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 unwanted habits by using mindfulness.

How can we let go of unwanted habits? It’s common to believe that breaking old and 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 that 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.

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 an old 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.

Mindfulness is also a way of turning toward our experience of the present moment with curiosity instead of trying to make any unpleasant 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 so-called “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 unwanted 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

Check out other articles I've written:

How to trigger a new habit

How to trigger a new habit

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What are habits?

What are habits?

Let's have a look at the actions we perform every day, also called habits. What are they? And why and how do we form habits?

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