How Mindfulness can help break and make habits

When we think of the bad habits we have, we often associate them with a lack of thought – i.e they are automatic behaviours that we’re sometimes unaware of or that we perform mindlessly! So how does the practice of mindfulness work when we wish to do different things instead of the same old same old that may not be working for us?

Well first, let’s think about what mindfulness is. Put simply, mindfulness is about living in the moment, paying attention – in other words, being very aware of what is going on and our place in the universe at any given moment.  But being mindful is not just about paying attention, the type of attention is important.  The Buddhist philosophy  encourages us to pay attention with an element of compassion and non-judgmentalism.  So we observe our own behavior but in a way that doesn’t involve criticism or judgment.  Being mindful and being aware of what’s happening in the moment   is a great way of discovering what habits we actually have developed!

Three tips to achieving a mindful state:

(1) Mindfulness can be more difficult for some than others. But if you start with the following, you’ll get a sense for what you are trying to achieve.

  • Relax your body and mind
  • Focus on something
  • Allow your thoughts to come and go without judging them

(2) Mindfulness is all about vigilance but vigilance without anxiety.  It great for identifying habits we want to change but also becomes a way of changing them. It works in three ways.

  1. We monitor ourselves vigilantly to find out when the habit occurs and what triggers it.  
  2. Distraction is key. Suppression of a habit is just too hard.  Instead of smoking a cigarette, we need to do something else with our hands.  Instead of reacting with impatience and anger, we need to find a way of responding that follows a repeatable form.  Instead of saying “yes” to everything we need to find a substitution such as “Can I give this some thought?”.  We then have an alternative behavior that if practiced diligently (with vigilance), will become the new habit
  3. Change the situation.  Habits are trigged by situations and environments.  There is a reason why it is easier to give up smoking when we go on holiday. We are removed from the familiar which can prompt the urge for cigarette at regular times throughout the day.  

(3) This last factor, has more importance than people realise. Research has shown that habits are “rooted in the situation in which they occur”.   Take a new look at what you want to be doing differently and see if this new approach is useful.