“One bad habit often spoils a dozen good ones.” —Napoleon Hill
There are many kinds of bad habits. They can be annoying and cause small rifts between you and those you live or work with, or they can be dangerous, threatening your life and even the lives of those around you. Dangerous bad habits include alcoholism, driving while under the influence, texting while driving, doing drugs, smoking, cutting, and many others. Annoying or embarrassing habits can include things like chewing with your mouth open, leaving dirty dishes at the table, picking your nose, leaving cupboards open, texting while “socializing,” and even slouching at your work desk.
You may be thinking “Is it even possible to break a bad habit?” I’ve certainly tried and failed many times, and I’m sure I’m not alone. There are many methods we could examine, but for this article we’ll investigate only how to use mindfulness to overcome bad habits.
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully aware of where we are and what we are doing in the present moment, and not be overwhelmed by our situation or surroundings. When we are mindful, we can see our feelings, thoughts, motivations, responses, and reactions clearly, and can calmly choose an appropriate reaction or response for the situation we are in. It makes us aware of the cycle of habit we are experiencing in a given moment.
For example, smoking a cigarette. You may have a meeting that you don’t want to go to (this is stressful, and stress is your “trigger”). You have 15 minutes before the meeting, so you go outside to smoke (“behavior”). While you’re smoking, the stress you felt about the meeting dissipates (this is a “reward”). Because you managed to reduce the stress this time, your brain will remember this clever, albeit short-term solution, and will encourage you to smoke next time you feel stressed about a meeting. (Staff)
“The trouble is, smoking a cigarette does not fix the root of the problem. That smoker still has to go back in to face an unruly classroom, an angry boss, or a looming deadline. What does get reinforced is the behavior—and all it takes is that little bit of stress relief to keep us going back to the perceived stress reliever, in this case, the cigarette.” (Staff)
How does mindfulness change this never ending cycle of stress-smoke-repeat?
Mindfulness makes people more aware of the “reward” that is directing their behavior. It examines what drives the habit in the first place, essentially cutting the head from the serpent. Once this is done, people are “more easily able to change their association with the ‘reward’ from a positive one to a more accurate (and often negative) one.” (Brewer)
Here’s a wonderful example, following our “smoking” theme, provided by Dr. Jud Brewer.
“When someone joins our quit smoking program, for example, the first thing I have them do is pay attention while they’re smoking. They often give me a quizzical look, because they’re expecting me to tell them to do something other than smoke, like eat candy as a substitute when they have a craving. But because a “reward” drives future behavior, and not the behavior itself, I have my clients pay attention to what it tastes and feels like when they smoke. The goal is to make the patient aware of the “reward value,” or the level of positive reaffirmation they are getting from the habit they want to change. The higher the value, the more likely they are to repeat the behavior.
I see the same thing happen over and over again — the reward value of the habit decreases because it isn’t as gratifying as people remember. One client of mine, for instance, thought the act of smoking made her look cool as a teenager. Even though that motivation had dissipated in her adulthood, her brain still associated positive feelings with smoking. Hence, her reward value was high. When that same client started paying attention as she smoked, she realized that cigarettes taste bad, commenting, “Smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. Yuck.” This helped her brain update the reward value of her habit. She was able to get accurate information about how smoking feels right now, which then helped her become disenchanted with the process.”
It doesn’t sound so terribly difficult, does it? And guess what the best part of this method is? You can start working on it the next time you perform your bad habit!
Take 10 minutes to write down 3 of your worst habits, and choose one to try this method on. Once you make a new habit of mindfulness, you’ll be able to drive a wedge between you and the bad habit, freeing you and making your life much better.
You can do it. Choose which bad habit you’re going to mindfully vanquish now!
“A change in bad habits leads to a change in life.” —Jenny Craig
Brewer, Jud. “How to Break up with Your Bad Habits.” Harvard Business Review, 16 Dec. 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/12/how-to-break-up-with-your-bad-habits.
Staff, Mindful. “How to Change Your Habits with Mindfulness.” Mindful, 6 July 2022, https://www.mindful.org/how-to-change-your-habits-with-mindfulness/.
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