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How to Break a Bad Habit

I’m pretty sure each of us has a bad habit. For some of us, it’s lurking deep inside, where we try to hide it from plain view. For others, that bad habit is out in the great wide open for everyone to see.

Either way, a bad habit a negative behavior pattern. A bad habit can be harmful to our physical or mental health. Often we see a bad habit as a lack of self-control or willpower. Common bad habits include overeating, nail biting, procrastinating, smoking, texting while driving, snacking, and the list goes on.


I recently watched a brief (under 10 minutes!) TED Talk titled, “A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit,” that rates as a must-share in my book. Presented by psychiatrist Judson Brewer, his concept is in indeed simple, and simultaneously notably powerful.

Dr. Brewer first reminds us of one of the most basic and evolutionary learning processes, positive and negative reinforcement. The teacher in me automatically connects this concept to managing a classroom of schoolchildren. The dog lover in me thinks back to house-training our sweet puppy years ago. The parent in me understands this learning process as we are raise our children to be kind, contributing members of the human race. Dr. Brewer offers an example of basic survival: we see food, we eat the food, we feel good. And our brain gets a signal to remember that. It’s a simple 3-step process: trigger, behavior, reward. What’s so handy is that our brain creatively applies this learning to a host of other situations, including eating ice cream when we feel crappy to then find a moment of happiness. It’s not our stomach sending a hunger signal, but rather an emotional signal triggering our brain to want to eat. Trigger, behavior, reward.

And here’s where the brilliance enters to help break a bad habit. Dr. Brewer postulates that instead of fighting our persistent urge to eat that cookie or to answer that text, we simply “get really curious about what is happening in our momentary experience?” In fact, his lab participants are given full permission to partake in their bad habits, with one caveat: be really curious about what it’s like when you do it. He calls it mindfulness.


See, we all know in our heads that our bad habit is bad. We get that. The difference is that this curious awareness, the mindfulness of the indulgent moment, allows us to become disenchanted in the behavior. In short, the reward isn’t so rewarding. We no longer have to force ourselves to stop our behavior because we simply are less interested in doing it. By turning inwards and being intently mindful of what’s going on, as opposed to just trying to make the crappy feeling go away, is the path to success. Over time, we let go off those bad old habits, and we form new healthy ones.



I’ll share one of my bad habits to which I have applied mindfulness today: my social media accounts. I am being curiously aware as to why I feel the urge to pick up my phone and check the newsfeed.

Will I break the bad habit today? Likely not, but I’m on the path to letting go.






Want to see Dr. Judson Brewer’s complete TED Talk on “A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit?” Watch it here: