Are You a Creature of (Bad) Habits?

Yes. We all are. Fortunately, a few simple steps can help you break the cycle of unhealthy actions and develop the skills to cultivate good ones.

Illustrations by Karin Rönmark

Consider these two experiences:

It’s a crisp early autumn day as you begin walking through the woods, sensing fall in the coolness of the air on your face. You see the play of light and shade as the sun shines through the leaves swaying in the breeze. You feel the weight of your body on your feet as you walk along the path, and feel the beating of your heart as the path inclines up a hill. You hear the chirp of the birds, the sound of the season’s last cicadas, and the distant rumble of a truck. Thoughts of daily life come and go, but don’t interfere with your enjoyment of the simple pleasure of a walk in the woods. Nothing special, yet you feel alive and present, open to your experience and to life.

Take the same setting, but this time as you begin to walk your mind is caught up in worries about all the work you have to do and fears that something important will fall through the cracks. You remember a difficult encounter with your boss earlier in the week and worry about what that might mean for your future. This thought hooks on to concerns about the poor grades your teenage son received on his latest report card, and worries about the friends he’s been hanging out with. You take your phone out of your pocket to see if any important messages have landed in your inbox since you began your walk.

You’re barely aware of your surroundings as your focus is consumed by your anxious thoughts. Like a seesaw, your mind flips back to ruminating on the past and forward into fears and anxiety about the future. If you stopped to pay attention, you might notice that your body is tense and tight, reflecting your mental state. You’re distant from your bodily experience and your environment.

It’s easy to develop patterns and habits that take us away from our present experience into rumination, worry, and fear, which, in turn, lead to stress and suffering. It’s easy to slip into overeating or over-drinking or other unhealthy behaviors without awareness, offering momentary relief but separating us from our deepest intentions.

Fortunately, mindfulness provides practices and skills to help us change unhealthy habits and live in greater harmony with life.

Bringing attitudes of mindfulness to unwanted habits

Different kinds of habits have different feelings associated with them, but all can be changed when met with a kind, interested, and accepting awareness. There are four main categories of habits—habits of wanting; habits of distraction; habits of resistance; and habits of doing—that encompass many of the most common behaviors we seek to change.

illustration of pile of sweets

The 4 Main Categories of Habits:

1) Habits of Craving

Habits of wanting, craving, or addiction have an energy and feeling tone of moving toward something we desire. The body and mind focus in on the object, be it a drink, drugs, food, cigarettes, or sex, or any other object of desire, and our sense of well-being and happiness becomes tied to getting what we crave. Working mindfully with habits of wanting means opening fully to the feeling of wanting as it manifests—in the body, the emotions, and the mind. If something triggers the urge, you can open to the sensations, feelings, and emotions and say “yes” to them and meet them with kindness, interest, and acceptance. If a thought arises, such as, “I’ll feel better if I have a smoke/drink,” meet that thought with kindness. Choose to stay with what’s alive in the body and the emotions without acting on it. When you learn to stay with the uncomfortable, unpleasant, or difficult feelings, you weaken the hold that the craving has over you.

2) Habits of Distraction

If you become aware that your attention has moved into an unhealthy habit of distraction, such as spacing out watching TV or surfing the Internet—or if you catch yourself before moving into it—bring close attention to your bodily experience and emotions. Stay with these sensations and feelings, then bring to mind the question: What would I have to experience if I didn’t turn toward my habitual behavior? You may locate a feeling of tightness or numbness, perhaps, or a restless feeling. Meet the experience with a kind, curious, and accepting attention. See how, when met in this way, the feeling will come and go in its own time.

If something triggers the urge to move toward an object you crave, you can open to the sensations, feelings, and emotions that arise—choosing to stay with what’s alive in the body and the emotions without acting on it.

3) Habits of Resisting

Habits of resisting, which manifest as frustration, annoyance, impatience, anger, judgment, and similar emotions and mind states, tend to have a different feeling tone. We feel as if we’re defending ourselves, resisting a threat, or protecting ourselves from something that will harm us. Often we’ll feel tightness, tension, contraction, agitation, heat, or other “fight-orflight” sensations. The accompanying thoughts or beliefs in our mind may urge us to act in a way that will change this unpleasant situation or experience.

We can meet the habits of resistance by bringing our attention back to “what am I experiencing right now?” then meet what is here with a kind, curious, and accepting awareness. Bringing awareness to your breath helps to ease feelings of tightness and tension. Putting your hand on your heart can help temper thoughts of “I need to do something.” Sending a wish of peace and well-being to yourself, perhaps whispering “may I be peaceful,” can create a sense of inner space within which the difficult experience and sensations can be held. Here, too, the practice is to bring a kind, curious, and accepting attitude to what is present—choosing to stay with your direct experience rather than moving into habitual behavior.

4) Habits of Busyness

Finally, we can respond to habits of doing—the feeling that we’re always on our way somewhere, feeling that something bad will happen if we don’t keep moving and getting things done—with the same attitude of kind, interested, and accepting awareness. We begin by coming back to what we are feeling now, physically, emotionally, mentally. We think, “things might be OK if I can just accomplish the next task.” We can feel frenetic, agitated, intense, or stressed out. Mindfulness invites us to experience all the sensations and emotions associated with that energy without identifying with it. Mindfulness practice helps prevent us from getting swept up in the story of “I need to get this done or things will fall apart.”

These four kinds of habits are not mutually exclusive. When we feel a craving for something that we think will make us feel good, such as eating something sweet, we are often, at the same time, wanting to avoid an unpleasant feeling—for example, tension, worry, tightness, or numbness. Similarly, when we disconnect from the present and spend large amounts of time online, there is often a feeling of discomfort, anxiety, or tension that we’re subconsciously seeking to escape. With each of these habitual patterns, the remedy is the same: to return to our present-moment experience and meet it with interest, friendliness, and acceptance.

Untangling ourselves from habitual thoughts and beliefs

Much of the stress, anxiety, and suffering in our lives comes from not bringing wise attention to our thoughts and beliefs, and treating them as “true.” We get swept up by the stories we tell ourselves. Our habit patterns play an important role in perpetuating thoughts and beliefs that lead to suffering. You might experience a loss or feel lonely or anxious and comfort yourself by eating something sweet, having a glass of wine, or zoning out in front of the TV for a few hours. That’s fine, but if you obsessively repeat the mindless behavior in response to the same difficult emotion, a habit of responding in this way develops. Your mind associates the temporary release from unpleasant feelings with the new behavior and your thinking reinforces the behavior. I feel better when I have a couple of beers. I’ll feel sad/lonely if I don’t have a cigarette.

Much of the stress, anxiety, and suffering in our lives comes from not bringing wise attention to our thoughts and beliefs, and treating them as “true.”

Habits of resisting or aversion—yelling at one’s spouse or kids, responding to experience with frustration, anger, impatience, harsh judgment of ourselves or others—tend to have the underlying thought pattern, this needs to be different for me to feel OK. Or if I don’t change this, something really bad will happen.

With habits of distraction—such as constantly checking our phone or spending excessive time watching TV—the underlying thinking is typically that our present experience is boring or unpleasant, and that doing something familiar will be more interesting or enjoyable.

Habits of doing—when we’re leaning in to the next thing we need to get done with a tense energy—tend to have the underlying thought pattern that something bad will happen if I don’t keep moving.

Mindfulness provides skills and practices to loosen our identification with thoughts, helping us see that the content of a thought is not inherently “true.” With attention, thoughts can be observed and met with wisdom rather than being acted out in habitual ways. For example, when a familiar stimulus triggers the thought, some ice cream would be nice now, we can observe this as “wanting” or “wanting thought,” rather than automatically going to the freezer and scooping out a bowl of ice cream.

Mindfulness provides skills and practices to loosen our identification with thoughts, helping us see that the content of a thought is not inherently “true.”

We can deepen our awareness of the emotions and bodily feelings that often underlie and spur our habits of thought and action. And where our thoughts have hardened into beliefs that perpetuate unhealthy habits, we can investigate these beliefs and untangle ourselves from them.