How To Build Habits…And Stick To Them!


How often do you assign something to your future self?

“I’ll definitely do that later.”

“I’m going to go to the gym every day … I’ll start tomorrow.”

“In the morning, I’ll have more energy for all these chores.”

Our brains are often very optimistic about what we are likely to tackle in the future.

On the one hand, this is fantastic … how wonderful it is to have a positive self-outlook, high expectations for ourselves and feel like things are getting brighter!

The problem is, that this isn’t always the reality. As Dr Faye Begeti explains in her book, The Phone Fix, “often our brains fool us into thinking that our future self is akin to a superhero.”

We assign things to our future selves.

But how easy is it to actually DO them? And keep doing them?

If your answer is “not very!” then you certainly wouldn’t be alone. That’s because our brains often trick us into thinking that it’s going be easier than it is. Our brains are optimistic about our future capabilities, which means that we often don’t put the necessary measures in place to make things easier for ourselves.

If you really want to create good habits, simply leaving it up to your future self is not going to be enough.

It’s time to work with your brain, instead of against it, and here’s how …

Set Realistic Expectations

Your future self is unfortunately not a superhero (as much as your brain might tell you that it is), and setting yourself unrealistic goals and targets is only going to make your chances of success less likely. Be kind to yourself, and set realistic expectations for what you want to achieve – you can always increase these over time.

Picture Small Steps

If you’re trying to embed an ongoing habit, such as reducing your sugar intake or building more exercise into your routine, then it;s going to take time to achieve. Start small and allow yourself to enjoy the quick wins along the way … little by little and bit by bit is the key here.

Eliminate (Or Create!) Reminders

Our brains are easily distracted by what’s happening in our environment. If you are trying to kick a bad habit … make it easy for yourself and remove the cues around you that relate to that habit. This could include things like unfollowing social media accounts that evoke negative feelings or leaving your phone in another room when you’re trying to work.

Reward Yourself

Using little rewards, linked to the habit you want to create, can forge a positive association in your brain and body and work well to increase your likelihood of beginning habit formation. Take care not to rely on this too heavily though – over time the initial ‘boost’ that a short-term reward provides can fade and become less effective. By focusing on habits that have the potential to yield powerful rewards over time (such as feeling healthier and being able to do more with your body), you can replace the need for a short-term treat with a long-term win.

Remember Your Uniqueness

What works for one person isn’t going to work for everyone. Our brains are all unique and shaped by our individual genetics, socioeconomic factors and experiences through life. Seeking inspiration and learning from others can be empowering, but don’t feel disheartened if you don’t reach the same results in the same way. Instead, experiment to find what motivates you, and what is achievable for you.

What about if time isn’t on your side? How can you embed new habits even more quickly and easily?

If you want to embed a new habit more quickly, strengthen your efforts.

More reminders to activate the habit = the habit will form faster.

↳ If you want to drink more water, increase the number of reminders in your environment to cue your brain into performing the desired action. You could put a glass of water by your bed, carry around a full bottle of water with you and leave an empty glass next to the sinks in your house.

Smaller habitual actions = the more easily your brain will activate autopilot.

↳ If you want to reduce sugar in your diet, going cold turkey is unlikely to be successful. Begin with small steps. Can you cut down on the number of biscuits you eat in the evening? Or buy one less bar of chocolate during your weekly shop? Make your goals achievable and build up over time. 

More rewarding habits = more likely to be practiced in the long-term.

↳ If you want to increase your fitness levels, choose exercise that makes you feel good and is going to result in positive results for your mental and physical health. If going swimming is too much effort … don’t choose this! If you love dancing, find a local dance class! If it’s difficult to arrange childcare, consider exercise you can do around the house that is still enjoyable.

More repetition of the behaviour = faster encoding in the brain

↳ If you want to start journaling before bed, it’s going to take a long time to take up this habit if you only start out doing it once a month. Yes, you need to aim for something realistic but more repetitions will help to embed this in the long run. If you’re pushed for time, you could decrease the amount of time you journal for (2-5 minutes) but increase the number of times you do it.

If one of these elements is missing, does this mean it’s impossible for the habit to form?

No! But it does mean that it might take a little longer or that you might need to increase your efforts in other areas. For example, if you know that you want to embed a habit that is going to be less rewarding, you can still achieve this through increasing the amount of reminders and repetitions.

Struggling to stay consistent? 

Often when we use the idea of ‘consistency’ in the context of the habits we set out for ourselves, we try to apply this idea rigidly.

What we mean is: doing the same thing, to the same standard every single time and to a predetermined frequency.

But is this truly achievable? Realistic? What happens to our habits on tough days?

The early days of embedding a new habit require maximum effort within our brains as our attention, working memory, focus and emotional regulation (our executive function) all pull together to achieve the desired outcome. If you have a day that has been mentally, physically, or emotionally tough, your executive function suffers and so too with that, does your ability manage tricky situations.

In these circumstances, our brains and bodies default to the easiest option which is, in most cases, NOT the new habit that is requiring a degree of willpower to form.

So we miss a day … and there goes our track record for consistency! Often it can be tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater at this point, as we beat ourselves up with the disappointment of not sticking to our plan.

If you haven’t allowed yourself any leeway, any flexibility or you’ve set your expectations too high then consistency can be very difficult – even impossible – to achieve. This is why a back-up plan is so important. If consistency is a challenge, it’s time to reduce your expectations of what is ‘good enough’ and allow yourself a second option for those days where you’re really ‘not feeling it’.

Option 1 might look like:

→ Going to the gym for an hour.

Second choice might look like:

→ Doing some simple exercises at home.


Option 1 might look like:

→ Journaling every night before bed.

Second choice might look like:

→ Thinking about the best bit of each day before you go to sleep.

By building in a back-up plan for those occasions where you just don’t have the energy or the willpower to hit your big target, you can still find success and maintain consistency in forming your new habit.

For even more tips and advice on how you can work with your brain to develop new positive habits, and eliminate negative ones, have a read of my previous blog ‘Why Do We Sometimes Get Stuck In Habits?’


Begeti, F. (2024). The Phone Fix: The Brain-Focused Guide to Building Healthy Digital Habits and Breaking Bad Ones. 

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