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The Power of Habit: 5 Steps to Changing Behavioral Patterns

Well, actually you know that this is not doing yourself a favor. Your conscience screams: "Do not do it!" - but your body doesn't listen to him. Your hand automatically reaches for the candy drawer under your desk and wraps a delicious piece of chocolate out of the rustling paper. This is exactly what you need now, because after lunch you always fall into a black hole that only sugar can get you out of. And somehow your candy drawer is a bit like Pandora's box: Once opened, it brings out your worst vices. Even if you can't unconditionally enjoy the sweet happiness thanks to a grumbling conscience, this ritual is an integral part of your day. You are helplessly at the mercy of your desires and cannot do anything about it. Or?

Humans are creatures of habits. Whether snacking at work, an unhealthy sitting posture at the desk, too much coffee from the bad fully automatic machine, too few relaxing breaks in between or too many smoking breaks - all of these actions are habits that we automatically and unconsciously perform. We humans love to reel off the same process over and over again. In contrast, we are usually not quite as good at dealing with changes. And that doesn't just affect our actions - Thoughts and feelings can also be habits in certain situations that we automatically call up.

How do habits actually arise and how can we change them? We'll show you how you can finally replace your bad habits with good ones in 5 steps.

How do habits arise?

"We are what we do repeatedly", Aristotle is supposed to have said once. And there is actually something to it after all, about 30-50 percent of our decisions should be based on habits. A habit is defined as an action that the brain repeatedly activates and performs subconsciously. Some habits were developed as children, but most of them we develop ourselves in the course of life.Rituals give us security and security, and we save a lot of energy if we don't have to think about every step.

The place where our habits are stored are the so-called basal ganglia. These are also responsible for controlling your heartbeat and breathing. They react to trigger stimuli and carry out processes without us having to consciously control them. Therefore, this part of our brain is difficult to access, which makes it difficult for us to change old habits.

When learning a new behavior pattern, the cerebral cortex becomes active first, in which the center for our conscious action lies. The first few times you carry out an action quite consciously, but over time it becomes an automatism. The more often we successfully carry out an action, the more independent this process becomes. The brain signals deepen and ultimately establish themselves in the basal ganglia as a routine.

The cycle of habits

The author Charles Duhigg describes three phases of habit in his book "The Power of Habit".

1. The trigger:For every habit there is a special trigger, also known as a “trigger”. This can be, for example, a place, an event, a time, but also a feeling. In the example above, the trigger is the time. Always after the lunch break you feel the need for a "small" dessert, which often ends in a candy escalation.

2. The routine: The trigger sets the routine in motion. This means that it triggers a certain action that is repeated regularly. You reach into the candy drawer without thinking too much. Over and over again.

3. The reward:The specific action causes the brain to release the reward messenger dopamine, which makes you feel better immediately. This feeling is what leads to the establishment of a habit in the first place. It's like an addiction that needs to be satisfied.

How do you change bad habits?

The bad news: habits last forever and cannot simply be removed from our system. Just like you don't forget to ride a bike once you've internalized it. For every automated behavior, our brain forms a network of neural connections that cannot be deliberately deleted again.

But there is also good news: We can change bad habits by overwriting them with good ones! It's not that easy, but it definitely pays off. How it works? Here is your step-by-step plan:

# 1: Identify your habit

Every beginning is difficult - but in this case the first step is actually pretty simple: Find out what is bothering you and what you would like to change, and then tell it by its name. It is important that you define the goal concretely and not keep it too general. Here are a few examples.

  • Generally:"I want to eat healthier."
  • Concrete:"I want to give up snacking after lunch."

  • Generally:"I want to do something about my back pain."
  • Concrete: "I want to get used to a better sitting posture at work."

  • Generally:"I want to move more."
  • Concrete:"I want to get into the habit of walking around the block once during my lunch break."

You get what I mean don't you? Now it's your turn!

# 2: Understand your habit and identify the need behind it

As mentioned above, every automated behavior is triggered by a "trigger" and aims to satisfy a need. Find out what the trigger is and what kind of need is being met in your case.

Classic triggers are, for example:

  • Negative emotions such as self-doubt, fear, boredom, stress, loneliness
  • Certain people that you surround yourself with
  • A certain place
  • A certain time

Needs can be:

  • The desire to belong
  • The need for relaxation
  • Distraction from negative emotions
  • The need to escape

As soon as you are aware of your behavior you automatically deal with it more carefully. Try to catch yourself in the act when you give in to automatism again.

A little trick: Wear a bracelet on your right hand or tuck a rock in your right pocket. As soon as you become aware of a bad habit change the bracelet to the left hand or put the stone in the other pocket. By doing this, you are showing yourself that you are becoming more mindful of this particular behavior.

# 3: replace your bad habit with a good one

Now that you know that you can't just press a reset button and delete all harmful routines, you don't even have to try. Instead, think about what kind of new routine you want to establish to change your old one. The prerequisite, however, is that this new habit satisfies the same need. Only in this way will you be able to program the new behavior.

So what new habit could satisfy your cravings for the sweet little sins in your secret drawer? Maybe you just try cutting up some fruit and instead of cookies and gummy bears, just snacking on apples and grapes. These are cute too, but far healthier.

You can find more ideas for tasty snacks here: Brain food instead of junk food: 10 simple snacks for the office

As a reward, you could treat yourself to a small dessert later after dinner, which you can look forward to. Rewards show our subconscious that it is worthwhile to adopt the new habit. This is also referred to as the so-called "positive conditioning."

It is also important that you support the new behavior by, for example, not hiding any sweets in your drawer in the first place. So you won't even be tempted. Instead, put a water bottle on the table to drink more regularly.

# 4: strengthen your mindset

As with all planned changes, the mindset, i.e. your attitude and your inner monologue with yourself, plays a decisive role here. When the voice in your head is telling you that you can't do something, it's very easy to believe it. To prevent this from happening, you should ask yourself a very important question:

Why do you want to change this behavior in the first place?

Imagine how much better your life would be if you established a new habit instead. With that goal in mind, it's so much easier to stick with it. Make a conscious decision to go this route, but don't put too much pressure on yourself. It doesn't matter if you relapse every now and then. It is much more important to get into action and keep making small progress.

You may not be able to do without the sweets right away, but instead of stuffing five cookies, three bounties and eight chocolate chips into you, you only take one of each. Even small steps lead to the goal at some point.

# 5: hang in there

Overwriting an old habit doesn't happen overnight. According to a study by University College London, it takes a whopping 66 days to establish a new habit. Other researchers assume 30 days, still others 21. So only one thing is really certain, namely, that this cannot easily be generalized like that.Everyone has their own pace.

If you know your motivation and always have it in mind, it doesn't matter how long you need. The main thing is that you stick with it. Don't try to change several habits at once, however. This could quickly overwhelm you and make you want to give up everything. Work on your self-discipline and give everything - just don't give up.


Breaking well-established routines takes time and willpower. It is therefore advisable to take small steps towards the goal and not try a quantum leap. The more often we are confronted with something, the more sympathetic it becomes to us. So be patient if it doesn't work right away the first time you try it. Because at the latest when you benefit from the new habit in your life, you know that it really pays to stick with it.

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For reasons of readability, we use the masculine form (generic masculine), e.g. B. "the employee". We always mean all genders in terms of equal treatment. The shortened language form has editorial reasons and is neutral.

Marina loves the aromatic smell of coffee, the clattering sound of the keyboard and the reverberant sound of beautiful words. For her, writing is not just a job, it is also her great passion. Marina writes for the Careeasy career magazine from stellenangebote.de on topics related to careers and personal development.