A Simple Way To Break a Bad Habit

By | April 8, 2017


In this Ted Talk video, Judson Brewer shares a simple way to break a bad habit, such as smoking or over-eating.

Judson asks, “Why is it so hard to pay attention?” We humans are constantly in a battle against one of the most evolutionary controlled learning patterns:

It’s called “Context Dependent Memory”.

We eat. We consume calories, we need calories for our survival, so we justify our eating. We feel good. There you go. You’ve formed a Context Dependent Memory. Trigger, Behavior, Reward.

This also explains why we sometimes head to the cupboard or fridge when we’re mad or sad. Chocolate or ice-cream when mad or sad = feelings trigger the desire to eat. We remember the good feelings that accompany eating, and we want to feel them, and so we resort to eating (whether we need the calories or not).  Our bodies are used to using this trigger, behavior, reward pattern.

The same goes for smoking. Judson uses the analogy of the Marlborough Man. He was cool. We see cool, we want to be cool too. We take up smoking. See cool, smoke to be cool, just like the Marlborough man. How easily our learned behavior tricks us into doing something inherently bad for our bodies!

We’ve gone from learning to survive to literally killing ourselves, using these naturally learned brain processes that help us to form habits. Obesity. Smoking. Alcoholism. Drugs. All killing us.

The most natural and the best learning process human beings have evolved is trigger, behavior, reward.

With mindfulness training, Judson and his research team focused their research subjects on being curious. They encouraged participants to be curious when smoking or when eating. Using this mindfulness, the participants were able to move from knowledge to wisdom. They were able to know in their bones exactly what was going on when they were taking a long drag on that cigarette. It actually tasted bad. It hurt their lungs. It made their fingers and teeth yellow. It made their breath and their clothes smell. It certainly didn’t make them feel cool.Trigger Behavior Reward

These research subjects went on to learn how to be present in their moments. Being wholly present, they were able to make informed choices about what they were doing and why. The majority of the smokers were able to quit smoking.

Being curious about what’s going on in your body when you’re indulging in a bad habit. e.g.: smoking, over-eating, over-drinking, REALLY being curiously aware when you’re doing something, will help you to become wise in these situations.

Judson goes on to explain that cognitive behavior goes offline when you are stressed. The pre-frontal cortex, which controls cognitive behavior, understands on an intellectual level that smoking is bad. Over eating is bad. Drinking too much alcohol is bad. Taking drugs is bad. But the pre-frontal cortex shuts down or “goes offline”when you’re stressed. So we fall back on our habits and our learned behaviors.

That’s where mindfulness becomes an important tool to have learnt – being mindful helps us with seeing what we get up to when we’re stressed. We can see the eventual results of our actions and prevent that action before we take it.

Be interested in what’s happening in your body and mind at any given moment. Be curious – it’s naturally rewarding.

Cravings are body sensations that come and go. We can manage these bite-size things.

Mindfulness can help us step out of bad behaviors. It is twice as good as therapy in helping let go of old bad habits and forming good ones.

Have a willingness to turn toward your behaviors, to get curious, to understand that body sensations occur… these are bite sized moments, not a huge overwhelming fear.

Judson’s researchers found that experienced meditators have a particular portion of their brain activated, which most of us don’t. With mindfulness training, we can also activate that same portion of the brain. Mindfulness helps us to step out of bad habits, and to form new context dependent behaviors. Tap into your natural capacity to be aware of what’s happening in your body. Notice when you feel an urge, get curious, feel the joy of letting go of that urge… and repeat!

Simple Ways to Change a Bad Habit

Now, if you don’t smoke or stress-eat.  If you’re not an alcoholic or addicted to drugs, maybe you’re addicted to checking your email or Facebook.

The simple acts we undertake out of habit form habit loops. For example: you see a text message, pop up on your phone, you respond, you feel satisfaction. And you repeat. How quickly can this escalate into a learned behavior? Next thing you know, you’re a slave to your phone!

But if you use mindfulness to be curious in such moments and to really understand why you feel the necessity to immediately respond, then you can easily let go of the urge. The response to that text can probably wait. Besides, what gives that person the right to be the most important interruption at that point of your day? You were in the middle of something else, weren’t you?

Did you enjoy Judson's Ted Talk? 
What snippet of knowledge did you gain from this? 
Are you going to try being mindful of your own learned behaviors? 
Please connect with us in the comments below.

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