How to break a habit

Changing our old behaviors can at the same time seem quite simple and super tricky. Here's how to let go of unhelpful (also called "bad") habits using mindfulness.

by Emilie Glen Colsted

How can we let go of unhelpful habits?

We often characterize habits as "good" or "bad". Instead of using this black-or-white way of thinking about our behaviors we are going to name habits that are not aligned with our long-term goals and that we want to break as "unhelpful".

Now, it’s common to believe that breaking unhelpful habits is a matter of simply applying willpower.

“I know I spent too much time on my phone... eat too much candy... exercise too little... I want to change. I just have to stick with my decision?”

However, human behaviour is most of the time not driven by self-control.

For one thing, we’re not always aware of our behaviour. Especially when it comes to our habits which are automated responses in specific situations.

That’s why we may first realise that we e.g. have eaten a lot of candy when reaching for an empty bowl. It’s kind of like as if we are on autopilot mode.

For another thing, human behavior is not always driven by logic and long-term outcomes.

Our mood and stress levels affect our cognitive load which determines our ability to reason.

Hence, having a hectic day at school or work e.g. can make it hard for us to make conscious decisions in correspondence with our long-term goals.

But how do we then quit a habit?

One successful method of breaking the habit loop is to practise mindfulness. Mindfulness is consciously focusing on the present moment.

It’s observing and acknowledging what’s happening in our mind and body from moment to moment without judgement.

Mindfulness is a way of turning toward our experience of the present moment with curiosity instead of trying to make any unpleasant or so-called "bad" sensations go away.

It typically feels uncomfortable or unpleasant to avoid responding to the triggers of our habit.

Like not picking up our phones when we hear a notification tick in or not reaching for some sweets when we feel bored.

But instead of trying to make these “cravings” go away we can bring curiosity to them and try to examine what they are made of.

How does it feel to be curious?

It tends to feel naturally rewarding. This rewarding feeling can in itself counteract the need we experience to receive a certain reward by carrying out our habit.

Curiosity can thereby help reduce the power of an unhelpful habit.

Also, bringing curious awareness to our habits as they unfold helps us identify the triggers behind them and increases our ability to notice when they are at play…which is key to intentionally changing our habits.

So when noticing a habit (Step 1), I can focus my attention on the sensations - thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations - it’s made of and observe how they may come and go (Step 2).

E.g. Step 1: “I notice an urge to grab my phone” and step 2: “I observe tension... restlessness... tightness in my body right now”.

Or Step 1: “I observe an urge to reach out for the candy” and step 2: “There’s a feeling of boredom... stress... and worry”.

Breaking the habit down into bite-size experiences like this can help us better manage it from moment to moment instead of simply reacting to it.

It creates space between stimulus (e.g. phone buzzing) and response (e.g. reaching for the phone) that is crucial for us to make conscious decisions.

In other words?

In other words, instead of e.g. seeing a notification, compulsively grabbing the phone and feeling a bit better - try to notice the urge, respond with curiosity, observe how the sensations may go away... and repeat.

That’s how mindfulness can help break unhelpful habits by stepping out of the automatic and reactive habit loop.

You can read more about how to form helpful habits with the method of habit stacking and triggering habits.

Check out other articles I've written:

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