You can change a lifelong bad habit in just 63 days, says neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf

Most of us know that wistful feeling of lost potential. That family relationship that never quite took off. Those flare-ups that we regret hours (if not minutes) after the words leave our mouths. But the good news is that if we’re self-aware and determined enough, there’s very little that can’t be redeemed. Imagine how great it would be to turn a relationship around, to eclipse those mistakes with positive interactions, to feel great about someone or something again after years of disappointment or frustration. Here, neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf explains why we make the same old mistakes and how we can harness the huge power of our minds to bring about lasting change! (Prefer the spoken word? Click here for Dr Leaf’s podcast on this subject)


‘HERE’S A STORY about a strained father/daughter relationship in a family I once worked with. Even though the dad and daughter loved each other to bits, they would have a huge argument every time they had a conversation, which left the whole family feeling awful. 

It turned out that the cause of the daughter’s reaction was her father’s delivery. She would start a conversation with her dad by commenting on something or sharing something, and he would respond aggressively and loudly. His tone and body language triggered the daughter to speak defensively, which would lead to a huge fight about something completely unrelated to the initial discussion. 

Once the cause and triggers were identified, they could make a plan. The dad’s plan was to stop, breathe and ask himself how he was going to respond or deliver his next sentence, then act in a way that was gentler – a gentle tone of voice and no heavy body language. 

 their plan: stop, breathe, ask THEN act!

The daughter’s plan was to be calm in her speaking. Rather than getting defensive, she would ask her dad what he thought she meant, and clear any misunderstandings.

Together, their plan was to be gentler in their conversations: stop, breathe, ask THEN act. 

This didn’t happen overnight. They fell in and out of the bad habit, but they continued to be deliberate and intentional in their thinking and behaviour and the plan worked out for them.

Dr Leaf: If we keep brushing off the mistakes we make, they become habits deeply rooted in our unconscious mind

1. We don’t pay attention to the mistakes we make When we brush off a mistake, it doesn’t go away. It passes into our subconscious mind, then our unconscious mind, and we tend to repeat that mistake over and over when similar situations arise. Over time, we’ll practise a behaviour so often, and spend so much time building it into our brains, that it becomes a habit. By brushing the mistake away or repeating it, you only give it more energy to grow. 

2. We’re unaware of the causes and triggers There’s always a reason behind what we say and do: a cause and a trigger for our mistakes. By becoming self-aware, we can find the cause of the mistake and the situations or triggers that lead us to make it. Once we know these, we can be proactive about managing and fixing them both. 

 if your mistake is hurting people, it needs to be changed 

3. It’s less effort to repeat bad habits An easier and more familiar way of behaving is not necessarily a good one! Effort is how we grow, moving us towards what makes us uncomfortable and forcing us to look deeper within ourselves and make changes that will improve our brain structure and mental health. Many people say to me, ‘Well, that’s just who I am’. But it’s not who they are, it’s who they have become! If it’s a mistake that’s hurting you or the people around you, it needs to be changed: this is a signal for you to put in the effort to change it. Familiarity and ease are not an excuse for you to keep repeating your mistake.

4. We’re not willing to change We need to ask ourselves these questions: Do I really want to change? Does it worry me enough to put in the effort, or am I content with my mistake and don’t really care that people are reacting negatively towards me? We must be willing to put in the effort to respond to the feedback we receive from our environment by changing our bad habit.

Studies indicate that it takes 63 days – or 3 cycles of 21 days – to break down a habit or pattern of thinking and entrench a new one

1. Accept that it takes time (63 days, in fact) I call this having a ‘time mindset’. Science says that it takes 63 days – or 3 cycles of 21 days – to break down a habit or pattern of thinking. It only takes 21 days to break down a core habit and build up a replacement one, but to avoid falling back into the habit, we need to practise the new way of thinking for at least another 42 days. Days 1 and 2 are easy as we get a rush of neurotransmitters in our brain that are very motivational and make us feel driven. After days 3 and 4, these chemicals subside and we can feel flat and demotivated: many people give up between days 3 and 5 because there’s no longer that rush. But if you push through on those days and keep working at that change, you’ll see and feel enormous effects around days 7, 14 and 21. Keep reminding yourself that it takes time to break down a way of reacting or thinking so that you stay motivated to persevere.

2. Tune in to yourself when you make a mistake Take note of your thoughts and the responses of your own body! When we make a mistake, we operate outside the naturally optimistic design of our brain, and our body sends us discomfort signals.

see how others react to you

3. See how others react Note people’s emotions, body language and words towards you. It’s not just about you, it’s about you in the world.

4. Be aware of your triggers and create a plan of action for next time Instead of making that mistake again, make a plan for a different way to react. This requires a lot of deliberate or intentional thinking.

5. Keep a thought journal for 21 days Take note of the cause, triggers and frequency of your mistake. Identify the pattern. Once you know this, you can proactively work to fix it.

6. Understand why change is important We need to choose to see the reason. That’s a choice you have to make, and it’s you who has to take responsibility for it.

Plan in advance to react differently to a trigger and you’ll be on the road to rectifying your bad habit, says Dr Leaf

We can’t just brush off our bad habits and mistakes. We need to decide to become very aware of how we’re saying things, and the impact of what we say on our own bodies and the people around us. Then we’ll be encouraged and empowered to make change that lasts!’


Born and raised in Zimbabwe, educated at a tertiary level in South Africa and now living in Texas, neuroscientist Caroline Leaf has spent over 30 years studying and researching the mind-brain connection. Our minds are far more powerful than we realise, she says. Her passion is to help people facing a range of challenges, from relationship ruts to brain injury, to change their thinking and behaviour. In 2002, her methods helped improve the results of a number of grade 12 students from 20% to 80% in South Africa’s Gauteng Province. Dr Leaf offers simple and practical steps for controlling our thoughts and emotions, and produces free podcasts on a number of helpful topics.  Find her at, Facebook and Instagram. Or download her app, SWITCH

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