How to break a habit or pattern

Oct 18, 2023 | Change, Confidence

What’s in a habit?

We all have some habitual thoughts or behaviors we kinda wish we didn’t, right?

Maybe it’s a habit of checking the phone, scrolling social media, interrupting people, or snacking on junk food. Or maybe it’s a recurring thought pattern, like we’re going to embarrass ourselves, aren’t any good at X, or we have to be perfect. We all have them.

Something becomes a habit when we do it so frequently that we don’t think about it anymore. We don’t have to because our neural pathways for it are so well-worn that it happens automatically – like brushing our teeth or tying our shoes.

But what becomes a habit can start to work against us, affecting how we feel, how we act, and keeping us stuck.

For instance, if I automatically think I can’t speak or try something unless I’m perfect, I’m probably not going to speak or try that thing because perfect is unattainable. And then I’m confirming in my mind that I’m not good enough.

The power to change a habit

Just because something’s become a habit doesn’t mean we can’t change it.

Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to create new neural connections, is the hope and basis of change. If our brains can change, so can we.

We have the power to redirect a habit, which is just a pattern of well-worn neural pathways.

The habit loop

Neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer breaks down the cycle of habit formation into 3 steps. First, there’s a cue, or what I would call a trigger. This could be a challenging person, a high-level meeting, or seeing your phone.

Second, there’s a routine. This is the behavior – and I would add the thought and emotion – that’s prompted by the trigger. For instance, you freeze or leave; you think you have to be perfect or say nothing; or you scroll social media.

Finally, there’s a reward. The brain creates the habit when the routine results in positive reinforcement or a desired outcome.

Even for unwanted habits, there’s always a reward. Typically the perceived reward is avoiding some kind of pain, like the pain of rejection or embarrassment; or it’s a short-term reward (e.g., distraction from discomfort).

Dr. Brewer points out that even anxiety, which often keeps us from change, follows this habit loop. (For more, check out Dr. Brewer’s website.)

Interrupting the habit loop

Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

That space that Frankl talks about is present-moment awareness, and it’s how we stop the habit loop.

We create that space with a pause. Deep breaths can help, as can noticing your body – your feet on the floor or seat in the chair.

Then, instead of following the thought or pattern, we observe it – like stepping outside and seeing it objectively.

Then we can get curious. What’s the thought or feeling? What purpose is it serving? What sensations do I notice in the body when I pause?

And finally, what do I want to choose now?

The choice that comes from awareness is – as Frankl said – where our growth and freedom lie.

And by the way, pausing in present-moment awareness not only pauses the neural habit loop, but helps connect to an area of the brain associated with self-regulation. (It’s also why it’s the core principle of my framework for change.)

This awareness, which can also be called mindfulness, is such a powerful tool that Dr. Brewer found in a study that it was “twice as good as gold standard therapy at helping people quit smoking”!

So it’s not woo-woo; it’s neuroscience, and it works!

Practice builds the new habit

Don’t forget, just as the old pattern developed over time, so the new pattern is built with practice and time.

But like building a path in the snow, it gets easier each time you return.

Practice not for perfection, but for change!

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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