Blog Post

Trying a new habit? Understand your mind first.

2021, what will it bring?

2021. A new year, and thoughts turn to self-improvement. It’s the ‘fresh start approach’: you have more motivation to make changes to your life, habits, and health when it feels like a new beginning such as a big birthday, the start of the month, or a new year.

So, did you make a new year’s resolution? It’s now getting towards the end of January, have you kept it?

Keeping these resolutions is hard, something like a third of people don’t even get to the end of January. And that’s because you are trying to change a habit, and changing habits is even more difficult.

If you are one of those people who find it difficult to keep your new year’s resolutions, or are just interested in the psychology of changing habits, have you ever wondered why this is? Instead of using willpower alone, try understanding how your brain works, and what is the best approach to changing habits for you.

One great place to start is ‘The Chimp Paradox: the Mind Management Programme for Confidence, Success and Happiness by Dr Steve Peters. I read it last year and found it really useful, and I promise it is written in an easy-to-understand way.

This book helps you understand how your brain works, and why you seem to have two personalities, the calm, rational one (the human), and the emotional, reactionary one (the chimp). Dr Peters gives you the knowledge to understand and accept these two parts of your brain, and the skills to manage them better. Once you understand how your brain works, you can then make goals that are achievable for both your chimp and your human.

Part of this is understanding that you can’t force the chimp to do anything it doesn’t want to. Think cosy and warm in bed, it’s raining outside, your alarm has gone off, it’s 07.00 and you are meant to go running as part of your new plan to get fit. Will you get up? There is a neat trick in the book to help you get up when your alarm goes off, and I can say from using it that it works! Well, about 90% of the time – that chimp is a tough character after all.

These are some tips from Dr Peters on goals.

  • Define success – the chimp brain will want material belongings and achievements, the human brain looks for human qualities. A new car, or different job won’t necessarily bring the happiness and contentment that your chimp brain thinks they will. How does happiness look to the human?
  • Measure success – ‘If you measure success in life by effort and doing your best, then it is always in your hands to succeed and be proud of yourself.’ Success doesn’t mean you have to reach a particular goal; making an effort, and partial successes are things to be proud of.
  • Commitment – getting your plan sorted means you are more likely to be committed to it, and not just motivated, which is a chimp emotion. So work out what is needed for the job, and get solutions ready for any difficulties.
  • Own the plan – Design it yourself, or have a major say in it, this increases your chances of success. Whereas a plan imposed by someone else, or society, won’t be as successful.
  • Accept responsibility – some form of self-discipline is necessary to realise a plan, though it can help to have someone to be accountable to.
  • Aim for personal excellence – ‘doing your best, regardless of the standard you achieve… is always achievable… at least you can hold your head up and say it was your best’.
  • Work out what carrot works for you – rewards, celebrations, recognition, encouragement, support.
  • Never use the stick – beating yourself up, regret, blame, and guilt don’t work, and negative self-talk is very harmful. A positive, encouraging attitude is best.

I was able to put these tips to good use over the last year. For example, my garden…  I love having my garden looking good, I love being outside, I love eating my own produce, but my chimp hates hard physical labour. So, I used to let the chores build up until it was an unmanageable mess, and then have to spend a back-breaking weekend sorting it all out.

Working in the garden.

Once I sat down and had a good think about the situation, and came to realise all of this, I was able to come up with a plan for a new habit. I now break gardening down into 30 minute sessions a couple of times a week. I even find once I’m outside and working half an hour flies by and most days I work for longer.

My chimp is happy with the material ‘success’ of a garden that is nice to look at, and the human finds happiness through being outside, and connection to the natural world. Win win!

Another example is the bad habit I got into of drinking too much coffee. It was around August last year when I started to notice a fluttery uncomfortable feeling in my chest (for all the cardiac nurse reading this, my rate and rhythm were fine!).

My first thought was that it was anxiety, which wouldn’t have be unusual given the fact we were in the middle of a pandemic. So I tried more meditation and relaxation, but it didn’t help.

Racking my brains, I thought the cause must be more tangible, and had a look at what about my lifestyle had changed: I realised that I was drinking three cups of coffee a day. This was because my husband had been working at home since March. He was used to drinking this much coffee in the office, and was doing the same at home, but now I was joining him.


I couldn’t use willpower to break this new habit – whenever he asked me if I wanted a coffee, I said yes (see, tough chimp). So, I had to ask him not to ask me. And this works a treat. When he starts to fire up the coffee machine, I just calmly fill the kettle and make a cup of tea. Works every time!

Now we have a problem with too much baking going on. He is doing the baking, my problem is that I eat it!

I would say the best way to make a new habit is to understand your mind first. Focus this year on self-reflection, who knows what you will be able to achieve once you understand yourself better!