How to Break a Habit, According to Neuroscience

If you’re having a hard time improving your habits, says neuroscientist Judson Brewer, tuning in to your inner reward system is key.

Adobe Stock/ Julia Tim

Q.

I’ve been struggling with my habits—trying to break some unhealthy ones, and make some healthier ones. I need some help staying the course though—why is this so hard?

A.

Let’s look at how the mind actually works when it comes to forming (and maintaining) habits. They have a simple, consistent formula: there’s a trigger, there’s an accompanying behavior, and there’s a result or reward.

Being in habit mode is like being on autopilot. So, first gear is recognizing what our habits are. Paying attention is second gear—exploring and understanding the rewards that come from our behaviors.

If we’re constantly checking our phones, for instance, we might compare the rewards of that behavior to how our live interactions with people feel. When we notice how our phones can pull our attention away from where we actually are, we might also notice that the reward value of checking our phones (say, every five minutes) diminishes further.

This is where mindfulness can help. So, what feels better? Responding to my phone? Or staying with the conversation I’m already in with this person sitting across from me?

Once we start to examine relative rewards, we naturally begin to recalibrate and change our behavior. And it’s not from forcing ourselves to change. It emerges from bringing kind, curious awareness to what we’re experiencing to alter our relationship to these all-too-human experiences

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