How to quit a bad habit? Be curious and mindful

This post is also available in Dutch.

Instead of forcefully changing your behavior, the best way to change a bad habit is by being curious and mindful of your experience.

When we want to make a big change in our lives, such as kicking the habit of smoking, we imagine that we need to do so forcefully. We believe that if we can only choose to be strong enough in character, we will never feel the need to light a cigarette again. Inevitably, our self-control wavers at times, and we succumb to indulging in our undesirable behavior. It is difficult to always maintain a forceful attitude, but it is also unnecessary.

There is an easier way. When we are curious and mindful about how it feels to engage in the undesired activity, we will begin to notice what we dislike about it. This will make it much easier to disengage from that behavior in the times that follow. Mindfulness training can help us change our habits in this way.

Being curious and mindful about your experience can help you break a bad habit.

Image from Mislav Marohnic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Mindfulness is very beneficial for habit change

Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer has shown how incredibly helpful mindfulness can be for habit change. He and his colleagues compared which treatment was better in helping people quit smoking: mindfulness training or the standard treatment to stop smoking. They found that people who received mindfulness training were more likely to quit smoking than people who had received the standard treatment.

The essence of the mindfulness approach

The mindfulness approach worked well in helping people quit their bad habit. Interestingly, what it taught people to do was not very complicated. People had to become more curious and raise their awareness as to how they felt when doing the activity. One participant in the study reported:

“Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese, and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!”

The mindfulness approach can be so powerful because it can enable us to experience exactly how a behavior feels and how to reflect on it. When this smoker from the study was curious about her smoking experience, she realized that she actually didn’t feel good while smoking or after finishing her cigarette. Even though she had come to associate cigarettes with reward (because nicotine is rewarding to our brains), she had finally come to feel what it was like for her body to smoke. She gained a deep, visceral understanding which showed her why she wanted to quit smoking.

Conviction deep in our bones

Judson Brewer refers to this understanding as “conviction deep in our bones”. First, we must notice the urge to do an activity and be curious about it. Then, we need to be mindful of the activity and of the way it makes us feel. Finally, we can feel the joy of letting go of this habit. Once we know deeply why we don’t want to engage in the activity anymore, we can more easily kick the habit. In this way, we don’t need to force ourselves to do so; rather, we rely on the conviction coming from deep within us.

Once you’ve understood how the undesired activity truly feels, you can more easily let it go.

Image from Chris Ford (CC BY-NC 2.0)

If you’d like to know more about mindfulness, curiosity, and habit change, you can watch Judson Brewer’s TED talk.

Written by Marisha. Edited by Lara.

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