How to Break a Habit: Mindlessness to Mindfulness

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
Mahatma Gandhi

In this very moment, how might the assumptions you make, the thoughts running through your mind, and the actions you take create the fundamental nature of who you truly are? It’s easy to brush off our knee-jerk reactions, to ignore the way we fidget, or place no great importance on those little behaviors that we perform so habitually that they seem completely out of our control.

If you’ve ever sat through a long meeting with someone whose knee is incessantly bobbing up and down, you might have wondered how on earth that person could be unaware of what he or she is doing. After all, it’s “obvious,” right? The fascinating part is that the whole reason this other person’s habitual behavior is so obvious to you is because you are the observer.

What happens when you’re the one acting out a habitual behavior or attitude that’s readily apparent to other people… but not to you? You’re probably aware of some of these habits because other people have told you how you tend you to tap your fingers on the table, pick at your nails, or interrupt during conversations. If you have a habit that you’d like to break, the first step is increasing awareness.

Impulsiveness & Mindlessness

If you’re struggling to come up with a specific habit that you’d like to actively change, take a moment to reflect on situations where you tend to react impulsively. In other words, situations where you’re more likely to engage in mindlessness than mindfulness. Consider the following examples of situations and potential reactive behaviors:

  • Driving home from work when someone cuts you off… yelling at the other driver… feeling angry.
  • Sitting in a long meeting or class… thinking how boring it is… feeling disconnected or anxious.
  • Talking to a friend about his/her recent accomplishment… thinking about your recent failure… feeling envious or sad.
  • End of a busy, stressful, or exhausting day… self-soothing with food, drugs, or alcohol… feeling numb.

Now choose one of your personal habits that you would like to break. Does this habit become more apparent or intense during stressful times? It’s quite possible that the very habit you’d like to break is serving a useful function to you during these moments, even though it may not seem that way. Habitual ways of thinking and behaving tend to meet some kind of need… the trick is to identify what need your unwanted habit is meeting and find a healthier way to get that same need met.

For example, coming home after a stressful or overwhelming day might leave you feeling emotionally frazzled, drained, or anxious. The ways you’ve typically responded to this type of distress in the past is likely to increase the likelihood self-soothing in a similar way. Maybe you’ve learned to tolerate distress and self-soothe in healthy ways, such as taking a brisk walk, listening to uplifting music, meditating, or calling up a close friend. Then again, maybe you’ve learned to manage uncomfortable or intense emotions in unhealthy or self-destructive ways. The idea is not to judge your current habitual ways of coping as “good” or “bad,” but simply to evaluate whether or not it’s effective in the long-term.

Even though the rational part of your mind “knows” that eating high-calorie or unhealthy foods, taking drugs, or drinking alcohol won’t actually “fix” the stressful events of the day, some part of you has learned that these behaviors are effective in the moment for soothing your distress. In other words, however unhealthy the habits may be in the big picture, they still provide some temporary relief. It’s quite likely that you don’t enjoy the long-term consequences of these quick-fix self-medicating behaviors, but they’ve becoming so ingrained and habitual that it’s as if you’re acting on automatic pilot. If you’re ready and willing to do the work, earnest self-exploration and increasing self-awareness through mindfulness can bring about lasting change.

Increase Mindfulness of Your Habits

Consider how the habit you wish to break is impacting your life. Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • How does [habit] affect other people in my life?
  • What underlying needs are being met by [habit]?
  • When did I first start to [habit]?
  • What was going on in my life when I began to [habit]?
  • How would my life be different without [habit]?
  • Can I think of a time when I didn’t [habit]?
  • How does [habit] make me feel about myself?
  • What can I do instead of [habit]?

The next time you notice yourself in one of those familiar situations that seem to trigger the habitual pattern of thinking, feeling, or behaving that you’d like to change, simply notice that it’s happening. Bring your mindful awareness to the sensations in your body, the thoughts in your mind, and the emotions stirring inside of you. Remember that within each present moment you have the opportunity to choose an alternative way of responding to events… no matter how familiar they may be.

Try planning ahead for common situations where your unwanted habit tends to come up by creating a plan of action for how you will respond more effectively. Mindfulness provides a “space” within which you can look at yourself with clarity, acceptance, and openness… mindfulness allows you to become the observer of you! When you begin to truly notice familiar situational cues that trigger undesirable habits, you have the freedom to do something different.

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Niemiec, R. M. (2013). From Mindless to Mindful: Learn How to Make an Impact on One of Your Bad Habits. Psychology Today. Retrieved on August 8, 2013 from

Featured image: Tapping a Pencil by Rennett Stowe / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

1 Comment

  1. Carolyn on November 5, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    “Remember that within each present moment you have the opportunity to choose an alternative way of responding to events… no matter how familiar they may be.”

    I’m printing out this quote and putting it on my wall 🙂 Very helpful article!

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