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Barriers that might be preventing you from changing behavior - and what to do about them

Plenty of academic papers (and our own experience creating behavior change tools) strongly suggest that people struggle to change their behavior. Why is this?

Today, we’re going to help you answer that question by taking you on a tour of seven barriers (from our Ten Conditions for Change framework) that commonly hinder people’s attempts to change. We’ll also provide you with strategies for dealing with each one.

You can apply these insights to change or create a new behavior in your own life. However, if you're considering using this knowledge to help someone else, we recommend you read our Ten Conditions For Change in full, since it contains more details about how to help other people consider, desire, and engage in a new behavior.

In this article, we focus on 7 of the most common barriers to personal behavior change, rather than all ten conditions outlined in the framework.

Barrier 1: You're not remembering

So, you want to change your behavior in some way. You're very unlikely to engage in your desired behavior if you don’t remember to do so at the right times. For instance, if you want to meditate every morning but don’t set any reminders to do so, you might struggle to remember to meditate as often as you’d like.

Here are some strategies to help you overcome this barrier:

  • Place reminders around you: Write out a reminder to engage in the behavior and post it in your home or any place where you may be at the time you should be taking the action.

  • Learn to use prompts: Start identifying environmental cues that can be used to remind yourself to perform a behavior, including times of day, contexts, or elements of contexts. For example, whenever you make your bed in the morning, use that as a reminder to also sit down and meditate for at least five minutes.

  • Calendar: Create entries on your calendar to schedule when to practice the new behavior. It should be a calendar you check frequently or a digital one that alerts you when to perform the scheduled action.

Barrier 2: You don’t really believe in the potential outcomes

You're less likely to engage in your desired behavior if you don't really believe that it will help you achieve an outcome that you care about. This can occur for various reasons, including:

  • Lack of perceived connection to goal: you may think, "I don't see how carrying out this action will actually help me achieve my goal."

  • Lack of self-efficacy: you may think, "I'll probably fail if I try to perform this action"

Here are some strategies to help you overcome this barrier:

  • Evidence investigation: Look for evidence of whether or not performing the desired behavior is likely to lead to a desired outcome. And, if you aren't convinced, consider focussing on a different behavior instead of this one.

  • Self-talk: Use self-instruction and self-encouragement (aloud or silently) to support action. For example, you could repeat the phrase "I HAVE SUCCEEDED AT HARDER THINGS BEFORE" to yourself out loud 10 times.

  • Practice: If you doubt your ability to succeed at the behavior, practice it until you can do it more easily.

Barrier 3: You're not prioritizing the behavior

Even if you remember to perform your desired behavior and believe it will help you achieve your goals, you're less likely to engage in it if you choose other behaviors instead of it. There are various reasons why you may choose to do something else instead, including: temptation, unpleasantness of the behavior, distraction, and confusion about how to do it properly.

Here are some strategies to help you overcome this barrier:

  • Chaining: Take an existing habit you already have and tack an extra behavior at the end of it (e.g., after you finish brushing your teeth every morning, you should immediately do a 5-minute meditation).

  • Default bias: People often stick with whatever the default action is (especially when there are a large number of options to choose from), so if the default is your desired behavior, you may simply stick with it. For example, if you want to save more, setting up automatic transfers into a savings account can help you.

  • Reward yourself: Come up with a technique for rewarding yourself. This could be either with a physical reward (such as your favorite beverage), or psychological one (such as by telling yourself "great job!") every time you perform the desired behavior.

Barrier 4: You don't know how to perform the behavior

You're very unlikely to engage in a behavior if you don’t have the information or knowledge needed to do so effectively.

Here are some strategies to help you overcome this blocker:

Barrier 5: You don't have the resources or permissions needed

You're less likely to engage in the desired behavior if you don’t have the resources you need to perform that action effectively. For instance, you might be lacking the money, supplies, permission, etc to carry it out..

Here are some strategies to help you overcome this barrier:

Barrier 6: You don't have the skills and traits needed

You're less likely to engage in your desired behavior if you don’t have the physical capacities, mental capabilities, and skills needed to perform it. For instance, even if someone knows how to use a weight lifting machine (as a part of their fitness plan), they may be physically incapable of using the machine if they have a shoulder injury.

Here are some strategies to help you overcome this barrier:

Barrier 7: You've stopped maintaining the conditions indicated above

Your desired behavior will need maintenance. It isn't sufficient to overcome the barriers above once - you've got to continue to overcome them.

Here are some strategies to help you overcome this barrier:

  • Self-monitoring: Keep a record of your performance of the desired behavior (e.g., in a diary). Measuring a behavior tends to influence that behavior. For instance, if you keep a record of how many steps you take each day, you'll tend to take more steps.

  • The WOOP technique: This evidence-based strategy is designed to help achieve goals and make positive changes in behavior. Developed by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan. It's a method that combines positive thinking about the future with a realistic understanding of the barriers involved. Interestingly, in one of the studies we conducted on how to effectively form daily healthy habits, we did not find that the group who engaged in the WOOP technique stuck to their habits better than the control group, but many other studies have found WOOP effective so it still may be worth trying for yourself to see if it helps you.


If you want to take a deeper dive into this topic and learn more about how you can make behavior change easier (for yourself or others), try our interactive tool: Ten Conditions For Change. Within 15-30 minutes, it will help you to:

  • choose and define a behavior change to focus on,

  • walk you through the three stages of successful behavior change,

  • identify which of the ten "conditions for change" you might fail to meet,

  • select strategies to overcome these behavioral barriers,

  • provide you with a customized plan based on your responses,

  • set up reminders to work on the change.

Behavior change is especially hard when you don't have a clear plan. We hope the techniques to overcome barriers that we’ve shared here help you craft a behavior change plan for yourself, and ultimately achieve your behavior changes more successfully.


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