Practicing Mindfulness can help you recognize habits and replace them with newer and better ones.
This is a core element of mindfulness, and indeed why mindfulness is itself called a “practice.”
As the story goes, after the Buddha’s enlightenment, he was asked whether he was a God. He answered that he was not a God; rather, he was awake. In fact, the term Buddha means “Awakened One.”
What does it mean to be awake?
Obviously, it doesn’t mean that the Buddha was sleeping and just rolled out of bed. Rather, it means that he was not operating on what we would call “automatic pilot.” In many respects, of course, the ability to do things automatically is a boon.
Imagine having to pay attention to your feet and your jaw as you walk and chew gum. Somewhere back in our evolutionary history, the ability to multitask helped our ancestors survive. Without conscious thought we can perform skilled movements like walking and bicycling and more complex routines called habits.
Our conscious attention is a valuable and limited resource.
Our working memory — the part of our memory that deals with what is happening in the present moment — appears to have only one channel for sight and one for sound. Using any particular sense, we can pay attention to only one thing at a time. It’s hard to listen to a conversation while you’re listening to the radio, for instance.
Luckily, our ancestors evolved the ability to do many things without conscious attention. This is done by the brain’s habit system.
As rewards become predictable, the brain hands responsibility for the behaviors that produce them to the habit system, just as factory workers who do routine tasks can be replaced by machines.
Habits develop through repetition.
The first time we do something — say, drive to a new job — we pay attention for fear of making a mistake or getting lost. But we don’t pay as much attention driving to work the 249th time. The right turn after the Safeway becomes automatic.
If the habit system works unconsciously, and you don’t deliberately choose to perform your habits, what does the choosing?
The psychologist Wendy Wood emphasizes that habits have triggers. “Most people think of their behavior as being internally driven,” Wood told me. “We do things because we want to.” But habits, she said, are triggered by something external — a familiar person, place, or thing. “It’s the environment cuing the behavior,” Wood said.
We may choose when to leave for work, but on a typical morning commute, we may be oblivious much of the time — at least until someone slams on the brakes ahead of us. “When something occurs that’s unexpected, you come back to consciousness,” she said.
Benjamin Franklin was perhaps the first American author to give advice on making and breaking habits.
In his autobiography, Franklin identifies thirteen virtues that he wished to practice habitually, starting with moderation in eating and drinking. “I determined to give a week’s strict attention to each of the virtues successively,” Franklin writes. Modern experts agree with Franklin on the importance of close attention when trying to change a habit.
Wendy Wood has studied people as they try to break habits. She says that becoming conscious of our automatic behavior is the key to overriding a habit.
That’s what mindfulness is: becoming aware of what we are doing, along with what is happening to us, in the present moment and with a spirit of kindness.
It’s challenging, however, to pay attention to what we’re do-ing all the time. Wood has found that people are more likely to relapse into old habits when they’re tired or depleted.
Similarly, in his 2011 book Willpower, the psychologist Roy Baumeister observes that conscious volition actually requires large amounts of glucose.
The habit system, being automatic, requires less brain processing and less glucose. Thus, when our blood sugar is low, we’re less able to exert willpower and more likely to fall back into automatic habits.
Wood therefore sees conscious awareness not as something that can be maintained at all times, but as opening a brief window of opportunity to switch to a new and better habit. The MIT neuroscientist Ann Graybiel has found that traces of a habit take a long time to disappear. “Everyone always says that you cannot break a habit,” Graybiel told me. “You’ve got to replace it with another habit.”
Exercise: Breaking Bad Habits
Recognizing the habits you have is the first step in changing them. As you practice mindfulness in daily life, notice what you do. Notice when you do things you didn’t consciously intend to do.
After you recognize a habit, investigate what may trigger that habit.
Perhaps it’s a time of day. For instance, most of us have bedtime rituals. By getting into a mindful state as you prepare for sleep, you may notice some habits you aren’t fully aware of.
Sometimes being with other people triggers our habits. Perhaps there’s something you’ve grown accustomed to doing when you are with one particular friend but with no one else. Sometimes it’s a location that triggers a habit. If you walk home along a certain route, you’ll stop at a bakery along the way and fall off your diet.
Once you are aware of a habit and aware of what triggers it, be mindful when the trigger is present and consciously choose a different behavior.
For instance, you could cross the street before you reach the bakery and walk on the other side. If you repeat this new behavior with awareness a few times, it will start to become automatic.
The Robot inside Us
We often associate learning with memorizing facts and figures.
There’s another form of learning that psychologists call implicit learning because it happens unconsciously, managed by a collection of brain cells called the basal ganglia. Little by little, whatever we do leaves an imprint on the basal ganglia.
The repetition of that imprinting is what turns behavior into a habit. Because this learning is unconscious, we can be unaware of our habits — until someone points them out to us.
When we consciously think through a task, we use what are called the executive functions of the brain.
They act like a symphony conductor, telling the muscles that control our arms, legs, and other body parts when to come in. But just as an orchestra may eventually record its performance, the basal ganglia record our actions. Once we have a quality recording, we don’t need a conductor.
Ann Graybiel has played a leading role in uncovering the role of the basal ganglia in developing habits.
Researchers in Graybiel’s lab at MIT study rats that have had electrodes implanted in their brains. When the rats are placed in a maze, they first sniff around, exploring their new surroundings. Eventually, they discover a reward, like a morsel of chocolate, at the end of the maze.
The more times the experiment is repeated, the less the rats explore the maze, and the more they hustle to the end to find the chocolate. The process becomes almost automatic.
Graybiel has found that once maze running becomes a habit, the cells in the rat’s basal ganglia show a spike in activity at the start and end of the run. It looks as if the basal ganglia send “go” and “stop” signals to the parts of the brain that control the rat’s muscles. Between the “go” and “stop,” the muscles work robotically the way they’ve been trained.
When we do something routine, we think we’re controlling it, but we’re not, Graybiel says. She believes this applies not just to movements but also to habits of thought.
To illustrate this point during my interview with her, she asked me what my office phone number was. I rattled off a string of digits.
“What’s the fourth number?” she asked. I had to think for several seconds before I came up with “three.”
She noticed my mental calculations and correctly pointed out that I had to run through the sequence of numbers to get to the one I wanted. “You’ve got it so packaged that you can’t get inside.”
A habit, in other words, is a sequence of thoughts and movements that have been recorded, packaged, and shrink-wrapped.
It’s sometimes better to accept this package and trust your habit rather than trying to control it consciously. “That’s what anybody who has tried to learn a backhand has learned with humbling experience,” Graybiel said. “You simply cannot think about each little part, because if you do you screw it up.”
Excerpted from the book Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy — A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard, Copyright 2015 by Rick Heller. Printed with permission of New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com.
About the author
Rick Heller is the cofounder of the Humanist Mindfulness Group at the Harvard Humanist Community, where he leads meditation groups. A freelance journalist, he has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Buddhadharma, Free Inquiry, Tikkun, and wise Brain Bulletin. He lives in Belmont, Massachusetts.
To know more about Rick, visit his website www.seeingtheroses.org.