Cognitive tips for building new habits

Building habits can help anyone to improve aspects of their life. Many strive to maintain healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet, sleeping on a regular schedule, and caring for cognitive health. Habits can be beneficial for anyone living with a cognitive condition.

Why habits matter


In many ways, habits form our lives. What we do every day makes up our months and years. Building habits around a healthy lifestyle and caring for cognitive health can make life easier and therefore more enjoyable.

cognitive tips for building habits

Another way to look at it: not having healthy habits can create new obstacles in your life. For example, if you don’t have a healthy sleeping habit in place, you may repeatedly not get enough sleep which could cause your performance at school or work to suffer. If you don’t have a habit of practicing cognitive skills, you may experience more potent effects of an impairment or progress more slowly in treatment.

Building new habits

Habits can’t be formed overnight. Research shows that it usually takes around 66 days to create a new habit. However, it can take much longer depending on the individual and the difficulty of the habit. Before a behavior can become a habit, it must first become a routine. According to Kurt Nelson, Ph.D., there is an important difference between habit and routine. Routines involve conscious effort, whereas habits are so ingrained in our daily lives that they are basically involuntary.

Start slowly

So, starting with a conscious routine is necessary. The issue is that routines can take a lot of work to maintain. Introducing a big change or many changes into your life at once can be overwhelming, so starting with gradual changes can be a good way to start without diving in headfirst.

Reflect on your reasons

Motivation is a key ingredient in forming new habits. Reflecting on why you want to make a change is a good way to motivate yourself to start new routines. Keep your reasons in mind when forming a habit becomes difficult. This is a good way to build intrinsic motivation, which makes you much more likely to succeed in forming a habit!

Get reminders

Setting a phone alarm for when you want to complete a new routine every day can help you stick to your plan. You can also get reminders from another person. For example, ask a family member to remind you to go to bed earlier. Or, if you’re working on a cognitive skill with your therapist, they may be able to remind you to complete home workouts.

Schedule it in your calendar 

Similar to setting reminders, you can also schedule time to work on your new habit in  your calendar. You don’t miss important meetings, so why should you miss a new routine? If you put it in your calendar, it’s an extra way to hold yourself accountable for taking the steps to build a new habit.

Create milestones 

Set small goals for yourself within the new habit. Try setting SMART goals to help you achieve smaller goals along the way. For example, if your goal is to eventually form a habit of practicing an instrument for half an hour every day, you could start with a smaller goal, like practicing the instrument for 10 minutes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday for 3 weeks. Once you reach that milestone, you can set new SMART goals to slowly increase your time spent building your new habit.

Celebrate when you reach milestones 

Getting up after hitting the snooze button for the 3rd time, when you usually wait for the 5th time, is something to celebrate! We can’t completely overhaul our habits in a day, so we need to learn to celebrate small milstones of progress. This helps to build motivation and slowly form a sustainable habit that you’re able to stick to.

Be gentle with yourself

Change is hard, regardless of your age or cognitive abilities. Don’t beat yourself up if forming a new habit is difficult. (Spoiler alert: It will probably be difficult sometimes!)  Negative talk will only lead to you disengaging from your new habit. If you find yourself slipping back into old habits that you want to change, simply try again, perhaps with smaller goals. Keep it positive and relax. Rome wasn’t built in a day. 


Forming new habits isn’t always easy, but the effort is worth it. Whether you’re overcoming a cognitive challenge or looking to improve your daily life, building habits can help you do it. Use these tips as a guide to help you along the way!

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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