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December 12, 2019

How to break your bad habits, in 3 steps

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on July 14, 2020.

    Whether you're trying to give up midnight snacking or surfing Instagram at work, "[b]reaking habits is hard—but in Harvard Business Review, Judson Brewer of Brown University's Schools of Public Health & Medicine draws on 20 years of research and experience to share 3 ways to overcome bad habits in your personal and professional life.

    Your guide to a healthier, happier workplace

    Why it's hard to break bad habits

    Everyone struggles to change his or her habits in part because "we are constantly barraged by stimuli" that reinforce the reward-based learning system in our brains, Brewer, a physician, writes.  

    "Put simply, reward-based learning involves a trigger (for example, the feeling of hunger), followed by a behavior (eating food), and a reward (feeling sated)," Brewer writes. As a result, we look to do whatever we can to reach that "reward," particularly in times of stress, whether it's smoking a cigarette or eating a cupcake, Brewer writes.

    "This is especially true at work," Brewer writes. "Each time we try to soothe ourselves from a taxing assignment we reinforce the reward, to the point where unhealthy distractions can become habits."

    So why can't we just impose a bit of self-control, and replace the bad habits (the urge to smoke or procrastinate at work) with positive habits?

    "Because reward-based learning is based on rewards," not the behaviors themselves, Brewer explains. Meaning if a bad habit is rewarding, we are likely to repeat the behavior in the future, "and this is why self-control as an approach to breaking habits often fails."

    How to break your bad habits

    Over the past two decades, Brewer has researched ways patients can break bad habits by merging his scientific and clinical practices to determine how these habits form. Eventually, Brewer determined mindfulness is the best way to tackle these habits.

    "By using mindfulness training to make people more aware of the 'reward' reinforcing their behavior, I can help them tap into what is driving their habit in the first place," he writes.

    For instance, Brewer told patients in his smoking cessation program to pay attention to what the habit tastes and feels like so they can identify the true reward they're getting from the habit. "Once this happens, they are more easily able to change their association with the 'reward' from a positive one to a more accurate (and often negative) one," Brewer writes.

    While Brewer's research has largely focused on changing health-related habits, he's outlined three ways workers can apply mindfulness to break their bad working habits and increase "productivity, morale, and overall performance."

    1. Identify your triggers

    The first step to breaking any bad habit is to identify what triggers the habit. "If the habit is procrastination or stress eating at work, for example, pay attention to the circumstances surrounding you when you do those things," Brewer writes. "Do you have a big project you're trying to avoid? Do you have too much on your plate to manage?"

    Once you know your triggers, you can focus on the behaviors you engage in as a coping mechanism. "You must be able to name the actions you turn to for comfort or peace of mind before you can evaluate their reward values," he writes.

    2. Figure out if the reward is worth it

    The next step, Brewer writes, is to "link up action and outcome" by paying attention to how you feel when you execute your bad habit.

    "If you procrastinate, what do you get from surfing the internet for pictures of cute puppies? How rewarding is it in the moment, especially when you realize that it isn't helping you get your work done?" Brewers writes.

    Once you've answered these questions, you will be able to update the reward value of your bad habit based on your new observations. "You will begin to see that 'X' behavior leads to 'Y' consequences, and often, those consequences are holding you back from reaching your full potential," Brewer explains.

    3. Find a more rewarding reward

    According to Brewer, the last step is to find a reward that is better than the reward you get from your bad habits.

    He notes that for stress eating, curiosity is often a more satisfying reward than overeating. For instance, if you're craving candy at work, try asking "why you are having that craving in the first place, and what it feels like in your body and your mind" when you stress eat, Brewer writes. Usually, people recognize quickly that their cravings are simply thoughts that can come and go with time, but "[b]eing curious helps them acknowledge those sensations without acting on them."

    While the reward value of curiosity differs from the reward of stress eating a cupcake, curiosity is more rewarding in the long run than continuing a bad habit, Brewer writes. "In other words, they can ride the wave of a craving out by naming and sitting with the thoughts and feelings that arise in their bodies and minds from moment to moment—until those moments pass" (Brewer, Harvard Business Review, 12/5).

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