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How to break a bad habit

Habits pretty much control every aspect of our lives. They are the little things we do each and every day, some that we don’t even notice, that can have big positive or negative returns down the line. Use this hack to help get over the habit (or habits) in your life that are not helping you in a positive way.


“Knowledge is learning something new everyday. Wisdom is letting go of some bad habits everyday.”

Farshad Asl, Forbes Coaches Council

Learn a simple mind trick to kick a bad habit that has been plaguing you.

The next time you are participating in one of your bad habits you’d like to quit (smoking, indulging in a sugary snack, liking your ex’s photos on instagram, etc.) get extremely curious and mindful about what is happening in your momentary experience. Take a moment to slow down, and think very carefully about all the things you are feeling both physically and mentally.

Here is what we suggest you try the next time you’re participating in your bad habit: 

  1. Before indulging, take 5 minutes and think long and hard about WHY you are going to partake in this activity (often times this can be enough alone to kick a bad habit).
  2. If you do indulge, walk yourself through every single emotion and physical feeling you are experiencing while you are partaking in the habit.
  3. When you are done, take another 5 minutes and think about exactly how you feel now that you’ve completed indulging in your bad habit. Do we feel better or worse than you did before? Why?

We think you will be shocked at how well it works and becomes easier and easier to avoid your bad habit every time you do it.

How exactly does this work?

Studies have shown that when we are mindful of what is happening during an experience such as smoking or eating we can alter the previously wired reward system in our brain for that specific activity.

Our brains are hard-wired to work on a reward-based system. Something triggers us which then leads to a specific behavior and that behavior ultimately provides some form of a “reward”.

We will let Judson Brewer, psychiatrist and addiction expert, explain how this works in a bit more detail…

“This reward-based learning process is called positive and negative reinforcement and basically goes like this: We see some food that looks good, our brain says, “Calories! Survival!” We eat the food: We taste it, it tastes good. Especially with sugar, our bodies send the signal to our brain that says: “Remember what you’re eating and where you found it.” We lay down this context-dependent memory and learn to repeat the process next time: see food, eat food, feel good. Repeat.

Simple right? Well after a while our creative brains say, “You know what? You can use this for more than just remembering where food is. Next time you feel bad, why don’t you try eating something good so you’ll feel better?” We thank our brains for the great idea, try this, and quickly learn that if we eat chocolate or ice cream when we’re mad or sad, we feel better (at least momentarily). Same process, just a different trigger. Instead of this hunger signal coming from our stomach this emotional signal in our brain—feeling sad—triggers that urge to eat.

Each time we do this, we learn to repeat the process and it becomes a habit.

So if that is how we form a bad habit, we simply need to “re-wire” the brain to ultimately shutdown this reward-based system for the habit in question.

Here is an example Judson mentions about a group of smokers who practiced this mindful trick….

“I’ll give you an example. In my lab we studied whether mindfulness training could help people quit smoking. Just like trying to force myself to pay attention to my breath, they could try to force themselves to quit smoking. And the majority of them had tried this before and failed. On average, six times. Now with mindfulness training, we dropped the bit about forcing and instead focused on being curious. In fact, we even told them to smoke. We even said go ahead and smoke just be really curious about what it’s like when you do.

And what did they notice? Here’s an example from one of our smokers: She said mindful smoking “Smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. Yuck.” Now she knew cognitively that smoking was bad for her. That’s why she joined our program. What she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes like shit. Now she moved from knowledge to wisdom. She moved from knowing in her head that smoking is bad for her to knowing it in her bones and the spell of smoking was broken. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior.”

Source: A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit

Judson’s Lab Study: Mindfulness: An Emerging Treatment for Smoking and Other Addictions?

Bonus

A simple way to break a bad habit with Judson Brewer

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