This Is How To Kill Bad Habits With Mindfulness

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Before we commence with the festivities, I just wanted to let you know my first book is now a Wall Street Journal bestseller! To check it out, click here.

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We all struggle with bad habits. Resisting them is hard. Changing them feels impossible.

Now there are plenty of tricks from standard psychology on how to deal with bad habits. But what if there was a way that really helped you understand yourself better? Something that wasn’t just a “lifehack”, but actually led to a fuller way of living life?

Yeah, that’s a big fluffy promise. But this solution still comes from hard scientific research.

Judson Brewer is the director of the Therapeutic Neuroscience Laboratory at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

He’s also the author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.

He does a lot of work with addiction psychiatry — and let’s face it — that’s what bad habits are. Addictions. He founded the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic and wanted to help people conquer one of the toughest bad habits: smoking.

What tool did he use? It was that “mindfulness” thing everyone is always blabbing about.

He was hoping mindfulness could match the results of the “gold standard” for treating cigarette addiction, a system called “Freedom From Smoking.” But mindfulness didn’t match it…

It crushed it.

From The Craving Mind:

When the data came back from our statisticians, the participants in the mindfulness training group had quit at twice the rate of the Freedom From Smoking group. Better yet, nearly all mindfulness participants had stayed quit, while many of those in the other group had lost ground, yielding a fivefold difference between the two!

We’re often told that you can’t get rid of a habit; you can only replace it. Heck, even I’ve said that.

But mindfulness didn’t replace smoking with anything: “Our data showed that mindfulness decoupled this link between craving and smoking.”

So he’s really on to something here. Something you can use to beat your bad habits. (And something I can use to stop checking Instagram while writing blog posts.) So how’s it work?

First we gotta ask the question nobody usually bothers to ask: why do we have bad habits in the first place?

 

Bad Habits Are Coping, Not Fixing

You feel stressed. Or anxious. Or sad. Whatever. Point is, you’re feeling not-good. Naturally, you want to feel good. So you do something that has made you feel good in the past.

Maybe it’s checking Facebook, maybe it’s meth. Same difference to your brain.

From The Craving Mind:

We each have stress buttons that get pushed, and what they are largely depends on how we have learned, in a reward-dependent manner, to cope (or not cope) with life…

It’s the standard habit model: Trigger, Behavior, Reward. And after you do it enough times, it’s a reflex. You’re instinctively reacting, not thoughtfully responding. You’re on autopilot. You’re a puppet.

But the real issue with bad habits is while they scratch the itch, they don’t fix the underlying problem. Being worried about your bills might lead you to check Facebook, but that doesn’t make Mark Zuckerberg pay your mortgage.

In fact, bad habits not only don’t fix your problems, they often make them worse.

From The Craving Mind:

We have conditioned ourselves to deal with stress in ways that ultimately perpetuate it rather than release us from it.

And checking Facebook is actually a perfect example.

From The Craving Mind:

Lee’s research team found that a preference for online social interaction correlated with deficient mood regulation and negative outcomes such as a diminished sense of self-worth and increased social withdrawal. Let me say that again: online social interaction increased social withdrawal. People obsessively went on Facebook to feel better, yet afterward felt worse.

(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)

But since you’re reacting instinctively, you rarely notice your bad habit is actually making the problem worse. And that’s where mindfulness comes in: noticing.

Noticing is at the heart of mindfulness. But what is mindfulness? Don’t worry, I’ll make it simple…

 

Pay Attention. Don’t Judge.

When you’re stressed and engage in a bad habit, you’re usually not paying attention. And if you do pay attention, you’re probably frustrated. Frustrated that you feel this way. Frustrated that you’re doing something you know is bad.

Take a step back. Pay attention. Don’t judge.

From The Craving Mind:

(Mindfulness is) “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” As Stephen Batchelor recently wrote, this definition points toward a “human capability” of “learning how to stabilize attention and dwell in a lucid space of non-reactive awareness.”

By really watching what you do, noticing how you feel, you can start to realize the bad habit isn’t helping fix the problem. You don’t really feel any better. And that realization is key. That’s what will break the cycle.

From The Craving Mind:

Seeing what we really get from our habits helps us understand them on a deeper level, know it in our bones, without needing to control or force ourselves to hold back from smoking. This awareness is what mindfulness is all about: seeing clearly what happens when we get caught up in our behaviors and then becoming viscerally disenchanted. Over time, as we learn to see more and more clearly the results of our actions, we let go of old habits and form new ones. The paradox here is that mindfulness is just about being interested in, and getting close and personal with, what is happening in our bodies and minds. It is really this willingness to turn toward our experience rather than to try to make our unpleasant cravings go away as quickly as possible.

Cravings fade with time — but you usually don’t pay attention to that part. When the internet goes out in your house you’re initially frustrated… but then you find something else to do.

But when you immediately give in to bad habits, you reinforce them. The Dark Side of The Force gets stronger.

But that leads to the million dollar question: how do you cope with that awful discomfort until the craving fades?

(To learn the 4 rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

You can use the same four step mindfulness process that helped people quit smoking. Brewer calls it RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Note. Here’s how it works…

 

1 – Recognize

You’re feeling stressed. You’re robotically headed toward habit-mode…

Recognize it. And don’t you even think about rationalizing it: “Oh, but I just happen to feel like checking Instagram for the fiftieth time today.”

No. No, you don’t “just feel like it.” Realize what you’re doing. You’re trying to cope with some discomfort by engaging in your bad habit. Recognize the craving.

This next part is trickier…

 

2 – Accept

Accept it. That doesn’t mean “give in.” Just accept that the craving is there. Don’t beat yourself up for wanting it. Don’t try to ignore it, or try to distract yourself, or fight it.

The good news is: you don’t have to do anything just yet.

The bad news is: it’s hard to do nothing when you’re uncomfortable and want to scratch that itch.

Brewer recommends acknowledging your acceptance in a small, active way. Nod your head or think “here we go.”

Now here’s where things get interesting…

 

3 – Investigate

Normally you deal with bad habits by trying to get away from them. Mindfulness does the exact opposite. Get curious.

As the craving grows, notice how you feel. Specifically.

From The Craving Mind:

Investigate it as it builds. Do this by asking, “What does my body feel like right now?” Don’t go looking. See what arises most prominently. Let it come to you.

The key here is “nonidentification.” Remember: you are not your thoughts. Your brain thinks all kinds of crazy stuff. That doesn’t mean those thoughts are you. If you broke your arm, you’d say “my arm is broken” not “I am broken.”

So investigate your feelings as if you were looking at an animal in a zoo. Check it out. Watch things unfold. Pay attention.

And here’s how we make the itch go away without scratching it…

 

4 – Note

Make mental notes of your feelings. Use a single word or a short phrase to put a label on what you feel.

From The Craving Mind:

Finally, note the experience as you follow it. Keep it simple by using short phrases or single words. For example: thinking, restlessness in stomach, rising sensation, burning, etc. Follow it until it completely subsides. If you get distracted, return to the investigation by repeating the question, what does my body feel like right now? See if you can ride it until it is completely gone.

Sounds silly but it’s actually extremely powerful. You’re using some bleeding-edge neuroscience here. Noting reduces the impact of emotions.

Via The Upward Spiral:

…in one fMRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words” participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.

Don’t dodge the feelings. Investigate them and note them. The craving will subside. It’ll be hard at first, but with time it will float away just like every thought — good or bad — eventually does.

Checking Facebook isn’t going to solve your problems. But now that the craving is gone, you can focus on what will.

(To learn how to stop checking your phone, click here.)

Alright, mindfulness maven, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and get the answer to how this all leads to a better life…

 

Sum Up

Here’s how mindfulness can kill bad habits:

  • Bad habits are coping, not fixing: Checking Facebook didn’t pay your bills. But it did make you jealous of your friend’s new car.
  • Pay attention. Don’t judge: Notice what you’re feeling. Being worried about being worried just makes you super-worried.
  • Recognize: Dealing with something is quite hard if you don’t realize there’s a something.
  • Accept: Did you really think I was going to recommend denial? C’mon. Seriously.
  • Investigate: You are not your thoughts or feelings. They are things that are there. Examine them.
  • Note: When you give a feeling a name, your brain calms down. (Unless that name is “Godzilla.”)

Okay, this all leads to a very simple two-step formula for a good, mindful life:

Feeling good? Pay attention.

Feeling bad? Pay attention.

When you feel good and pay attention to it, it’s a wonderful, happiness-boosting thing called savoring. You really appreciate the good moments instead of taking them for granted.

When you feel bad and pay attention to it, you don’t succumb to bad habits. You can realize where the feeling is coming from. You can learn about yourself. And then do something that will fix the problem.

Most of us are pretty good at enjoying the happy feelings. But there’s plenty to learn from the bad feelings. Don’t distract yourself or engage in bad habits to avoid them.

Life is rich and varied and has much to teach you.

Don’t ignore half of it.

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