Bring Awareness to Your Habits for Lasting Change

A Letter from Hugh G. Byrne, PhD

Our lives revolve around our habits; studies show that almost half of our behaviors are habitual rather than intentional. Some, like brushing our teeth or putting on a seat belt in the car, are obviously helpful. Others, like eating or drinking unconsciously, driving aggressively, procrastinating, or spending hours online, can be much more of a problem.

Habits are hard to change because once a behavior is frequently repeated, it is assigned to faster-acting, instinctual, and automatic brain processes.

When these automatic responses are triggered by our environment (for example, time of day, place, people we’re with, emotions, etc.), we respond more immediately than to the slower-moving, intentional decisions from the prefrontal cortex.

This is why New Year’s resolutions are so notoriously unsuccessful; our intentions may be good, but they conflict with deeply grooved habit patterns—and the habits typically win out.

Mindfulness is a key to changing unhealthy habits because it brings the habit—and the conditions that spur it—into the light of awareness. We can then choose how to respond rather than acting automatically and unconsciously. And the choices we make can lead to greater happiness and well-being.

In my book, The Here-and-Now Habit, I provide a variety of skills and meditations to help bring awareness to our habits, and enable us to change them. Here is a practice of noting your experience that you can do almost anywhere—without judgment:

The ‘I am aware of’ meditation: Sit, stand, or lie comfortably and bring awareness to whatever you notice, making sure to name or note the sounds, sensations, emotions, thoughts, tastes, odors, and images that come into your awareness. You can say, ‘I am aware of X,’ or simply note whatever’s present. Here is part of a five-minute noting meditation I did in a coffee shop: “aware of tightness in my belly…song on the radio…pleasant feeling in response to the song…aware of voices…taste of coffee…creaking of the door opening and closing…thought that ‘they should oil the door’…high voice of barista…someone asks if she can sit down…I nod and smile ‘yes’…pleasant song on radio…wondering who the singer is…creaking door…tightness in belly in response to creaking…song…creaking…thinking how quickly coffee shop has filled up…”

What's great about this practice is that nothing is 'wrong' if we can simply be aware of it and note it. We can step out of autopilot into awareness of our direct experience—where we can make healthy choices.

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