How to Break Bad Habits Starting Today
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
Let’s talk about how to break bad habits. Now that you have landed on this blog post, chances are you have a bad habit that you would wish to break. realistically speaking we all do.
If you’ve been following my whole and healthy endeavors, I’m sure you have come across the world known book of Atomic Habits by James Clear at some point in your life. In case you haven’t, I highly encourage you to give it a try. Since 2019 that I first listened to this book on audible, it has impacted my life in a positive way so much that I still go back to it for reminders.
In this article I’m going to share some easy and practical ways to break bad habits influenced by the Atomic Habits book and a fantastic interview with Judson Brewer about how to break bad habits on the Ultimate Health Podcast. Both of these sources offer scientifically proven methods to overcome unhealthy habits and I find them easy to implement and fascinating.
The WHY behind your habits and mindfulness
I help individuals who are ready to transform their lives into a more wholesome one and repair their eating habits by focusing on the “why” behind their habits and I believe a huge component of shining light on habits is mindfulness. Mindfulness is an effective strategy to break bad habits, a strategy that I have used in my own life to help get myself out of dark emotional and mental spaces, so both James and dr. Judson’s teachings really spoke to me and I hope that it can be effective for you as well.
The Practice of Emptying Your Mind
Mindfulness is being aware of your thought patterns and allowing them come and go without resistance. Just try it for a moment. Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through the mouth. Relax your shoulders by removing them from your ears. Lower your tongue from the roof of your mouth, soften the muscles around your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Feel better?
Now it is important to understand that you can approach your bad habits in a similar manner. Let’s explore why this bad habit exists in the first place.
Our brains run on what Dr. Judson Brewer calls a “trigger, reward, repeat” cycle.
Here’s an example for you: You are stressed and tired (trigger), You see the bottle of wine and start drinking it so that it allows you to relax and you are no longer stressed (reward), and now you feel better. Next time you are stressed, you will drink wine again to get the same reward (repeat).
Unfortunately, our brains can get this terribly wrong. How ? Instead of the physical trigger of feeling tired and stressed, we have now linked to an emotional trigger of feeling bad. The brain can remember that wine made us feel better so the next time we don’t feel good (sad, stressed, upset, angry) our brain thinks that alcohol could help us out so we just go ahead and finish the whole bottle.
We know it’s wrong. We try to fight it, but it’s not working.
This is where mindfulness comes in.
Dr. Brewer speaks about the prefrontal cortex region of the brain, that helps us stop unhealthy acts like overeating and smoking or binge drinking. It is one of the first regions that shut down when we are stressed. You’ve all perhaps experienced this in the past when you get a little stressed and all sense of willpower evaporates all of a sudden, right?
True Mindfulness In Action and Getting Curious
So when someone’s goal is to stop and break an unhealthy habit first I teach them to stop fighting or resisting their urge for it. Instead, we work on getting them curious about that habit (for example drinking wine to wind down). They keep drinking alcohol but whenever they do, they are told to only focus on the experience of drinking itself and nothing else. The act of focusing on the glass of wine itself would be an enormous step towards change.
When you bring your awareness and focus only on the alcohol, you become immensely aware of the taste and more importantly the amount that you are drinking. This clearly wont result in stopping to drink all of a sudden (Remember the whole bit about the prefrontal cortex shutting down during stress?) But it does mean that you are able to start rewiring your brain’s relationship with drinking alcohol for stress.
How does this actually work?
Let’s say you are used to reaching out for a drink to destress every single night, You begin by really focusing on your act of drinking . Here are some questions you can ask yourself while you’re pouring the next drink. (You can adapt and change accordingly to fit whatever habit you’re currently dealing with if drinking is not your thing.)
What do you smell?
What do you taste?
How does your body feel after the first drink?
Does a rush hit your brain?
Do you feel sleepy, emotional etc. ?
What is you digestive tract and you liver doing while you drink?
Chances are you don’t love what you’re experiencing in that moment. Keep observing your drinking whenever you do it.
Breaking the Bad Habits While Handling Emotional Triggers
What about when you’re stressed or upset or sad? The first instinct is to grab a drink. That’s fine. You can, but before you do, be curious. What is happening in your body right now? Do you feel exhausted or tense? Is your heart racing? Is a lump forming in your throat? Do you feel anxious? overwhelmed? How long do these reactions last? Does it change after a few seconds or remain the same?
If you still feel inclined, take a drink or eat a cake or light up a cigarette. What is the immediate effect in your body? Did it solve the problem for you? Do you feel better, worse, or the same?
There is something innately powerful in not allowing yourself to get swept up by emotions. When you pause to notice what it feels and looks like in your body and brain when you’re extremely pissed off will help you detach from it and react in a healthier way.
Again, this is not an overnight transformation. You will have to do this over and over and over until it clicks for you, but it can and will click eventually. Fighting your cravings for a bad habit is not likely to work. Understanding them, observing them, and detaching from them, however, can help you change your relationship with anything that has control over you.
Now, Does This Actually Work?
Yes, It DOES. Only if you want it to work and are disciplined to give it a chance. No Change in habits happens overnight. In fact, first everyone gets overwhelmed by “fighting” their bad habit, before getting it right on the next attempt when they take a more mindful approach. It takes time. Maybe it will click for you in a couple of weeks, or maybe it takes a couple months. Everyone is different. It WILL work if you allow it.
Think of something in your life that you want to change right now. Employ these methods for a few weeks and see how things start to shift for you!
For more Ted Talks on how to break bad habits, click here.
Note: I am NOT, nor should you, merge bad habits with a serious addiction. The strategies suggested in this article would work for serious addictions, BUT only in conjunction with proper counseling or therapy.
Dr Judson Brewer’s other Book : The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits