Bad Habits Thrive on Autopilot – Mindfulness is the Antidote

The brain is a habit-making machine!

Every time I do something that brings pleasure, the brain lays down some tracks to help me remember that good feeling. For example, a coworker gives me a couple of Dove Chocolates, and I take them back to my desk. I get back to work, and things are humming along nicely until I get a distressing email. I start to feel the anger rising, and then I notice the chocolate and pop one into my mouth.


A burst of pleasure rushes, the anger relaxes a little bit, and I go back to work until the next distressing email comes in. I remember that burst of flavor and the corresponding good feeling, and I decide to try that again.

It doesn’t take long before the brain gets used to this action. Being a pretty lazy organ, the brain says, “We know how this goes; let’s just cut out the wasted time and effort of thinking in between the distressing email and the relief of the chocolate.” Let’s be efficient and go right from A—the upsetting email to B—the chocolate, and ta-da! we have a habit. Before we even notice, we’ve gained 10 pounds.

Chocolate is a simple example, but this can happen with any number of self-defeating behaviors and addictions: smoking, drinking, negative self-talk, anger, going on Facebook, or checking email excessively.

What is a habit?

According to Sarah McKay, “Habits are behaviors or thoughts so strongly wired into our brain that we can and do perform them without thinking.”

We have hundreds of habits, and they can actually help us out a lot. When we ride a bike, it’s out of habit. When we drive a car or type a report, our feet, hands and fingers know just where to go because it’s a habit. When a habit is forming, the brain doesn’t differentiate between good and bad; it just figures that if it brings us pleasure, it must be good.

All habits, “the good, the neutral and the bad,” have the same defining characteristics:

1. They are triggered by a particular cue or situation
2. They are learned behaviors repeated over time
3. We do them on autopilot – below conscious awareness
4. They are hard to break!

How can we rewire our brains to change those self-defeating bad habits? Mindfulness is the key!

Through mindfulness, we can work with our habits to create change.

1. We can be mindful of the trigger. Instead of just saying, “I won’t have that chocolate,” we can bring awareness to and recognize what triggers our craving. We can put a sign on our computer screen that reminds us that difficult emails are a cue for us to eat chocolate.

2. We can learn a new behavior, form a new habit. Knowing that the brain likes pleasure, we can find a new behavior that feels good, and do that instead. We can take three deep breaths, call a friend, or listen to a few bars of our favorite song.

3. We can step out of autopilot and use what Kelly McGonigal calls, “I will, I won’t, and I want power.” According to Kelly, we have three kinds of will power:

    • I will do this other, healthier behavior instead (Breathe)
    • I won’t have that chocolate (STOP)
    • I want to live a healthier lifestyle (Remember our values)

4. Lastly, we can remember that changing bad habits is hard work. Every single one of us benefit from our good habits and struggle with our bad habits. Know that you are not alone, and when you end up having that chocolate anyway, that you are in good company. Research has shown that people who are more self-compassionate (who forgive themselves when they slip) are more likely to change.

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