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How Mindfulness Helps us Break Bad Habits and Become Less Reactive

There’s an old joke I once heard about a woman who slices the end off a pot roast before she puts it in the oven. One day, her daughter asks her why she always does this. 

“That’s the way my mother always did it,” the woman responds.

The curious daughter then calls her grandmother to ask her why she cuts the end off the pot roast. Her grandmother replies: “That’s the way my mother always did it.” 

The still curious daughter then calls her great grandmother to ask her why she cuts the end off the pot roast. The great grandmother replies: “That’s the only way the roast fit in the pan.” 

The joke is one way of telling us that we’re creatures of habit. In fact, we go through much of our day on autopilot, reacting to situations and circumstances out of force of habits that sometimes get passed down through generations like you’re a pot roast recipe.

autopilot | emindful.com

The Science of Habits and Our Autopilot Tendencies

Social scientists say as much of 40 percent of our behavior is habitual.

Some of our automaticity is hardwired to protect us. It takes just 50 milliseconds, for example, for our brains to determine if a person’s facial expression is trustworthy. 

That kind of automatic reaction comes in handy when we find ourselves on a dimly lit street at late at night. So, does knowing how to brush our teeth, drive a car or send a text without having to consciously relearn each of those tasks before engaging in them. 

Habits guide us seamlessly through our day. And our environment is loaded with cues that trigger our reflexive behavior. When we get into the car we put on our seatbelt, for example. After going to the bathroom, we wash our hands. 

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From the standpoint of the brain, this is neurologically efficient. Once we learn something, our brain automates it so we can be free to focus on more important things. 

But living on autopilot and being reactive can also get us into a lot of trouble – particularly with mental and emotional habits that operate out of our awareness. In other words, we do more than just habitually cut the end off pot roasts or put on our seatbelts throughout the day. 

Maybe, for example, your Dad had a quick temper and because this was modeled for you, you’ve developed a habit of getting upset when you’re cut off in traffic or your kids don’t do their homework. Maybe when you’re sad you automatically reach into the freezer for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Salted Caramel ice cream. Or perhaps being perfect is so important to you that before every work presentation you’re beset with crippling anxiety.

atop autopilot tendencies | emindful.com

Use Mindfulness to Break Bad Habits

Of course, not all automatic reactions or mental and emotional habits are bad. 

But if we’re not mindful of them our reactivity and habitual tendencies can be jet fuel for stress and suffering. This is one of the reasons why mindfulness – the practice of paying attention to the present moment with non-judgmental awareness – is so helpful in reducing stress.

When we’re mindful, we can begin to see the circumstances and situations that cue our habitual tendencies more clearly. We can notice how psychological patterns play out and create stress. And as we create more and more awareness through the practice of mindfulness, we can weaken habits that no longer serve us and learn to strengthen ones that do. 

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All of this is incredibly empowering. We’re rarely in control of what happens to us. But through the power of mindfulness we can learn to respond rather than automatically react to the circumstances of our lives, reducing our stress in the process. In the end, having the choice of whether to engage in a habit or not is wonderfully freeing whether it involves pot roast or handling a morning commute with more ease. 

Try this Mindfulness Technique to Break Bad Habits and Triggers

Here’s a simple practice to help you notice when a habit has been triggered and transform an automatic reaction into a response.

STOP (Stop, Take a Breath, Observe and Proceed) Practice: This on-the-spot mindfulness practice can often be the difference between engaging in habits that are harmful and choosing behavior that’s helpful to you and others. Follow the steps below to help you break a bad habit and become more responsive rather than reactive.

  • Stop: So much of mindfulness is about simply stopping whatever it is you’re doing and bringing your full awareness into the moment. Whenever you feel triggered or you feel an impulse to automatically play out a mental or emotional habit, simply stop.
  • Take a Breath: Bring your attention into your body, and take a soothing breath in, elongating the exhalation.
  • Observe: Notice what’s happening inside of you and outside of you. Do you feel tension in your face, shoulders or belly? Are you aware of any thoughts or emotions? Do you have an idea of what trigger might be cueing a habitual behavior?
  • Proceed: Once you feel a bit more settled, step into the next moment with awareness, choosing whatever it is you want to do next with a bit more wisdom and kindness.  

About the Author – Kelly Barron

Kelly Barron. M.A., is a certified mindfulness facilitator, at UCLA and writer. She teaches mindfulness for UCLA’s Mindfulness Research Center as well as for corporations, schools and private groups. Kelly has worked as a mindfulness teacher with eM Life since 2016. She came to learn the value of mindfulness as a deadline-driven journalist. Now, she’s passionate about sharing mindfulness with others to help them live with more ease, clarity and joy. You can learn more about Kelly and read her blog at www.kellybarron.com.