Beat Bad Habits with a Mindful Approach

Bad habits are terrible. First, there’s the habit itself. Maybe you want to quit smoking and are concerned about the impact it has on your health, hygiene or budget. Maybe you want to stop procrastinating because it’s eating into both your productivity and your happiness. Maybe you just want to quit compulsively checking Facebook or Twitter because they’re starting to make you feel less connected instead of more. Whatever it is, the habit is having a negative impact on your life or it wouldn’t be the least bit bad.

Then there’s emotional toll of doing something you know you shouldn’t. Quitting a bad habit can be great for your self-worth, your confidence, and your resilience. Failing to quit, whether you try or not, can be damaging in all the same ways.

In this TED talk, Psychiatrist Judson Brewer shares a novel method for dropping bad habits. If you’re familiar with mindfulness practices at all, you’re already well on your way.

Brewer suggests taking a curious, mindful approach to the habit you’re trying to break. Rather than spending all your energy trying to stop doing the thing, look carefully at the thing instead. If you bite your nails, consider the feel of a fingernail between your teeth next time you catch yourself. Think about the taste. Ponder what might be under those nails. Try to understand what you get out of it.

It sounds like this method will work best for any habit that’s a little gross, but the point isn’t actually to gross yourself out. It’s to break bad habits down into manageable pieces and replace the reward system with something more beneficial. Brewer explains:

What does curiosity feel like? It feels good. And what happens when we get curious? We start to notice that cravings are simply made up of body sensations — oh, there’s tightness, there’s tension, there’s restlessness — and that these body sensations come and go. These are bite-size pieces of experiences that we can manage from moment to moment rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving that we choke on.

In other words, when we get curious, we step out of our old, fear-based, reactive habit patterns, and we step into being. We become this inner scientist where we’re eagerly awaiting that next data point.


Timothy A. Pychyl, a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University, has written extensively about using mindfulness to put an end to procrastination. He suggests that mindfulness gives us the tools we need to regulate our own behavior, that being aware of those behaviors is the first step in taking control of them.

Strangely, beating yourself up isn’t on anyone’s list of steps for breaking bad habits–even though it’s the approach most of us try first and most often.

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