notice that you “failed”

When you can’t make change stick

Do you get frustrated trying to create change?

It might go like this: you were so good for nearly a week, exercising, sticking to a new schedule in the office – whatever the goal – then you had a late night or a stressful event and – poof! You went back to your usual ways.

You probably think that you failed. You may even berate yourself and wonder, “What’s the point? I just end up feeling like a failure.” So you throw in the towel to avoid future disappointment.

Understandable? Absolutely. But also, simply put, wrong.

Why? Because from our brains’ point of view, it’s a natural part of the process of change.

The neuroscience of a habit

You’ve probably heard about neuroplasticity. It’s that wonderful ability our brains have to create new neural pathways. And, contrary to earlier belief, we don’t lose this ability when we hit a certain age. (It may be a slower process for someone at age 65 than age 5, but the ability is not lost.)

By the way, neuroscience has proven the brain’s plasticity many times, so you can let go of any belief that your brain is somehow different and unable to change.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s process of change, and we can control that process by directing our attention and our actions. Each time we have a thought, focus our attention on something, or take an action, neural pathways are activated.

Each time we experience the same thought or take the same action, the same neural pathways are used. And each time the same neural pathway is used, it gets stronger.

The metaphor I use with my clients is this: if you walk the same path in the woods every day for 30 years, it will become well-worn and familiar to the point that you won’t have to pay attention to your walk.

It’s like that with our neural pathways, too. And our brains prefer the well-worn paths because they want to conserve our body’s energy. In this way, our brains are not trying to work against us when they follow a habitual path, they’re just trying to take the easy route.

The neuroscience of a new habit

To create a new habit, we need to redirect our focus and action, or to choose a new way.

As I tell clients – back to the path in the woods – if you decide one day to go a different direction, you need to create a new path. It will be hard and slow at first. You may need to walk in brush and clear some branches. But eventually, over time, it will get easier to walk and will take less energy.

The part in the habit-forming process to focus on, especially in the beginning, is not the end of the path (which you’re probably not even familiar with yet), nor the path itself, but the point at which you notice that there is the old path, and a new one.

Even if you begin to follow the old path or habit, once you recognize that you’ve done this, rather than berating yourself for having failed, you should rejoice for having noticed because this is where change begins.

Noticing your “failure” is actually success

As Dr. Daniel Siegel describes the process of building mindfulness, when you notice your mind getting lost in thought (or going back to your old ways), this is great news! This means you’re growing the muscle of shifting your focus and attention in your brain.

So, even by having the thought that you “failed” to create the new habit, you’ve strengthened your ability to rewire your brain by practicing the switch to the new neural pathway.

When growing your brain’s neural pathways and creating new habits, success comes from the practice, period. It matters not whether you get to the end of the neural pathways for the new habit. If that is your focus, you may never see the end.

In our fast-paced world, we often want quick fixes and fast results. And if we don’t get them, we may give up or move on, but we miss a real opportunity to change and to grow our brains.

How long does it take to create a new habit?

Speaking of results, you might be asking how long you need to repeatedly take a new pathway before it becomes a habit. Although the answer can vary widely, a study at the University College of London (one of my alma maters), found that the average time was 66 days.

This study also found that failing to follow a new habit once did not affect the overall ability to create the new habit. However, repeated inconsistency did.

How to support yourself in the new habit

Forming a new habit does not mean that the old habit disappears. We just need to make it become stronger than the old habit.

To create a new habit, it helps to repeat the behavior in the same situation and couple it with the same cue, such as before breakfast or after lunch.

It’s also helpful to create optimal conditions for your brain.

Have you ever noticed that the times when you’ve “failed” to choose a new habit, you’re often tired, stressed, or just have a lot going on? I see this with my clients all the time, and it’s no wonder. Research has shown that certain factors can help or harm our brain’s neuroplasticity.

Sleep. Adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night for optimal brain functioning.

Exercise. Aerobic exercise helps to improve blood flow and oxygen levels which support neuronal growth.

Diet. The brain needs the right vitamins and nutrients to stay healthy. This includes foods high in omega-3s, as well as B vitamins and anti-oxidants which help reduce inflammation. It also means avoiding foods that can cause inflammation and inhibit neural growth such as high-fructose corn syrup, alcohol and artificial sweeteners.

Focus and Attention. Research has shown that paying close attention supports the creation of new neural connections and can even improve the size of our gray matter. This is about having the ability to give something your full focus and attention when needed. If you’re juggling too much and dividing your attention, the process can be harder.

Additional ways to help your brain’s neuroplasticity include: lowering stress; having supportive relationships; fun and laughter; and using multiple senses (e.g., movement, sight or sound) in creating the new neural pathway.

What’s your next “failure”?

So what is it that you want to change? What new habit do you want to create, and what will you do when (not if) you slip back to your old ways? Let me hear your ideas or questions.

And if you’d like some direction and support in creating the change, let’s talk. Contact me for a short forge-a-new-neural-pathway consult (on the house).

Photo by John Mark Arnold @ unsplash.com.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Jen Riggs Blog

Meet the Author

Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

Free Audio Download

free download

6 minutes to greater presence

A guided practice for calming and clearing the mind, body and nervous system. Sign up to receive the monthly newsletter & free audio file.