You might look at the title to this article, note its length, and doubt that so few words could really give you the keys to overcoming your bad habits. It’s likely that you’ve tried various techniques with varying levels of success and concluded that stopping yourself from doing something that strongly pulls at you is a hard thing to do. How could the secrets to doing that be summarized so briefly?
While it’s true that stopping bad habits can feel like a complex and overwhelming challenge, the steps to doing it are not complex–they are fairly simple. Practicing these three simple steps to transform any bad habit can give you freedom from what you don’t want and engagement in what you do want instead.
Let’s see how this can work.
The first step to quitting anything is recognizing exactly what you are doing. Shine your attention on what you are doing in precise detail. It’s easy to keep doing something that has negative consequences if you either avoid looking at what you’re doing or get lost in it. So, this first step is to witness yourself in the act.
See if it’s possible to step back and watch yourself as if you’re an outside observer. See if you can note “the facts” of the situation, the details of what you doing. For example, I am placing my hand on the refrigerator door, pulling it open, and visually scanning for that chocolate cake.
Then, make note of what you’re thinking as you’re doing this. For example, you might be thinking “I want to reward myself for working so hard today,” or “I’m tired and depressed and this will make me feel better,” or “That chocolate cake is going to taste so good.”
Make note of how you feel inside your body in terms of emotions and physical sensations. For example, you might feel anxious, guilty, or expectant and you might have sensations of energy rising up into your head, or rumbling in your stomach, or waves of excitement.
See if it’s possible to make note of whatever you are thinking, feeling, and doing and accept it. See if it’s possible to witness what is happening without judging your thoughts, feelings, or actions as “good” or “bad?” Can you become acutely aware, in detail, of what you are thinking, feeling, and doing, as if you are a scientist making objective observations?
As the final part of this recognition step, pause what you are doing, take a deep breath, and imagine the consequences of doing this–in the short-term and the long-term. If you follow-through and take this action, what will it mean for you later–today, tomorrow, and beyond? Based on your past experiences with taking this action, how did it make you feel immediately and what did it mean for your life in the short and long-term?
This completes step one–recognizing what you are doing and the consequences of it.
Step two is to consider alternative actions you could take at this moment and the consequences of those–in the short and long term. For example, you could close the refrigerator door, put on your sneakers, and go for a walk outside. Based on your past experience, how did doing that make you feel and what were the consequences of that? Brainstorm some other possibilities and their consequences.
Step three is to decide what you will do based on what is more important to you. Based on the different possible actions before you, imagining how they will make you feel and what they will mean for you later, what do you choose?
Make a conscious choice and take that action knowing why you are choosing it. Whatever choice you make, stay present during that action, notice the details of that experience, and make note of its consequences. This will further increase your mindfulness in what you are doing which will lead to even better choices in the future.
Now, it’s certainly easy to lay out these three steps and say “This is all you need to do.” It takes a bit of time and repetition to get good at this process–to make it your own and master it. However, I think you’ll find that, if you start with a sincere attempt at step one, it will give you some mental space within your actions and some momentum that will carry you through the next two steps.
Simply pausing, taking a deep breath, and becoming more conscious about what you are doing and what it will mean for you later, can create space for something new.