Can we break a bad habit?

Have you ever thought about how difficult it can be to break a bad habit? Perhaps you’ve tried to break one yourself. Perhaps you’ve tried to advise someone else on how to break their habits or even change them slightly. Mindfulness, although a word thrown around often, could be your answer and here’s why.

Wendy Wood, a psychologist and researcher on the topic of habit has suggested that up to 45% of our day is habitual as opposed to decision making. That’s a staggering amount of our day to give away to bad habits, if we don’t take control of them.

The truth is that habits can be changed and moulded and it shouldn’t have to be an uphill battle to do so. The neuroscience of habit is an interesting one but understanding the fundamentals will allow you to see how you can identify your habits and take control of them.

The prefrontal cortex, the youngest part of our brain (from an evolutionary sense), is responsible for cognitive control or the ability for us to not have that 4th cookie because we know it isn’t good for us. It’s also the first part of our brain that stops working when we get stressed.


Habits happen in 3 stages.

First there is a cue. This can be likened to some kind of trigger that makes a behavior happen. It’s important to know that anything can be a cue. Scientists have shown that a cue can be something as simple as a time of day that triggers a certain behaviour.

The second thing that happens is referred to as a routine or in simple terms, the behavior that follows the cue.

The last part of the habit is the reward. It’s probably the most important part because it’s essentially what drives the habit.

Because of the way the brain is wired, the cue and the reward can become neurologically intertwined which is an interesting thought because that means that the behaviour part of the habit may not be as important as we might think. Perhaps if we can identify the cue and the reward of our habitual tendencies, we might be able to change our behaviour?


So how do we do this?


This is where the mindfulness kicks in. It can take place in many ways, shapes and forms but in essence, mindfulness is just about being really interested in understanding what is happening in your body and mind. Introspective awareness is key to changing our habit. You need to identify what is causing the habit and what reward you’re after.

For example, if you are in the habit of having a snack at the end of a hard work day (routine), are you possibly just looking for something that will make you feel good (reward) and are you trying to escape the stress that the day may have caused you (cue)?

We have to remember that our brain is not wired to make things complicated, it is in fact designed to do the opposite and it will almost always choose the easiest option. If we associate great tasting food with a great feeling, it’s easy to see how our brain can establish the habit of eating this food, seeking the reward of feeling great.

Unfortunately, this is not a one week fix and is certainly something that is developed over time. Like most things with neurology, the more you do it, the better your brain will be wired to perform that task in the future.

We must have the willingness to turn toward our undesired habits and face them head on, rather than try make them go away as quickly as possible. Get curious about your habits and start to identify how to move away from reactive patterns and toward proactive ones. Embrace mindfulness through yoga, exercise or whatever form you choose and rewire your brain to work for you, not against you. Own all your habits and you might just have a 45% better day.

- Rory Maguire