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When Habit Change Doesn’t Work

Why can’t we “just do it” when it comes to changing habits?

Key points

  • Research points to the complex nature of interventions when it comes to habit change.
  • A critical piece of habit change is facing the inner conflicts we have about a behavior.
  • Choosing a rewarding alternative to an old habit can create a positive experience that we will choose again.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock
Source: Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock

Habit change has been studied and written about for decades, and the concept seems to be gaining traction in the areas of diet and exercise.

The danger is that it may be becoming almost a buzzword. “I just need to change my habits” can be the refrain now when someone is contemplating a change in how they eat or exercise.

Sometimes habit change is made out to be the perfect answer. In fact, the very definition of a habit is something we do so often that it becomes automatic, something we don’t even have to think about initiating. What could be better than that? Just practice something for a while, and then you don’t have to think about it anymore. You choose a habit that you want to change, set up the cue that signals it is time to instigate the behavior, and go from there. “Just do it” becomes a reality.

Habit change is complicated

But, as anyone who has tried to change a few habits can tell you, it’s not that easy. The plethora of research on habit change and the growing number of books written about it points to a number of complications.

A meta-analysis called Habit Formation and Behavior Change (2019) brings some of the complications to light. Of the 15 studies cited showing successful diet and physical activity changes, not one used context or cue dependency as a stand-alone technique. The interventions included guidance in goal setting, problem-solving, action planning, feedback on behavior, social support, self-monitoring, rewards, behavior substitution, and information on health consequences. This is by no means an exhaustive list. In addition, the research does not tease out which aspects of their intervention were the most influential in facilitating the change.

A recently published book, The Joy Choice by Michelle Segar, does an excellent job of sorting truth from fiction and provides some straightforward guidelines that cut through the noise. This gist is this: We humans are not inclined to give up something and replace it with something else unless the new something has positive meaning for us, gives us a positive reward, and is of our own choosing.

Segar’s research finds that our brains do a good job remembering why we liked the old habit in the first place. To make a change stick, we need to create positive memories around the new habit, to find a choice that gives us joy. Simply forcing ourselves to follow a diet or making a pact with ourselves to get to the gym is not going to lead to long-lasting change.

Facing inner conflict

A common view of habit change is that we can just choose some habits to change and that any internal conflicts we may have will not come into play.

Segar points out that, while we really can change our habits, there are some steps to take first. It is about how we think and feel, and about bringing some awareness to that. She spells out four ways our thoughts can get in the way and calls them disruptors. They are:

  • Temptation. As an “emotion remembered,” it’s often difficult to uncouple that from our usual response.
  • Rebellion. When we are trying to follow a plan or idea, our desire for autonomy can take over and cause us to reclaim a personal choice.
  • Accommodation. To make a change, we need to have the courage to do it just for ourselves.
  • Perfection. Sometimes, we can have fantasies about a perfect future for ourselves, or we can fall into the trap of thinking that making choices is a matter of either/or, black-and-white thinking.

Research indicates that it is unrealistic to expect the habit to become automatic, particularly when it is about such complex behaviors as diet and exercise. For example, even if you know how good exercise feels, there will still be days when you have to force yourself to get to the gym. Or let’s say your day has been particularly stressful. You can easily opt for prepared foods over a healthier option that you would have to make yourself.

Taking action in the moment

Segar points out that we are faced with these sorts of “choice points” all the time. Through practice, we can come to recognize them. What then? She lays it out simply and calls it the POP solution. POP stands for:

  • Pause. Take a few minutes to think, identify what is disrupting your best-laid plans, and take stock of your options. This will get easier the more you practice.
  • Open up your options and play. Get away from perfection and realize you can come up with a compromise if needed that includes a partial option (example: go to the gym for less time, or go for a walk instead).
  • Pick the joy choice. Pick something that you know you will enjoy and that will lift your mood, like doing some gentle moves or getting outdoors for a short walk.

The important part is to create a reward, something that your brain remembers in a positive way. And, here again, you may need some help and practice to accomplish that. Brainstorming the positive aspects of making the chosen change is key. Likewise, selecting a goal for yourself that is meaningful to you and then breaking it down into small chunks is a good structure to follow.

Even so, you still have to face the fact that life is messy. As Segar points out, being flexible when developing a new habit may seem paradoxical, but it is the ability to face each choice point with a positive and fluid perspective that will enable a lasting change.


Segar, M. The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Changes in Eating and Exercise. (2022) Hachette Books.

Gardner, B., Sheals, K., Wardle, J., McGowan, L. (2014) Putting habit into practice, and practice into habit: a process evaluation and exploration of the acceptability of a habit-based dietary behavior change intervention. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 11:135.

Gardner, B., Rebar, A. (2019) Habit Formation and Behavior Change. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology.

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