Mindfulness and habits: How mindfulness can help you quit a bad habit for good

You may know the feeling. You wake up and something – perhaps your body, a relationship, your bank account, or simply your conscience – is not right. And it’s because you’ve done ‘it’ again. Maybe you’ve had too much to drink, or you binged on food, perhaps you lost your temper, went on an online shopping spree, or procrastinated something important. The list of behaviours that at first relieve us but in the end make us feel worse than before is long. Engaging in them once is usually not a problem. However, when we do it again and again, we are in trouble. We’ve made the behaviour a habit, and habits are hard to shake. The good news is that even when it seems impossible, indeed unthinkable to do, we can quit the most ingrained habit. And it’s mindfulness that is the key to successful change.

We need habits. Our conscious mind can only attend to one task at a time, but thanks to habits, which are based on our brain’s ability to automate sequences of actions once they have been repeated often enough, we are able to have an animated conversation with our friend while making her a cup of tea, we can reflect on our choice of words while typing, and we can get in and out of the shower in three minutes thanks to the fact that we don’t have to figure things out from scratch every morning. (‘Left armpit first or right?’)

And habits help us with decision making. Deciding what to do, when, and where, consumes time and energy and can be stressful, but habits automate choices like what to do after coming home from work, when and where to get our groceries, or how to handle stress and disappointments. That way, habits keep us from feeling lost, vulnerable, or frozen in indecision. If we let them, habits, strung together into routines, will make a large percentage of our choices for us, carrying us through our days, weeks, and years like a travelator. The question is, do we want to be where our habits take us?

Every day we make small decisions, such as how to relate to others, what to eat and drink, how to spend our money, if to exercise and for how long, and how to go about our work. These choices may seem insignificant by themselves, but, as Charles Duhigg points out in The Power of Habit, once they’ve become habits, they will end up having a huge impact on our life satisfaction, health, financial situation, and productivity. Of course many of our habits may be aligned with our values and priorities and work very well for us. But others? If we sat down and thought about it, we’d have to admit that even some of our habits that don’t classify as addiction or psychological disorder ultimately leave us feeling regret, remorse, and less healthy than we’d like to be. And yet, around and around what Duhigg calls the ‘habit loop’ we go, as if we had no other choice: cue, routine, reward. We briefly enjoy the rewards of our harmful habits, but then we pay the price.

So how can we take back control over our behaviour and get off the travellators that take us to bad places? How do we quit a harmful habit?

By paying attention. What makes habits so useful – the fact that they put behaviour on autopilot outside conscious control – is also the reason they seem impossible to stop. How can you quit doing what you’re not even fully aware of doing? You’re at a party and holding an empty glass in your hands, but you have no recollection of drinking it – and how many have you had? Or you’re busy and working hard all day, only to realise while lying sleepless in bed that a lot of that busyness was how you again avoided a pressing issue that you’re feeling anxious about. Likewise, the person who keeps interrupting people in mid-sentence probably doesn’t even know they’ve got a communication-killing habit.

Mindfulness, however, means waking up from autopilot mode. By practising being fully present and paying attention, even when we’re engaged in something that we’ve done hundreds or thousands of times before, we introduce consciousness into situations in which we usually act absentmindedly. Instead of just doing, we observe what we are doing and, over time, this allows us to recognise the patterns in our behaviour and to let go of denial: ‘No, this actually didn’t feel right. And no, it wasn’t a one-off. It’s become a habit and it’s hurting us – and others.’

Mindful attention will not only allow you to recognise which behaviour patterns harm you more than they help you; once you’ve decided to quit a habit, mindfulness will also help you do it. In order to let go of a problem behaviour it is crucial that you learn as much about it as you can. This might mean reading up on the subject, watching relevant programs, perhaps learning from fellow sufferers and discussing your issue with a counsellor or therapist. Most importantly, however, you will need to observe how exactly this behaviour pattern is playing out for you. For this reason, many change programs include a process of monitoring. Keeping a journal in which you record anything relevant to the habit you want to give up trains you to be mindful not just of the problem behaviour itself but also of its contexts. As a result, you will intimately get to know the different parts of your personal ‘habit loop’.

For example, what are your cues? What triggers your habit? Cues can be anything from objects (chocolate bars at the checkout), a certain time (‘happy’ hour, the weekend), a place (the pub, the kitchen), a situation (time pressure, being alone, being with others), to physical states (sleep deprivation, tension), thoughts (‘I can’t do it’, ‘I’m fat’), and emotions. Paying close attention to the cues of your habit will help you understand what kinds of circumstances are particularly challenging for you. This is important information that allows you to plan ahead and prepare for difficult situations.

As you explore your habit, you will also develop a deeper awareness of its rewards for you. As James Clear explains in Atomic Habits, a lot of our habits are driven by the urge to transform our internal state. What physical and mental states are you trying to change when you engage in your problem behaviour? With regards to some habits this is pretty straightforward. Cue: An afternoon slump. Routine: Having something with caffeine and/or sugar. The reward: Increased alertness and motivation (for a while). However, we’ve developed some of our routines specifically to not notice certain inner states. In these cases, we’re not just in the habit of automatically turning to a particular substance or doing certain things, but of looking away. We may, for example, quickly go online, have a drink, or eat something before we’ve fully noticed that it’s feelings of depression that we’re trying to escape. Or we may have developed the habit of keeping ourselves continuously busy to avoid even thinking about issues that we feel anxious or ashamed about. An anger habit might protect us in situations that trigger feelings of vulnerability or sadness that we don’t want to feel, and by automatically saying yes to every request we may keep ourselves from becoming aware of a painful inner conflict between wanting more time for ourselves and wanting to please in order to be liked.

Meditating, however, can make us less dependent on the main benefit of our harmful habits, the temporary banishment of unpleasant or difficult inner states. Practising mindfulness in meditation means paying attention to whatever is present, including uncomfortable states of body and mind, such as tiredness, restlessness, aches and pains, and distressing thoughts and emotions. This allows us to experience that even though avoiding and getting rid of what is unpleasant is a natural human tendency, we have the option to override it. And as we turn toward, rather than away from, painful or uncomfortable inner states, we may also discover that we are actually quite capable of being with them, and that doing so can lead to valuable insights, self-compassion, and a greater sense of freedom and inner peace.

In meditation we also practise ‘urge surfing.’ Instead of automatically giving in to an impulse, such as the desire to scratch an itch or check our messages, we make this impulse itself an object of our attention. When we just watch its sensations, thoughts, and feelings, it becomes a conscious choice whether we follow the impulse or not, rather than an immediate knee-jerk reaction. This is an excellent practice if we want to let go of a habit, because no matter how much we try to stay away from temptations, sooner or later we will feel the strong desire to do ‘it’ again. In these moments, we can remind ourselves of what we’ve learned in meditation – that it’s possible to have an urge without the urge having us.

But what if we slip? What if we do give in to temptation?

Studying people who managed to overcome a maladaptive habit without the help of a therapist or a program, Prochaska and colleagues found that the process of behaviour change has six stages, starting with denial and ending at the point where we don’t even feel tempted anymore. However, we don’t necessarily travel from the first stage straight through to the last. Instead we may do one or more loops – quitting, then falling back into our old behaviour and reverting to an earlier stage, before once more moving towards the complete cessation of the habit. However, as Prochaska points out, a slip doesn’t have to be a fall. It’s what we do after we’ve given in to temptation that decides if our lapse really turns into a full relapse.

A big challenge after making a mistake is not to react with the much bigger mistake of giving up on our change process altogether. If we demand perfection of ourselves, a slip-up looks like complete failure: ‘You’ve blown it!’ And once our journey forward seems over, we feel the only way open to us now is the way back. We stop paying attention and let the habit take control once again. Thus a single glass of wine is followed by a relapse into boozing, one cigarette turns into the start of another six months of nicotine and tar, and a week without exercise leads to getting stuck in the old sedentary ways once more.

However, if we are tired of every slip-up ending in another round of months or years in the old habit loop, we can learn to catch ourselves. Our body does this automatically when we trip over something on the floor or make a misstep in rough terrain. Thanks to reflexes shaped by evolution for the purpose of keeping us safe, we immediately do what we need to do in order to prevent a fall and possible injury. But usually that’s not what happens when we slip up and give in to temptation. Instead we tend to do the equivalent of pushing the person who’s just lost their balance. ‘How could you! You’re hopeless!’ If we have a mental habit of beating ourselves up it will kick in as soon as we make a mistake, and if we don’t watch out it will turn our slip-up into a fall. Because if you’re being yelled at inside, you don’t want to stay there, so chances are you’ll escape through the nearest exit – and guess what that is.

If we practise mindfulness in that situation, however, we won’t need the comfort of our habit in order to comfort ourselves over having fallen back into it. Instead of fleeing when we’re being yelled at inside, we notice the harsh self-judgements that arise when we’ve broken our commitment and have done ‘it’ again, and we recognise them as (very familiar) thoughts that are neither helpful nor something we have to buy into. And instead of escaping into our habit to get away from the shame and other difficult emotions that are triggered by our slip-up, we name them and ride the waves of their sensations in our body as best we can, knowing that they will pass.

Most importantly, the way we pay attention to our experience when we practise mindfulness cultivates a friendly self-acceptance. Mindfulness, as Kabat-Zinn points out, is equally heartfulness. And as we look with our hearts as much as our minds, a deeper understanding of the situation will emerge than the one that fuels self-blame. Paying attention to our experience like a friend, i.e. with an open heart and genuine interest, what we will see is not some ‘loser’ who has ‘f*cked up yet again’ but a person who’s in pain, confused, and longing for happiness. We will see someone who’s trying their best but human. Mindfulness invites us to swap the conditional self-acceptance of ‘self-improvement’ (‘I’ll accept myself once I…’) for an unconditional acceptance of ourselves here and now. Rather than dealing with the inner critic by pushing ourselves to rush faster toward a future where we will finally be an acceptable self, we allow the inner judgements to come and go, and we allow ourselves to just be. And focusing on our experience in the present moment, we may notice how desperately we monitor the gap between ourselves as we are now and the way we ‘should’ be, and compassion may spring up and take the place of shame. We may suddenly see that our harmful habit is a form of making do and giving up on what we really long for, and we may feel a genuine wish to help ourselves. So we may ask: What could we learn from this slip-up? What is the next step on our way to the freedom that lies beyond the old way of handling things? And mindfully taking step after step, we may one day realise that we don’t need to do ‘it’ anymore.

© Gesa Brennan 2020