How To Trick Your Brain Into Making Healthier Choices

Libby Limon BSc NT mBANT / Nov 16, 2015

Most of us want to be as well as we can be, and often make decisions to change our behaviour to incorporate new healthy habits. However, although we often start with best intentions, but motivation and commitment wanes, ending us back at square one.


Here is why relying on willpower doesn’t work, and what you can do instead to create new better you habits…

When you initially make the decision to change a part of your lifestyle, you are enthusiastic about your new direction and motivated by the perceived end goal of what this will mean to your wellbeing.  However, as the reality of the work or self restraint sets in the motivation naturally starts to diminishes.

As the motivation falls you shift to rely more on sheer willpower. But will power is the process of overriding temptations and no one has an endless supply of willpower. Your will power starts get "used up”. In a day and age where temptations are more abundant and available then ever before this is a real problem. By evening, you may find you have no willpower left. That's why most people blow their healthy diet choices in the late afternoon and evening or end up opting for the sofa rather than the gym.

Whilst we believe we are consciously making choices in terms of our everyday actions the truth is the majority of what we do is dictated by the subconscious mind, the part of our brain that runs our lives on autopilot. This is why you can do everything from riding a bike to eating or brushing your teeth without thinking about it. Tasks are performed via the conscious mind, but most actions depend on the subconscious mind.

If you consciously decide to create a new habit, to ingrain and make that habit sustainable you need to train your unconscious by creating a new neural pathway. Once a new habit is established in your subconscious it becomes easy to do—motivation and willpower are no longer required.

There are eight steps to turn any desired new activity, whether that be diet, exercise, meditation, stress reduction, sleep habits, increased focus or efficiency etc. into a habit. Once a habit is established, you'll find yourself doing it effortlessly.


1. Set achievable small goals. Going from zero to hero will always set you up for a fall. Be realistic at what you can achieve, don’t try to do everything at once. Focus one or two habit changes at a time.

Your existing habits are already established in your subconscious, it doesn't like to change them. A big change often sets up subconscious resistance, but you can sneak past a small change by it. Taking small actions tricks your brain.

Examples of small goals would be to create a healthy breakfast that you eat everyday, or taking half an hour at lunch to walk outside or meditating for 10mins a day.

2. Use triggers. Triggers are cues to your subconscious to do a certain action. Smokers often are triggered by drinking cup coffee or alcohol, as they usually smoke when they are doing these tasks. But you can use triggers to you advantage make new cues for positive task. An example of this is getting a organic vegetable box delivered each week, this becomes a trigger to eat and cook more vegetables. Visual triggers can also be helpful, putting your VITL supplements box on your desk is a visual cue to take your daily strip or laying out your gym clothes the night before is a visual cue to workout in the morning.

3. Replacement. Trying to break a bad habit, like snacking on sugary chocolate or snacks in the afternoon is much easier if your replace it with something else. Replacing with a snack that is still sweet but with healthy balanced low GI sugars and protein to balance blood sugar e.g. a vegan protein bar or natural yoghurt and fruit, will trick your subconscious into the change.

4. Set a reminder and don’t break the chain.  Reminders can be built into your diary or just built into what you already do. An example is when your morning alarm goes off instead of pressing snooze you get up straight away and go make a hot water and lemon or green tea or when you leave work  for the day you go to the gym.

Doing the same task at the same time every day, with same trigger or reminder will make the habit form quicker. Using a calendar, and marking a red tick for everyday you achieve your small goal, aiming for no gaps can be good technique to achieve this.

5. Timing is key.  Early bird catches the worm. We are more motivated earlier in the day, so aiming to start your new healthy habits in the morning can be helpful.  That might mean meditating after breakfast or prepping food for healthy dinners so they are prepared when you get home.

6. Be prepared. Making sure that you have everything you need to effectively achieve your small goal whether that is having the time available or the tools, ingredients or clothes ready to go. If your goal is walking, make sure you have comfortable shoes and a pedometer to monitor your progress. If your goal is waking up an hour earlier to gym, then you need to start to go to bed an hour earlier.

7. Convenience. In our fast-paced modern world, convenience is a major factor something becoming part of our every day lives. Home or office delivery of products, or being able to stream a yoga class into your home are ways that healthy habits can be more convenient. One of our favourites is Lunch BXD who will cycle a fresh, nutritious and delicious lunch to your desk. So instead of queuing for a sandwich, you can spend that time going for a walk instead. 

8. Fun and interesting. If you don’t enjoy something you will never stick at it. Making your goal sociable, like pairing up with a friend to exercise with always helpful. Also using your goal to expand your knowledge, if you want to improve your diet, then learning to about nutrition and improving your repertoire of healthy dishes that you can cook will really help.

Lastly the 21-day timeframe for habit forming is actually a myth, according to UCL research on average a habit is formed in 66 days. Although different people have different propensity for habit forming, plus the more simple the task or goal the easier it is for a habit.