Break Your Worst Habit With This One Simple Trick

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How can you use mindfulness to break bad habits?

If you’ve ever set concrete goals in life, then you know that’s the easy part. Do you want to walk more frequently throughout your day? Great. Do you need to lay off social media during work hours? No problem. Unfortunately, it’s the actual execution of our health and productivity goals that has always been the hardest part. If you’ve ever sworn off chocolate and then found yourself buying brownie mix, then you know firsthand how difficult steering clear of your vices can be. So how can we start resetting our frame of mind when it comes to our bad habits and finally take back control?

Dr. Judson Brewer is the Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness and Associate Professor in Medicine and Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is a globally recognized psychiatrist and the author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smart Phones to Love. Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits. I recently interviewed Dr. Brewer on the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed the role of mindfulness in breaking addiction. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: Can you describe your ‘reward-based learning’ model and the role of dopamine in our brains?

Judson Brewer: I'd be happy to. What the book is about is all the different ways in which this reward-based learning process takes place that we might not be noticing.

So this is a very evolutionarily conserved process. It was probably set up so we'd remember where our food is. So if you think of it as trigger, behavior, reward. So we see some food. We eat some food. It registers in our belly. It says “Oh, calories! Survival!” and that sends a dopamine signal to our brain that says, “Hey, remember what you ate and where you found it.” This is ‘context dependent learning’ or ‘reward-based learning’ because it's based on rewards.

This is something that was not only there for eating but something that's still at play in modern day where food is plentiful.

Kruse: So tell me a little bit more about the dopamine angle. Where does that come into play?

Brewer: Dopamine, it seems, is there to help us learn things. So for example, when something novel happens, we get a spritz of dopamine in our nucleus accumbens. And when this process starts, we get habituated when we have the same thing happen over and over and over. So for example, slot machines are rigged to provide what's called ‘intermittent reinforcement.’ You get the jackpot only certain times and you don't know when that's going to happen. Well, that's set up to really jack our dopamine system, so we'll get addicted to playing the slots, for example.

Kruse: It's like the pleasure chemical that is telling us “Hey whatever you just did, we really liked it,” right?

Brewer: Yeah. Well, I'd say and this is where we can get a little more nuance. The “liking” versus “wanting” has now been well differentiated. So there are a number of research groups that have shown even in animal models that there are different parts of the brain that get activated when something feels good versus when we want it or need it.

So cravings, for example, when we eat chocolate it tastes good. There is that “liking” quality. And when we have this driving need, “I have to eat chocolate,” doesn't necessarily feel as good as that taste of chocolate itself. So we can start to differentiate the difference between that liking and that wanting and that wanting is what drives behavior.

Kruse: What is the practice of mindfulness, and how can we use it to break our bad habits?

Brewer: Mindfulness is really about paying attention to all aspects of our experience, but in particular we can pay attention to the push and pull of cravings. So if there is something pleasant and we want more of it, we kind of hold on to it or we move toward it and try to get it. If there is something unpleasant we want it to go away as quickly as possible. So there is also movement there. There is the push and pull.

Mindfulness is really about noticing that push and pull and not getting caught up in that movement. So just being with whatever is, in a way that's curious, more than driven.

Kruse: How would we try to break the bad habit of constantly jumping on email, Facebook, or whatever our vice is at work?

Brewer: Right. I think these really are every day addictions. We've never had instant access to email before. If we carry around our phone or if we're in front of our computers, we never know when we're going to get another email that pops up, especially if we have those email alerts on. That's like the slot machine saying “Ding, ding, ding!”. So we get pulled to check our email or even if we don't check it at that moment we still get that pull that says “Oh, you have a new email! Maybe you should see what it is.” Because we don't know. There is this ‘fear of missing out.’

So where mindfulness comes in, is it helps us by saying “What do I get from this?” Really paying attention. Again, this is reward-based learning. So paying attention to these rewards. What do I get when I am constantly pulled to check my email? What do I get when I am worried that I'm going to miss something if I haven't checked my email in the last five minutes?

And we can really observe, “What's it feel like when I'm worried?” Well, I'm worried. That doesn't feel very good. And how is my productivity when I'm constantly checking to see what my emails are versus staying really on one task. I call this ‘uni-taskin’ as compared to ‘multi-tasking.’ It feels good when we're totally immersed in a project and we're just doing it and I think there are very simple ways to manage email. I even do this myself. Every X number of hours, I'll take a break from what I'm doing and I'll check my email. I turn off all the alerts, turn off all the things that can distract me and just say “Okay, now is the time for something different, and let's just hammer through a bunch of emails and go back to what I'm doing after that.”

Kruse: Recently I was hit with a craving for nachos when I felt particularly rundown. I became mindful and managed to steer clear, but later wasn’t sure if maybe I should’ve indulged. Do we really need to take action or not?

Brewer: I think that's a really great question. Your description is beautiful because you outline this ‘trigger, behavior, reward’ process where you know that trigger might have been anything from feeling some pain, feeling boredom, or just being triggered by other food. Or even “I did a great job presenting, and now is the time to celebrate!”

There could be four or five different triggers that all feed in there and say “Dude, have some nachos. It's nacho time!”

And you step in there and you can ask that question, “What's driving this?” Right? So is it hunger or is it all of these other triggers? Do I want to be a slave to my desires or do I want to have more control in my life?

So, it's simple when it's cigarettes. You know these cancer sticks are probably not a great way to live my life. I don't have to smoke to survive. But eating is different. We developed an entire program around this called Eat Right Now and the idea is to change our relationship to eating so we start by seeing really clearly what that habit loop is and what we get from what we're eating.

So for example, you went ahead… You didn't eat the nachos, right?

Kruse: Right. It was fine. It was actually a pretty bad craving for nachos for about five minutes, but then it went away.

Brewer: So it went away, and what's it feel like to know you don't have to eat the nachos every time?

Kruse: I think that's something I would want to be able to do more. I think my challenge is remembering to be mindful the next time I have that craving. 

Brewer: Yes. The ancient word for mindfulness—the literal translation—is ‘to remember.’ So you know, it's really about seeing these things clearly and remembering to be present with what's actually happening. Everything else takes care of itself. So the awareness says “Oh, I'm not hungry. I don't have to eat this stuff. This is a craving that comes and goes and let me get curious about it,” for example. Then we notice the body sensations as we ride that craving out.

So that's what mindfulness is all about. The nice thing is we can actually use this as a way to tap into the same reward-based learning process. So instead of that trigger of say stress or whatever triggering the nacho craving, eat some nachos and then maybe you’re feeling temporarily okay but your gut might not feel so good. Same trigger but the behavior is getting curious. What's this feel like, in my experience right now. And there is a reward in that that comes from just being curious in itself and letting go of that craving.

And there is a further reward that comes with “Oh, I'm not a slave to my desires.” That's the same process but it's one that develops self-efficacy as compared to nacho slavery.

Kruse: I like to challenge our audience to get 1% better every day. What is something you could have us try right away in our lives?

Brewer: I love that you challenge your listeners to do this. So I would say, just like with our Eat Right Now program, I would encourage people to find what their own habits are, what desires they are slaves to, and to simply pay attention. Start by asking themselves “What do I get from this?” Whether it's eating the nachos, or not eating the nachos. Both of those are different rewards, and we can pay attention to those rewards clearly and really see what we're getting.

So I eat the comfort food, what do I get from this? If we don't eat the comfort food, what do I get from this? How are they different? So that's what I would encourage people to do. Simply pay attention as you do whatever that habitual behavior is. Bring awareness to that.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

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