A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit

I stumbled across an interesting TED talk the other day on how we can effectively break our bad habits by being more curious about them. You would think that breaking a habit entails blocking out your inner desires, obsessions, and sensations towards engaging in it ... but what if drawing attention to these attributes can help you beat your next urge? Psychiatrist Judson Brewer, who studies the relationship between mindfulness and addiction has discovered a simple, yet profound tactic that might help you conquer your next desire to smoke, snack, or check your texts during a board meeting. 


When we are about to engage in a habit, it turns out that we are fighting one of the most evolutionary-conserved learning processes currently known in science, one that is conserved to the most basic nervous systems known to man. This reward-based learning process is commonly known as positive and negative reinforcement. Brewer provides an example of this very process through seeing some food that looks appetizing:

“Our brain says, ‘calories! … survival!” We eat the food, we taste, it – it tastes good. And especially with sugar, our bodies send a signal to our brain that says, ‘remember what you’re eating and where you found it.”

He suggests that when we lay down this context-dependent memory, we learn to repeat the process next time we encounter a similar situation. “See food, eat food, feel good, repeat,” A.K.A. “Trigger, behaviour, reward.” Our brain essentially learns how to appreciate this reward-based system.


When we learn to repeat the aforementioned process over and over again, our creative brains say:

“You know what? You can use this for more than just remembering where food is. The next time you feel bad, why don’t you try eating something good so you’ll feel better?”

We thank our brains for this great idea, and quickly learn that if we eat candy or ice cream when we are angry or sad, we automatically feel better – at least for a short while. It is the same reward-based learning process in effect, just a different trigger. Instead of this hunger signal coming from our stomach, the emotional signal takes over e.g. feeling sad, and this triggers the urge to eat. With the same brain process, we have gone from learning to survive, to harming ourselves with reinforcement of these bad habits.


So what if instead of fighting our brains, or trying to force ourselves to block out our habits, we tapped into our natural, reward-based learning process … but with an added twist? Brewer proposes that through curiosity, immersing ourselves into what is happening in our momentary experience is the answer to this very fight. By employing mindfulness, we drop the bit about forcing ourselves to quit our habit, and instead focus on being curious. When we get curious, we notice that cravings are simply made up of body sensations; tightness, tension, restlessness. Luckily for us, these body sensations come and go. These sensations are bite-size pieces of real-time data that we can manage from moment to moment rather than getting overwhelmed by our huge, scary craving that we might choke on.

In Brewer’s lab, he studied whether mindfulness training could help people quit smoking. Instead of focusing on the breath, participants were asked to shift this focus on being curious, and were even told to smoke. One of the participants captured her experience as follows:

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

She knew cognitively that smoking was bad for her, but what she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes nauseating.


Brewer’s study participant moved from knowing in her mind that smoking was bad for her to knowing it in her bones. Thus, the spell of smoking was broken and she began to become disenchanted with her smoking behaviour. But how exactly do we become disenchanted with our behaviours?

When our prefrontal cortex goes offline, we fall back into our old habits, which is why disenchantment is so important. By seeing what we get from our habits, this helps us understand them at a deeper level – to know it in our bones so we don’t have to forcefully restrain ourselves from behaviour. As a result, we become less interested in engaging in it to begin with. This is principally what mindfulness is all about, and over time, we learn to see the results of our actions, let go of old habits and form new ones.

“The paradox here is that mindfulness is just about being really interested in getting close and personal with what's actually happening in our bodies and minds from moment to moment. This willingness to turn toward our experience rather than trying to make unpleasant cravings go away as quickly as possible. And this willingness to turn toward our experience is supported by curiosity, which is naturally rewarding.”


Many app and online-based mindfulness training programs can help us step out of our unhealthy habit patterns of smoking, stress eating, or whatever your bad habit may be. When we use these tools in the contexts that matter most, we tap into our inherent capacity to be curiously aware right when our urge arises. Check out our previous post on mindfulness app reviews for some great tools that you can use. 

If you do not smoke or stress eat, maybe the next time you feel the urge to scroll through your twitter feed when you’re bored, distract yourself from work, or compulsively check your email, see if you can tap into this natural capacity to be curiously aware of what is happening in your body and mind in that very moment. It can be a chance to perpetuate one of our endless and exhaustive habit loops, and re-wire our brain.

"Notice the urge, get curious, feel the joy of letting go and repeat."

Have you used mindfulness to break your habits? How do you do so? Let us know in the comments! 


Brewer, J. (2015, November). Judson Brewer: A simple way to break a habit. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/judson_brewer_a_simple_way_to_br eak_a_bad_habit/citations

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