Four Barriers of Habit Formation & Tips for Overcoming them

What kind of challenges do you run into while trying to form new habits?  Staying organized, prepared, realistic, and having a good environment are all common challenges in the journey for habit formation. Remember the 3 Rs (reminders, routines, rewards), implementation intention, the Goldilocks rule, and the Paperclip strategy to fight against each of them.   

There are constant challenges that stand in the way of developing and maintaining habits.  These challenges, if ignored, can be detrimental to your self-image, mindset, and health.  By overcoming the barriers that hinder good habit formation, you can avoid the negatives while receiving the positives. 

  1. 1. The first challenge is being able to organize the flow of your activities – when should you engage in your habits? How can you engage in your habits consistently?
  2. TIP:  The key is to use the 3 Rs of habit formation: reminders, routines, and rewards.  Reminders are the cues that trigger habits, like seeing the textbook that you need to take notes from on your bedside table. The routine is the habit itself that comes from the reminder – reading your textbook and taking notes. The reward is the great feeling that you get from productivity, accomplishment, or a well-deserved break. 

2. The next challenge is being unprepared to carry out your habit. Without a realistic plan, habits are unguided and unsustainable. 

TIP: To combat this, consider your implementation intention.  Ask yourself precisely: what you will do, when, and where.  Then pitch this to yourself in the format of “I will (behavior) at (time) in (location)”.  By doing this, you will be creating a realistic simulation of the habit in your mind that will get your foot in the door to writing it in your planner and acting on it.   

3. The third challenge to forming good habits is starting off too big. 

TIP: Be realistic with yourself.  Beginning too big doesn’t make you more productive, if anything, it makes you less productive.  It’s needlessly unsustainable, terrifying, and stressful due to immense adjustment necessary to accomplish the task that you’re trying to perform on a regular basis.  Throwing yourself into a situation like that would only make the habit unenjoyable and impossible to maintain.  Instead, be realistic and ask yourself what kind of habit would fit you at this moment.  When you’re ready, you can move on to bigger things.  This is the Goldilocks rule – choosing habits that are neither too hard nor too easy for you to maximize feasibility and confidence. 

4. The last and most prevalent challenge to forming good habits is a poor environment.  Very few people have the privilege of having the perfect environment to accommodate their habit goals.  There are many environmental factors that are undeniably impossible to change, but there are things that are in your power. 

TIP: These include: removing distractions, keeping a clear workspace, and creating your own visual triggers.  You can, for example, adopt the Paperclip Strategy to form your own cues.  All it takes is a paperclip or any other small item.  Put one paperclip for each of your goals on the left of your desk and slide them further to the right based on how far you’ve advanced on your goal.  You can get creative with how you design your progress counter: you can color-code, use sticky notes, and decorate it however you like to make it stand out among your other environmental triggers.  This progress bar will be a positive reminder of what you want to do and how far you’ve gone, a great example of a good environmental factor on your habits.  

To learn more about overcoming the barriers to forming habits: 

Gardner, B., & Rebar, A.L. – Habit formation and Behaviour change 
Colon, C. – 4 ways to overcome barriers to change and make new habits stick 
Clear, J. – How to stick with Good Habits Everyday by Using the “Paper Clip Strategy” 

Author: Zac Lo
Editor: Cathy Xie
Researcher: Anosha Subramaniam