Did you know that mindfulness is one key to changing your habits? Habits are formed through routine — a cue or trigger, followed by the behavior. Once you’ve done a specific routine many times, your brain associates the cue with the behavior, and a habit is formed. The more you perform the routine, the stronger the habit.
But, once you become mindful of the cue, you can begin to change the habit.
Habits are behaviors performed on “autopilot” that are hard to give up. The key to replacing bad habits is to become mindful of the cues that lead to our subconscious performance of unwanted behaviors. Once we are aware of habitual cues, we can disrupt the connection between these cues and our undesirable habits.
In this article, I’ll show you how to effectively break a bad habit by interrupting the association (really a memory) that was formed when you subconsciously linked a behavior to a cue. Habitual cues typically fall into one of five categories: location, time of day, emotional state, other people, or the immediately preceding action.
I study habits because I teach people how to work more productively. And for most people, that typically requires changing their work habits. I’ve done a lot of reading and learning on the topic, but what I share with my clients is primarily informed by three experts in the field of changing habits: a psychologist, Dr. Art Markman; a journalist, Charles Duhigg; and an author, James Clear. You’ve probably heard of Duhigg’s and Clear’s books, both bestsellers. They are The Power of Habit, and Atomic Habits, respectively. They are both great — very informative. Dr. Art Markman’s book is the first one I read on the topic, and I think it deserves as much attention as the other two, especially given Markman’s psychology credentials. It’s called Smart Change, and I suggest you don’t miss it.
How to Use Mindfulness to Change Habits
Our brains use more energy than any other organs in our bodies. For this reason, our brains are always looking for shortcuts when we can act without conscious effort to conserve energy. Sometimes this is helpful, but other times it calls to mind unhelpful habits. For example, we feel stress and make a beeline for the potato chips without even thinking about it. Or, a very common habit today, we feel bored and pull out our mobile phones without thinking.
Autopilot: efficiency for our brains
Why should our brains think through every problem or action we take as if it’s the first time? That wouldn’t be efficient and would waste energy.
Instead, our brains pair cues with actions.
When I’m in the shower, I always shampoo my hair. My brain connects being in the shower (cue) to washing my hair (action). Sometimes, as I’m drying off, I wonder, “Did I really remember to shampoo?” But I did — it’s just that I performed the behavior on auto-pilot, thanks to my energy-efficient brain.
Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative journalist. In The Power of Habit he writes, “Habits, as much as memory and reason, are at the root of how we behave….Once they are lodged within our brains, they influence how we act — often without our realization.”
In other words, habits are memories that we retrieve on autopilot. The reason habits are so hard to break is because you can’t not have a memory. However, you can replace a memory with something that serves you better.
Being mindful: the opposite of being on autopilot
Shampooing is a neutral habit. But I have a friend named Doreen. We worked together for almost 10 years when I was in my twenties. We would take a mid-afternoon break every workday, and she would bring Doritos to my desk to snack on. I didn’t know it at the time, but this created a powerful routine that caused me to crave Doritos in the mid-afternoon, and every time I saw Doreen!
When I became more health-conscious, and wanted to eat less junk food, it helped to recognize that this time of day (mid-afternoon) and this person (Doreen) were the things that made me crave Doritos. Recognizing the link enables me to become aware of the subconscious habit, and awareness is the first step to habit change.
Awareness allows me to be mindful, and being mindful is the opposite of being on autopilot.
When I am mindful, I am conscious of where I’m focusing my attention and when my attention shifts. Being able to consciously manage your attention is a powerful tool for disrupting bad habits and forming better ones. Additionally, being mindful can make you more resilient when adversity strikes.
Use Mindful Marks to Help Change Habits
I’ve collaborated with the creative folks at Lumenkind, who have based their business on helping people create positive routines. They have a product called Mindful Marks, and together, we have created Attention Management Mindful Marks— tangible reminders to help you incorporate attention management into your life. These are small, subtle, wearable reminders, like temporary tattoos and made with safe, food-grade materials. And they come in three gorgeous patterns, related to my Four Quadrants of Attention Management:
- Focus – To help support your ability to unleash your genius.
- Dream – To foster your imagination and remind you of how useful daydreaming can be.
- Flow – To train your brain to more often enter this state of maximized performance.
This special pack of Mindful Marks debuted shortly after the publication of my book, Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity Every Day. These beautiful marks will help you get into the brain space you need to live your best life, and they are gender-neutral.
They can help you remember to focus on new habits that serve your goals. In doing so, they can also help you sever the old links between habitual cues and behaviors that don’t support you.
You’ll get 36 marks with each Attention Management pack of Mindful Marks. I find these marks so helpful to my own habit-changing efforts that now I wear one almost every day.
Though I still might think of Doritos when I see Doreen, being mindful of the routine was the first and most important step to breaking that habit. Seeing a Mindful Mark on my hand or wrist helps me get off of auto-pilot and remember my intentions.
You can order the Attention Management pack of Mindful Marks here.
The 5 Habitual Cues
Once you’re aware of the five habitual cues, it’s much easier to recognize what is setting you up to take an action you’d rather not take. So let’s explore these five cues. Then I’ll show you how to become mindful of these cues and disrupt the memories they invoke.
Where are you when you engage in a habit you want to change? If you’re checking your email first thing in the morning, are you sitting at your desk? Lying in bed using your phone? Or, if you’re doom-scrolling for a solid hour on your phone, does this happen only when you’re in front of the TV? See if there is a specific location that is related to these or other unproductive behaviors. Switching up the location will weaken the habit.
2. Time of Day
What time of day is it when you perform the bad habit? That email habit above may be related not only to a location, but also to the time of day: early morning. This habit sends most people down a rabbit hole of reactivity that takes hours to climb out from. Changing it is often one of the straightest lines to getting more important work done in a day. Or maybe you have a habit of eating something sweet when you hit that mid-afternoon slump. Take note of whether a particular time of day is tied to the habit you want to change.
3. Emotional State
Many times, a distressing emotional state will cue a habit you don’t like. For example, how many people eat when they’re stressed? The emotional state of being stressed might cause you to run for the potato chips without thinking. Or, stress might lead to your getting lost in social media, trying to block out uncomfortable feelings with distractions.
4. Other People
Almost everyone can name another individual or group of people who triggers them to engage in an undesirable behavior. For example, do you drink too much when you’re with your old college friends? Do you bite your nails whenever you’re in a team meeting? Other people can trigger memories that cue our brains to perform behaviors that we don’t necessarily like or want to repeat.
5. Immediately Preceding Action
Another habitual cue is the action we take immediately before we perform a particular behavior on autopilot. For example, when I get in my car, I immediately fasten my seatbelt without thinking. That’s obviously a positive habit. But if you get into stress-inducing political debates shortly after logging into Facebook, an easy way to minimize that habit is to avoid logging into Facebook.
Using Mindfulness to Change Habits
Once you’re mindful of the 5 habitual cues, you are better positioned to interrupt the memories that cause unwanted behaviors.
Duhigg describes a framework for changing bad habits. A modified version is below, based on input I received from Dr. Markman:
- Identifying your routine.
- Isolating the behavioral cues.
- Making a plan.
Identify Your Routine
So let’s say you always check email from your laptop first thing in the morning when you sit down at your desk. But you notice this is a bad habit, because then you spend hours responding to these emails, rather than pursuing your most important work. That’s the routine and now you’ve identified it.
Isolate the Behavioral Cues
You become mindful of the cues that are connected with your habit. In this case, you notice that it’s time of day (first thing in the morning) and location (desk in the home office).
Make a Plan
It’s hard for your brain to “do a negative.” So instead of telling yourself something you won’t do (check email first thing in the morning), tell yourself what you will do instead, first thing in the morning when you sit at the desk in your home office. Make a plan that when you sit down at your desk first thing in the morning, you will leave your email closed and open your task list instead. If your task list and your email live in the same program, such as Microsoft Outlook, you can set your Outlook to “offline mode” so new messages don’t arrive.
Make It Obvious
James Clear writes about the best way to plan a behavior change in his fantastic book, Atomic Habits. He writes that you need to make it easy to succeed in adopting the new behavior that will replace the unwanted behavior.
One way to make it easy is to make it obvious. So you can make it obvious that you want to work from your task list by setting up your Outlook to open directly to your tasks folder. Starting every day by seeing the task list and working from it for the first hour of your day, day after day, will create a new memory of what to do when you sit at your home office desk first thing in the morning.
Plan to Overcome Obstacles
It’s also helpful to anticipate obstacles and make a plan — in advance — to overcome them. For example, knowing that I won’t be checking email from my desk first thing, I might be tempted to grab my phone from my nightstand first thing in the morning and start a new habit of checking email from bed. Mindful of this obstacle, however, I will make a plan to use a regular alarm clock to wake myself up in the morning; I’ll move my phone into another room at night so that I remove this obstacle to my success.
The Key to Changing Habits
Breaking the link between old memories and behaviors is the key to changing habits. To do that, you need to become mindful of what is cueing your undesirable habit.
In order to change the behavior of craving Doritos every afternoon, I had to first become mindful of the memory — the connection between the cues (time of day and another person) and the behavior (eating Doritos). Then I’d work to replace the memory with a new one that better serves me. I broke the habit when I no longer worked with Doreen and didn’t have the chance to take that mid-afternoon break with her.
But you can also disrupt these memories intentionally. For example, I could have asked Doreen to bring almonds to my desk instead of Doritos. Eventually, I would create the healthier habit of eating nuts during that mid-afternoon slump, instead of junk food.
And remember, when you’re working to kick a bad habit, turn your attention to a new, more desirable behavior that you do want to incorporate into your life. Wearing Mindful Marks can help nurture your success.