Maybe you’ve got a bad habit of leaving the TV on while you sleep, hitting the snooze button one too many times, or if you’re like me, indulging your sweet tooth more than you should. It’s true that old habits die hard, but if you’re looking to break free of pesky patterns that are no longer serving you, a simple mindfulness practice might be all you need.
It might be all the rage these days, but what really is mindfulness anyway? According to Dictionary.com, mindfulness (as it pertains to psychology) is “a technique in which one focuses one's full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them.” While our thinking minds are often either operating in the past or the future, mindfulness calls our awareness back to the present moment. So how can it help you break a bad habit? It’s got to do with your brain.
Habits take root in a small part of the brain's prefrontal cortex where most of our thoughts and planning happen. We know that smoking is bad for us; we may be aware that eating that extra donut is going to have consequences. Yet we continue on because once we repeat a behavior often enough, it becomes an automated response in which the decision-making part of our brain goes offline.
For example, after a certain amount of time commuting to your job, you won’t have to think about where you’re going anymore. The brain stores that information and comes to know how to get you to work. This idea of going on “auto-pilot” is the same mechanism that makes us repeat patterns we want to break.
The bad news is, the brain never quite forgets old patterns. The good news, however, is we will favor a new habit over an old one, according to research conducted by MIT — and that’s where mindfulness comes in. In his TED Talk, psychiatrist Judson Brewer, who studies mindfulness and addiction, suggests that our brains follow a specific pattern: trigger, behavior, reward. But when we use mindfulness to bring ourselves back into the present moment and observe a craving arising, we are able to take our power back by switching the decision-making part of the brain back on so that our actions are informed instead of habitual.
Practicing mindfulness may sound easy, but when it comes to breaking hard-wired patterns, you’re going to have to make a conscious effort. I’ve used mindfulness practices to help me battle sugar addiction and overeating. So take it from me, this stuff works. As Brewer suggests, the key to using mindfulness to change our habits is being curious and aware.
When you find yourself going to grab that afternoon candy bar, begin by acknowledging that the habit has arisen. While you’re noshing (or before you start, if you can) observe what’s happening (without judgment) by asking yourself a few questions. Why am I doing this? How does this make me feel? What is the reward?
With some practice, you will come to see that there are certain triggers which cause you to fall into the same patterns. Once you recognize a trigger, like stress or even boredom, you now have the ability to step in and replace the unwanted behavior with a new one that has a reward you’re actually seeking. “When we get curious, we step out of our old fear-based reactive habit patterns, and we step into being,” Brewer concludes.
So take a deep breath, get curious, and try something new.