Is there a simple way to break a bad habit? From indulging in overeating, smoking, and alcohol to getting hooked to gadgets all the time, we know it is bad for us. Yet you still keep doing it so much so that eventually you are unable to break off that habit.

In this article, learn all about the mechanism of how habits develop in the brain and discover simple ways that might help you beat your next urge to smoke, snack or check a text while driving.

It’s All in Your Brain

The brain functions through habit making. Making habits create neural pathways that provide the best results.

For instance, as soon as you see cake or ice cream, you want to consume it and after you are done, you feel a sense of satisfaction. This is especially true with high sugar foods. The brain then takes cognizance and will tend to repeat the same process next time – See food, Eat it and feel happy.

As a result, the brain turns that circuit on frequently to get things done and puts it in a repeat mode:

 Trigger — Behaviour — Reward. 

The same circuit is called upon when you are stressed out and the brain quickly learns that when you are stressed, binging on tasty food or smoking makes you feel better.

Each time you do this, the brain keeps learning to repeat the process and it eventually becomes a habit.

Simple Ways to Curb Bad Habits

The standard behavioral treatment for addiction to any substance is to ‘avoid, control and distract’. But such therapy does not work for all. Here are simple ways to get you started:


Recognize the Pattern of Your Habits and Accept

Now that you understand how a habit forms in your brain, you have a greater chance of catching the act and make informed choices to break that addiction. Therefore, the next time you have an urge, see if you can trace yourself. Then, you will be able to see clearly how the habit reinforced itself.

Kill the Cravings with Curiosity

Learning to recognize the patterns of your habits – Identifying the trigger, the action, and the brain’s reward system – is just one part of learning to unwind them. The next step involves getting curious about that momentary experience while indulging in a bad habit.

For example, the next time you smoke or eat that third or fourth cookie, be curious about what it’s like when you do it. Be mindful of your actions and you will begin to notice your long-term goals rather than short-term desires. 

This will not force you to quit the habit but rather make your brain disenchanted with its reward process. So, when you get curious you can step out of the brain’s habit-making process for a moment and think before you give in to your cravings.

Mindfulness Training

This is not a one-step process that will go poof and you magically quit smoking. Rather the more mindful you are, over time you will be able to clearly see the results of your action. Subsequently, you can let go of old habits and form new ones.

Mindfulness will enable you to strengthen your resilience and resist falling prey to urges that foster unhealthy habits. In fact, several studies suggest that mindfulness training is twice as effective than the gold standard therapy to help people quit smoking.

In fact, one frequent smoker who was put into the mindfulness training therapy began to feel that – “Smoking Smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. Yuck!”

Here’s how you can put mindfulness into action:

  • Recognize – Identify the craving and relax into it
  • Accept – Accept the moment and don’t try to distract, ignore or avoid it
  • Investigate – See through the experience as it builds up without engaging the urge right away. Ask yourself “what is happening to your body”?
  • Note – Halt and Take note of your feelings. Whether you feel hungry, angry, anxious, lonely, tired or stressed, as you begin to note your emotions, it will become clear that these are just bodily sensations.
  • Breathe – Take a deep breath and resist to give in to the emotions. This will help you ride out of the emotions and craving until they subside

Final Thoughts

Each time you ride out of the craving, the brain will unlearn the habit and the addiction-reward circuit gets weaker.  Instead of criticizing yourself by saying “No, I can’t quit”, why not build the willpower to say you can. Next time you get an urge, notice it, get curious, be mindful of the moment, feel the joy of letting go and put your brain in a positive pathway.