In a few key ways, our bad habits aren’t too different from our good ones.
They are both created to meet our needs, for instance. And these routine behaviors get assigned to a part of the brain that processes behaviors automatically. In other words, we don’t have to decide, so that our brains can shift focus to newer decision-making activities.
What’s more, habits of any stripe are formed by following a three-step loop, according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: First, there’s an environmental cue or trigger, such as an argument or confrontation. This is followed by the “routine,” or the behavior itself. The behavior could be something like smoking a cigarette or biting your nails. And last step is the reward: Your brain has to “like” something about the behavior, like the sense of stress relief the behavior brings, for it to remember the habit.
The good news is that it is that we can definitely change our habits from bad to good by interrupting the behavior loop, according to Hugh Byrne, Ph.D. expert in mindfulness and author of The Here and Now Habit. Byrne coaches habit change through mindfulness. “Mindfulness,” he writes in an email, “helps us to learn to stay with the feelings, urges and impulses that tend to trigger particular habit patterns. We are able to bring the habitual behavior into awareness. We make what was unconscious, conscious.”
By deliberating in the space between the trigger and the response, Byrne says that we can “give ourselves the choice to not develop the neural pathways that lead to unhealthy habits and develop pathways in the brain that are more supportive of well-being.” And while it takes time and multiple attempts for authentic habit change, there is a clear four-step roadmap for success.
Related: 25 Best Habits to Have in Life