Breaking Bad Habits
While our research has been focused primarily on changing health-related habits, we believe it is highly relevant to the workplace. Our strategy can help workers up their productivity, morale, and overall performance by teaching them how to overcome the habits that may be holding them back from thriving. Here’s how to get started:
1. Map out your habit loops
Similar to the advice I give to people in my outpatient clinic, the first step to breaking a habit (no matter what it is) is to figure out your triggers. If the habit is procrastination or stress eating at work, for example, pay attention to the circumstances surrounding you when you do those things. Do you have a big project you’re trying to avoid? Do you have too much on your plate to manage?
Once you know your triggers, try to identify the behaviors you engage in when you are acting out. Do you check social media instead of doing work? Do you snack on sweets during challenging assignments? You must be able to name the actions you turn to for comfort or peace of mind before you can evaluate their reward values.
2. See what you actually get out of those actions
The next step is to clearly link up action and outcome. Remember my patient who struggled to quit smoking? Just like I asked her to pay attention to the act of smoking, I am asking you to pay attention to how you feel when you partake in your habit.
If you stress eat, how does it feel to eat junk food when you aren’t hungry? How does what you eat impact the state of your mind, and body, fifteen minutes after the fact? If you procrastinate, what do you get from surfing the internet for pictures of cute puppies? How rewarding is it in the moment, especially when you realize that it isn’t helping you get your work done?
Remember your answers to these questions, or write them down to help solidify them in your mind.
This new awareness you have developed will help your brain accurately update the reward value of the habit you want to break. You will begin to see that “X” behavior leads to “Y” consequences, and often, those consequences are holding you back from reaching your full potential.
3. Replace the reward with curiosity
The final step to creating sustainable, positive habit change is to find a new reward that is more rewarding than the existing behavior. The brain is always looking for that bigger, better offer.
Imagine you are trying to break a bad habit like stress eating at work, and willpower hasn’t quite worked out for you. What if, instead of indulging in your candy craving to counteract a negative emotion, you substituted it with curiosity about why you are having that craving in the first place, and what it feels like in your body and your mind?
The reward value of curiosity (opening yourself up) is tangibly different than stress eating (closing yourself down) in this instance. Ultimately, curiosity feels better in the moment and is much more enjoyable than the rumination that often occurs after giving into a bad habit.
To tap into their curiosity, I teach my patients a simple mantra: Hmmmm. As in, be curious about your feelings. What does this craving feel like when it first arrives, before I have decided to indulge it?
People often learn, pretty quickly, that cravings are made up of physical sensations and thoughts, and that these come and go. Being curious helps them acknowledge those sensations without acting on them. In other words, they can ride the wave of a craving out by naming and sitting with the thoughts and feelings that arise in their bodies and minds from moment to moment — until those moments pass.
If you’re curious to see how well this might work for you, now is a good time to give it a try.
The next time you find yourself indulging in a bad habit, take a moment to pause and consider using mindfulness to help you overcome it. Your behaviors may not change immediately — but stick with it. If you can hack your mind using our methods, you will eventually be able to break free of unwanted habits and comfortably watch your cravings pass by.