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The Secret to Breaking Bad Habits: Mindfulness!

Habits, to me, are an inexhaustibly interesting phenomenon. But whilst we’ve talked a lot about building new habits, it’s worth taking a moment to gain some perspective on those bad habits – and how to break them.

The answer to this question is, in itself, a multi-million-dollar industry. There are an infinite number of programmes that promise to help you stop eating so much junk food. Thousands of books promising to be the one to get you to quit smoking. There are probably even more courses on breaking bad habits than there are bad habits themselves.

Yet, here’s a little bit of advice for free! Over recent years, people – and scientists – have become more and more intrigued by this practice known as mindfulness, the entering into a state of bodily, emotional, and mental awareness in the present moment.

It’s a hugely interesting tool that has got me increasingly convinced. And, although there are these days probably as many mindfulness courses as there are habit-breaking lessons, this practice has a lot to teach us about bad habits in life and work.

What is Mindfulness?

Generally, we move through life thinking about one thing after another: the next task or meeting, what we’re having for lunch or dinner, or how uncomfortable our trousers are or our new pair of shoes. We’re endlessly bombarded with sensations which, as I discussed here, we generally ignore or take no time to explore.

And this is what mindfulness seeks to redress. It’s about taking the time to be aware of these sensations, both the external ones – noises, temperatures, and smells – and the internal, our feelings, thoughts, and physiological tickles. It seeks to put our minds in the here and now, and to make space for that presence without the overwhelm of stress, plans, and reaction.

In general, this technique has been used to treat mental health problems – including depression and anxiety – and has been found to improve people’s body satisfaction, improve memory, and reduce stress.

Already, it strikes me as quite a powerful tool in lots of ways. But wait until you hear what it can do for bad habits!

How Mindfulness Can Help Break Bad Habits.

In a TED talk from a few years ago, the psychiatrist and addiction specialist, Judson Brewer, reports, from his research, a case of a lifelong smoker.

A study of his investigated the role of mindfulness in helping people quit smoking. The idea was a little counterintuitive. Rather than telling them to quit smoking, the researchers told the participants to go, smoke, but to think quite carefully about the process and feeling of smoking whilst they were doing it.

Rather than thinking about their environment, their peers, or whatever, their motivations were for taking up smoking in the first place, the participants were to pay attention to the taste of the smoke, the feeling of craving that precedes smoking, and the way that a cigarette makes them feel.

The response of many, it seems, was ‘yuck!’. Because whilst smoking normally, people didn’t really focus on the way that cigarettes actually made them feel. They just, rather, smoked. Simple as that.

But when they mindfully thought about what smoking actually was, when, to use Brewer’s term, they became ‘curiously aware’ of what the experience was, they realised that they didn’t really like it at all. They realised, in the terms of habit formation, they weren’t actually getting the reward they were after.

Since then, it seems that the efficacy of mindfulness in quitting smoking is becoming more effective than traditional methods.

Mindfulness in Business?

So, whilst mindfulness may work for smoking cessation, I hear you ask, what actually are its applications in the workplace? As we’ve seen before, business is full of bad habits – and where mindfulness to break bad habits in one context, it can sure work for another too.

Because, honestly, people need to understand that they don’t actually need to spend their days dead stressed. They don’t need to do over and over tasks that they don’t enjoy. They don’t need to be working harder and ever harder until they collapse.

These are all bad habits that people do have in work. Yet, we don’t notice them as bad habits – as unhealthy patterns of behaviour – because they are so normalised. Becoming mindful of our states of being in these contexts can help us to understand how work can work for us – and how unhealthy or obstructive behaviours are driven by particular triggers or emotions.

How to Get Mindful at Work.

At work, we can be so caught up in the everyday tasks that we don’t even notice how we are feeling. And this, for obvious reasons, is not ideal.

So, in moments throughout the day, take a break. (And this doesn’t mean running downstairs to quickly drink a coffee.) Take a moment in which you train yourself to get mindful. Ask yourself what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Become aware of how you feel.

Why are you obsessively refreshing your email? Why have you just snapped at your employee? The chances are that these aren’t one-off behaviours, but silly habits that you’ve accumulated through stress, tiredness, or boredom.

So, try to be mindful. Because, if business-people can start getting mindful at work, they can work smarter and more productively – and more happily. And with a bit of conscious thought, break bad habits for good.