The Habit Changing Formula – MBTA

habit changing formula

Many of us are aware of habits we need to change or establish in order to live the life we want. But how exactly do we change our habits? Unfortunately, forming a habit doesn’t come out of reading as many blog posts as possible about the topic.

One aspect I was struggling with was to regain my physical health, which I believed would then support my quest to recover from major depression. I recognized that exercise is one key to my physical and mental health. Yet, knowing is one thing, doing is another.

I had these ambitious goals of being healthy and able to go running or work out for an hour a day everyday. Yet, they remained goals in my Google calendar for the longest time because I had no specific plan. So one day, I decided that I needed to establish a more regular exercise routine, for instance, running today, work out tomorrow, and running again the day after. I used to be quite sporty in my younger days (basketball, netball, sprinting, swimming, yoga, taekwondo, pole dancing) so I thought it shouldn’t be too difficult.

However, I had gotten used to sitting on my couch for 18 months as I battled with major depression. I had lost all motivation for any activities. Thus it was a Herculean task to drag my sluggish self down to the gym, even though it was only an elevator ride down.

Again, the routine I wrote down for myself, remained on paper.

I got frustrated with myself, for I knew I needed to form a new habit of exercising again. I tried all the planning, reconditioning my thinking, giving myself motivation and various other strategies, but to no avail.

Nevertheless, I was “saved” by my counsellor one day, and he taught me a formula that I’d like to share.

My counsellor suggested I try to change my habits using the formula MBTA:

-M stands for Motivation,

stands for Behaviour,

T stands for Timing,

stands for Achievable.

To illustrate, let’s take my example for establishing an exercise routine to apply the method of MBTA.

My MOTIVATION to exercise is to get healthy again, which would enable me to meet other challenges in life. Also, my husband would then be less stressed out since he won’t have to take care of me so much and run to the hospital so frequently with my regular collapses and faintings.

With a motivation in my mind, I determined the BEHAVIOUR I would like to change, i.e. exercise. But this behaviour needs to be specific. It does not suffice to simply say to myself, as I previously did, “I will go to the gym today”. Instead, I drilled down to a detailed behaviour, “I will go to the gym downstairs and run on the treadmill for 15 minutes at speed 10.”

In addition, TIMING is crucial because it is all well to say I will go to the gym downstairs and run on the treadmill for 15 minutes at speed 10—but when? There must be a commitment to a time of the day or week. I promised myself, that I will go to the gym every Wednesday mornings at 10am whatever the circumstances, except if I was in hospital or physically unable to. If Wednesdays 10am doesn’t work for whatever reason (not excuse!), I will postpone it to 4pm in the afternoon. No other exceptions or changes.

However, there is no point in being overly ambitious either. I thought carefully about what my body and mind is capable of right now, and adjusted accordingly. So my behaviour and timing that I set for myself must also be ACHIEVABLE. My physical health allowed me to run only 15 minutes each time I went to the gym before I start feeling faint, so I must not over exert myself. Gone were the days when I trained everyday.

Nonetheless, I’m sure as time goes by, I can increase the frequency and length of running. Step by step, each time refining my MBTA to suit the situation.

Have no illusions, MBTA is not an overnight panacea. MBTA serves as a framework to help us change our habits, or form new habits bit by bit. It’s been about 4 months since I started; there were only a few days where I failed myself in the first month. It was an easy act to follow, and each time I reminded myself of my motivation for exercise.

Today, I’ve increased my running to 30 minutes without fail. Still not where I envision my health to be, but it’s gradual improvement.

Maybe you can try MBTA too and see how that works for you, and let me know how it goes?

Photo by Abdullah AL-Naser

23 thoughts on “The Habit Changing Formula – MBTA”

  1. Thanks for sharing. Great advise to be specific on your journey to great health. I am doing the same thing, but I also enlisted an accountability partner. I set my weekly goals on Monday & then report after I do each daily goal. My weekly goal is to exercise 5 times a week for 30m at a time. I am giving her the option to do the same, but as you well know, everyone’s time to be ready to change is different. But as a health care professional, I also need to be as healthy as I can be so I can help other people achieve their healthy selves also.

    1. Hi Cindy S – that’s a great idea to have a partner to support you and be accountable to. I might try that too and I guess if there’s someone to “discipline” us, we can also push ourselves to adhere to our own goals :)
      good luck!

  2. Great article! If I were going to add something to it, I’d add that accountability with someone (or a group) and regular encouragement/support are also KEY in achieving change. Like many other things in life, it is difficult to accomplish things all on your own. is a free tool that can help you to find accountability and support. Check it out and maybe it can be useful to you as you take the next step toward becoming the person that you want to become!

    1. Hi Steve – thanks! I will definitely check out the website you recommend. i used to always rely on myself, thinking myself invincible. but in these 2 years I realized that it’s ok if I need help and also to have other people cheer me on too! thanks again for the suggestion
      hope you are well :)

  3. NochNoch,
    Thanks for such an inspiring article.

    A dedicated plan and daily dose of action is what required to adopt to any new habit.

    I liked the way you explained in step by step method for forming new habits.

  4. This is a wonderful post, Noch Noch.

    I had my own version of this, in a way.

    It’s about unlearning what you know, and that’s something that feels impossible to do.

    These are all very powerful points. Motivation is definitely a key factor. With no motivation, there is no fuel. Behavior (or as I would call it: perspective) is just as important. With the right attitude and the right mindset: anything is possible. If your behavior sucks, then so will the outcome.

    It’s great that you developed this strategy, included your own personal story, and put it into action. Congrats and keep working hard!

    1. Hi Paul – so true, perspective / attitude / behaviour, whatever we call it, is so important in addition to motivation. i never really understood that before till i got sick and relearning things, so indeed, i first need to “unlearn” bad habits as you say

  5. I think whether you succeed in forming new habits depends a lot on whether your life supports the new habits or not.

    Does your sleep schedule support your new habit?
    Do your friends support your new habit?
    Does your diet support your new habit?
    Do your thoughts and belief support your new habit?

    In the beginning you will always meet resistance but I think it’s important to not ignore changes you could make in your surroundings in order to build a more supportive environment.

    1. Hi Alice, very true, many other factors affect our habits. In a way, I can also apply MBTA to those factors, such as if my sleep schedule needs changing, or my new diet, or whether I need to make new friends… all of them are in a way or another “new habits” or lifestyles
      And yes, persistence is very important, and not to ignore the little we are doing even when faceed with resistance as you say!
      thanks for the insights
      noch :)

  6. Great blog and post by the way! I find it very hard to get motivated, however i have just started to consider things i can do to change my life. the key thing for me is that it must not feel like a chore. I have found a fitness programme on the NHS website called couch to 5k which i am going to begin im the new year. i am also looking to volunteer one day a month to a charity etc. Looking forward to new me!

    1. chore! what a great description Joey. That’s sometimes how i feel about habits too. And thats why i dont want to pick up anything I need to do!
      Good luck on your new ventures and volunteering! i hope you find your way to changing your habits too :)

  7. Hi Noch,

    I like this MBTA framework very much. It is clear and not lengthy. Anyone can implement this in their lives. Motivation is going to be key. There is a lot of talk about knowing why you are doing something. When your why is clear and meaningful enough it becomes a power tool. How is your why?

    One way I find very powerful to aid motivation is to associate pain with not sticking to your discipline routine and also the pleasure you get from completing your exercise regime. This is classic Anthony Robbins NLP technique of pain vs pleasure. Create enough of both, you will do it. See how can you get this in place for your own habit formation.

    One last thing about the Framework. Perhaps we can add a R for Reward behind for achieving something on a regular basis? Nothing beats a pat on your back for following your routine diligently over the course of a week/month.

    1. Hi Jimmy

      Just googled more on NLP, and actually found a little book of NLP techniques I have on my book shelf! Will have a read and see how it goes…

      My “why” is usually the problem, I find that when I attribute a why to someone I love and not to hurt them, it’s always stronger motivation and spurs me on more, esp when it has to do with my husband. he’s great motivation for me to basically, stay alive!

      And I do agree, Reward sounds like a good addition!! I will add it to my regime :)
      Hope you are well

  8. We change habits when we change our beliefs about those habits. When the belief is gone, the vibration is released, the habit gets changed automatically. I am pretty sure a lot of us have tried changing habits and yet never succeed because they never try changing the vibration… the resistance is there and it can’t be given up.

    It doesn’t work this way.. If you want to change a habit, change the vibrations the surround it.

  9. So true…its like no1 can help u until u help yourself….i was luring in depression from last 2 yrs…& then i decided i need to come out of everything…i changed my job,i changed my living place,started tai chi,changed bit of my eating habit & all that small changes is helping me coming out of it as well as i m physically more active & even lost 6 pounds of weight in 3 months…also i started doing all my old activities again & then also i don’t feel tired infact i feel happy about it….so i think for every1 it works differently…so every1 should try what works best for them w/o over doing it as Noch takes long time but ye that changes will remain forever i think & you will feel more good about yourself!!!
    I wish everyone luck who wants to do it!!! :)

    1. Hi NZ – I started taichi too! What a coincidence. I’m glad you’ve come out of depression. I am changing a lot of my habits too and being more physically active. And you are right, everyone should do what’s right and what works best for them :)
      Hope you stay on the up!
      Noch :)

  10. I see this is a little old, but hopefully you’ll see my comment. Thank you for writing this. When I read articles about motivation, it seems like the author never struggled with depression. This process seems much more do-able than others I’ve seen. Thanks!

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