How to Break Bad Habits

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

Habits, both good and bad, have a mindlessness component. That means they and can operate on their own, without much conscious awareness required. They work a lot like “autopilot.” When an airline pilot has the plane at a nice cruising speed, he or she can turn on autopilot so the plane can fly itself. Our habits work the same way. Our autopilot mind takes over and flies our habits for us.

As we understand more about these habits of mind, we can take more skillful action to go a new direction. This means taking control and choosing a path toward greater virtue, happiness or care for others.

The Mindless to Mindful Exercise

This exercise, called “From Mindless to Mindful,” is one of the exercises I describe in my book, Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing.

First, choose a “bad” habit or vice. Pick something you do frequently that you are struggling with or bothered by. Then, consider one way you will bring greater mindfulness to the habit or vice and one way you will use one of your strengths with it. Finally, apply the strength and mindfulness to your autopilot mind as you do the activity.

Examples to Get You Started

When selecting a vice or “habit,” consider situations in which you typically display mindless behavior, where you are quick to react with anger or frustration, or behaviors you wish you could stop but feel you somehow cannot. Perhaps you notice that you seem to have a lot of arguments with your spouse? Numerous tense discussions with a colleague? A habit of over-eating or over-drinking in the evening? Yelling at your child to get them to settle down? Anxiety or stress every time you drive to work?

Example #1:

  • Step 1: I select “my pattern of arguing with my husband.” We seem to get into minor disagreements or fights each day. During these times, I do about 75% of the talking.
  • Step 2: The type of mindfulness I will apply is mindful listening. The strength I will focus on is fairness.
  • Step 3: Each day when we get into a disagreement, I will pause my speech and focus on mindful listening. This means I will notice my tendency to react immediately to what he says. It also means that when my mind wanders off or when my mind gets triggered, I will bring my attention to listening to the deeper message or the “heart” of what he’s saying. To use my fairness strength, I will prioritize listening instead of talking “over” him. I will focus on giving him equal or more time to talk and I will pay attention to any injustice he might be experiencing. Since I usually focus more on fairness toward myself, I will direct it outwardly to help him.

Example #2:

  • Step 1: I select my tendency to overeat and snack on high-calorie foods at night.
  • Step 2: The type of mindfulness I will apply is mindful eating. The strength I will focus on is curiosity.
  • Step 3: I know that the time I overeat is in the evening. I will begin to use my curiosity strength prior to my typical snacking time each night. I’ll direct my curiosity inwardly by exploring my inner experience. I’ll be curious about my feelings, stress level, my experience of the day’s events, and where my mind is tending to wander. I will savor one snack with mindful attention, using all five of my senses. During the savoring experience, I will keep my curiosity strong as I explore the food item, where it came from, how it affects my body, and how I am feeling. I will notice when my mind wanders off and bring it back to being curious and eating mindfully.

Remember:

The target with this exercise is your own, personal autopilot mind. In other words, the focus is placed on your tendency to mind wander, your distractedness, your reactivity. You can keep this in check. Focusing on your autopilot is under your control. Trying to change another person’s behavior is not. What are the Benefits? This exercise will not only help you better understand patterns that are driving your habit or vice, but you will also learn more subtle ways of applying mindfulness and strengths. Rather than just applying mindfulness and strengths like a blanket to any problem, this exercise will help you learn the appropriate “dosage” of mindfulness and strengths. Some situations will call for a specific type of mindfulness (e.g., mindful speech), others will call for a certain intensity, duration, or frequency of use (e.g., prolonging strengths use; intensifying your mindfulness practice). When this exercise is practiced regularly (e.g., each day), you will notice you are making a shift toward cultivating virtue, making strength use more routine and using mindfulness to do so.

Reference

Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths; A practical guide to flourishing. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.

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