How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

Your habits, either good or bad, define you, and we’ve all tried breaking bad habits at one point. They are repeated glimpses into your character, and although good habits can propel you forward, bad habits can pull you back.

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

So how do you make good habits and break bad habits? The first step is understanding how habits work. Whether you want to improve your fitness, eat better, or strengthen your relationships, all habits follow the same psychological pattern: the “habit loop”.

The Habit Loop

About fifty percent of your daily actions are controlled by your habits. From the moment you wake up to the second you fall asleep, everything you do is automatic – a constant loop.

The habit loop is made up of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue acts as a signal, which triggers an automated routine that leads to a reward. Whenever you receive the cue, your brain instantly recalls the reward and restarts the routine.

Once you become aware of the habit loop and the psychology of habits, it makes it easier to change your habits or start new ones.

Breaking Bad Habits

To start a new habit or change an undesirable habit, you need to keep the reward and cue, but change the routine.

1. Identify the Routine

Do you want to limit your snacking? Start exercising regularly? Or, perhaps, be less pessimistic? The first step is identifying the routine you wish to change or establish. Afterwards, you can begin experimenting with different, yet equally satisfying, rewards.

2. Identify the Reward

Identifying the reward is easy – cookies, entertainment, predictability – but addressing the craving behind it can be slightly more challenging.

If you want to change your snacking habits, for instance, then you need to examine why you keep reaching for that box of cookies.

3. Identify the Cue

What’s triggering your craving? And is there a better, more positive, way to reward it?

According to researchers, almost all cues can be grouped into these five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately-preceding action. For example, you might find that your urge to snack usually appears at around 3:00PM when you’re feeling tired at work.

4. Change the Routine

Now that you’ve identified the cue and reward, you can start changing the routine. One of the simplest ways to accomplish this is by using “if-then” phrases. These statements are clear intentions that link your cues to certain actions, effectively disrupting your previous routine.

Regarding the snacking example, you might learn that, after trying out different rewards, you’re actually craving an energy boost – not cookies. Through experimentation, you may have also found that an invigorating 10-minute walk helped to boost your energy levels. Your “if-then” phrase would look similar to this: “If I feel tired at 3:00PM, then I will go outside and walk for 10 minutes.” This intention will change your routine, giving you a new – and more beneficial – reward for your cue.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Breaking bad habits starts with an understanding of how habits work. When you do this, you change your bad habits into good habits or implement new ones.

But as exciting as it may be to embark on a new change, patience is essential. Every habit is unique, and some habits may require more time to fully develop than others. The most important thing is to remain consistent and positive. Keep the habit loop on repeat.

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

Though it doesn’t exactly bode well for my looming deadline, it’s rather pertinent that as I write this, I’m searching for words through a soupy brain fog—all because I decided today was the day I’d finally break my caffeine habit. Six hours and two cups of coffee in (down from my usual five), I’m getting a firsthand look at how complex—and often, head-achingly difficult—unraveling our most concrete rituals can be.

Think about it: We often talk about the diligence required to establish a habit in the first place. In simplistic terms, we have to rewire our brains in order for an action to become a ritual, a process that requires consistency and some semblance of a reward. But I’ve noticed that this conversation often implies that “losing” the habit is all too easy. And while that may be somewhat true during the formation process, in reality, once the habit is established, we have to do more rewiring to convince our brains that we no longer need that ritual. And that’s especially true for habits that feed heavily into the brain’s reward system—like, say, regular caffeine consumption.

That’s why going cold turkey is often unsustainable—it’s an oversimplified solution to a pretty complex feedback loop. So how do we hack our own brains to disrupt the cycle? To find out more about the best way to break a habit, I spoke with New York–based psychologist Heather Silvestri, Ph.D. Find her pointers below.

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

But first, get to knowВ the habit loop.

In order to learn how to break a habit, it’s useful to know how they’re formed in the first place. “Habits form via a psychological pattern called The Habit Loop,” explains Silvestri. “This loop follows a specific sequence: cue, routine, reward.”

Basically, when you engage in an action repeatedly, your brain starts to go into autopilot, shifting gears from your prefrontal cortex (the decision-making part of the organ) to the basal ganglia, a “lower” brain structure responsible for motor movement, routine habit, and emotion. “Your brain is conserving mental energy by dimming the purposeful activity of the prefrontal cortex, and this frees you up to do other things, like focus on a conversation while driving,” says Silvestri.

But the key element in this loop—the part that reminds your brain to come back for more—is the reward system. “The final step in the loop is the one that incentivizes the behavior by providing a reward, and interestingly, the basal ganglia factors prominently in your brain’s reward system,” says Silvestri. “Awash in a cocktail of pleasurable neurotransmitters, your brain earmarks the cue as one associated with both the dimming of the decision-making centers of your brain and a rewarding experience. Now the sequence is swimming in incentive and likely to repeat with automaticity: a habit you have now formed.”

So how do we disrupt the habit loop?

The most effective approach is to break down the loop piece by piece. “The best way to break a bad habit is to remove the cues and rewards,” says Silvestri. “Without the cue, your brain doesn’t go on autopilot, and you can consciously choose to do something else. When you remove the reward, the bad habit isn’t incentivized anymore and it’s much easier to resist.”

You can follow the three-pronged strategy below at any time, but fun fact: “The best time to break a bad habit is when you’re on vacation because you have a blank slate of cues and rewards to play with,” says Silvestri.

Step 1: Know your triggers.

Aside from naming the habit you’d like to break, of course, is identifying your potential triggers so that you can disrupt the “cue” part of the feedback loop. I’ll use my own caffeine addiction as an example: I know that I tend to up my coffee intake when I had a bad night’s sleep and/or have a stressful day at work. Just knowing this already puts my brain back into decision-making mode, so I can do something more productive than absentmindedly reaching for more cold brew. It also helps me sidestep those triggers by going to bed earlier or playing around with other stress-management techniques, like breathing exercises or taking a walk. Which brings us to our next step…

Step 2: Employ substitute behavior.

Ditching a habit with no kind of replacement is a great way to engage in some anxious hand-wringing before giving into said habit. We need some distraction, and it needs to be productive. (Otherwise, we’re trading one bad habit for another.) In my case, I might start by swapping a couple of my usual cups of coffee for caffeine-free beverages that are still energizing: a smoothie with adaptogenic herbs, for example, or a turmeric latte. The point is to have a go-to something when you feel the urge to give into your dying habit. Go for a walk. Call your mom. Open up Headspace. Choose something healthy that will still light up the reward part of your brain.

Step 3: Rethink your rewards.

“I always instruct people to be conscious and thoughtful about the rewards, reflecting on how and why the experience feels pleasurable,” says Silvestri. In other words, ask yourself: What am I really getting out of this habit? Sure, coffee gives me a quick boost of energy. But is it worth the sleepless nights and constant edginess?

Once we start to question this part of the loop, it gets easier to replace the habit with something that will reward us in a more meaningful way. “So much of establishing a behavior as a habit has to do with maintaining an intrinsic connection to it so that it doesn’t slip into a thing that’s happening to you, or worse, one that you have to do but don’t want to do,” says Silvestri.

So even if it’s a little more complex than just saying “I’m done with this!” remember that in the end, it’s just about reestablishing autonomy over your own mind—even if it takes a little self-hacking to get there.

Science reveals how to overcome six common compulsive behaviors. Hint: It’s not about willpower.

“I’ve done it since I was a kid.” “I guess I’m just not going to change.” If there’s one thing we know about habits—our routine patterns of behavior—it’s that they’re tough to break. That’s because whether they’re helpful (brushing our teeth every night before bed) or potentially harmful (biting our nails), they become hardwired into our brains. “Something acts as a trigger, you react with a certain behavior, you get a reward, and you repeat it,” says Judson Brewer, a neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts. All habits, good or bad, follow this loop. And the stronger the loop is, the harder it is to break.

To understand how a habit forms, picture two areas of the brain. In the limbic system, the basal ganglia help us do things like drive a car and tie our shoes. The prefrontal cortex is the key to solving complex problems and making intentional decisions. By design, the uberefficient basal ganglia make many of our daily tasks automatic, freeing up the prefrontal cortex for learning new things (and overriding old tendencies). The hitch? The brain clings to its habit loops—which means changing a habit requires much more effort than acting without thinking does.

But we’re far from stuck. “We now know that at almost every level, the brain can modify itself,” says Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Until recently, many psychologists preached willpower (I will not bite my nails) and deprivation (I’m not buying anything I don’t need for a month). That rigidity has been supplanted by an approach that outsmarts the brain’s own wiring. Whether by eliminating a trigger or providing an alternative reward, you can nudge the brain into different behavior. Brewer says, “The idea is to hack the system.”

(Customize your own walking plan with Walk Your Way to Better Health and lose up to 5x more belly fat! )

Some habitual behavior needs treatment by a medical professional. But for everyday habits, hacking the loop makes the transformation gentler and the result more likely to stick. Here’s how to bust six common behaviors: overspending, constant cell-phone checking, hair twirling, nail biting, gum snapping, and chronic lateness.

Forming a new habit is highly personal — but researchers have found a common thread in ones that stick: a 3-step process called the Habit Loop.

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

Oct 24, 2019 · 4 min read

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

Not-so-fun fact: 80% of New Year’s resolutions “fail” in the first 30 days. And though it’s often said that it takes “22 days to form a new habit,” studies show it actually ranges from 18–254 depending on the type of habit we’re trying to make (or break). In other words, change is hard, and there’s no one-size-fits-all method to make something stick.

But there is some good news: The same r esearchers who found that it can take nearly 9 months to form a habit also noted that missing an opportunity here and there to complete the desired behavior “did not materially affect the habit formation process” (whew!). And other studies have concluded that incorporating reward is key to creating a positive feedback loop that lasts in the long-term (bonus!).

In short, one of the keys to forming a new habit is reframing failure and reinforcing success. But first, how do we know when a habit is “formed”?

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

Started from the cortex now we’re here

New behaviors that we still have to think about and remind ourselves of happen in our prefrontal cortex, the “decision-making” and “monitoring” part of the brain. But, after we repeat an action often enough, it becomes second-nature; it moves to our “lizard brain,” a layman’s term for the basal ganglia, a region of the brain that controls our instinctual behaviors like eating, sex, and survival.

If the habit is a physical action — our very movements may flow together and feel more coordinated and fluid, a phenomenon that MIT neurologist Dr. Ann Graibel called “action chunking.”

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

An activity becomes a “habit” when starts to feel easy or automatic; we no longer have to “decide” to floss our teeth, we just do it.

The Habit Loop is the fastest route to our lizard brain
Graybiel’s research was instrumental to “classifying components of a habit,” including the discovery of The Habit Loop, a 3-part cycle including a cue, a routine, and a reward.

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

  • The routine is the behavior you want to instill or change.
  • The cue is the thing that triggers the behavior (be it positive or negative). If we want to stop eating junk food, the cue might be stress or skipping a meal. If we want to start meditating every morning, the cue might be an alarm clock reminder.
  • The reward is the thing that positively reinforces this behavior. For example, when a marketing team found that consumers “desired a fresh scent at the end of a cleaning ritual,” they created a product that skips right to the good part: Febreeze.

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

Experiment with what works for you

Not all rewards work for all people — and the same goes for cues (I’ve blown through at least 3 warning post-it notes stuck to a clear glass door and had the goose eggs to prove it).

Test some different rewards and cues to see what sticks: A reward for getting up early to work out maybe buying a special latte, or just pausing to thank yourself for taking care of your body. Just make sure you reward yourself immediately after finishing the routine so your brain knows to connect the two.

When trying to break a habit, identify the cue that’s causing it is key. If you’re oversleeping, is it because you’re tired, or because you dread going to the workout? If the former, try going to bed earlier. If the latter, it might be time to find a new gym or instructor.

Pro habit hack: “Habit stack”

Research shows that “habit stacking,” or chaining a new activity to another already-established routine, makes both easier to stick to (like putting your umbrella next to your keys).

Studies also suggest that once you find a cue and reward that works for you, keeping them and the routine itself consistent (including the time of day) is important to success.

And as far as reframing failure? Try not to think of the fact that habits can take much longer than a month to form as daunting. As one writer put it, this reality is simply an “invitation to start slow and small,” and welcome missteps as a part of the experimentation process.

The Point: We’re all great at punishing ourselves for tiny mistakes. Don’t forget to reward yourself for the tiny wins, too.

Check out our upcoming drop-in mental fitness classes to work on reframing failure and retraining your brain with improv-thinking!

Are a few Bad Habits sabotaging your Healthy Diet? It is often the case that our attempts to commit to healthy living, and healthy eating, are corrupted by a few vices. If not for these “leaks”, our goals would seem much more achievable. So the question hangs in the air before us: “How do we break the bad habits?”

The following excerpt is from a fantastic article by Senior Editor Maria Heart. Her article is a first person description of how, after numerous attempts to quit her destructive diet soda habit, she finally prevailed!

…Seeing the Light: My 5th and Final Attempt

What was different this time? I turned to science. I started studying the pattern of habits. Habits are largely unconscious, which is why they’re so hard to break. Your brain is so used to treading the same path that it’s hard to forge new ones. That goes double for something that’s a daily habit, which has worn deep grooves into your brain’s carpet. The trouble with stopping that behavior is you’ve already conditioned your unconscious mind, which is almost impossible to undo.

I read Charles Dunhigg’s book The Power of Habit, and I started to understand something he calls “the habit loop.” In the book, Dunhigg breaks down the unconscious cycle of habit into three steps: cue, routine, and reward. Subtle cues we read during the day will trigger our behavior and that in turn will give us a reward. The reward cements the behavior loop. That means once we see the cue, our brain has already hit fast-forward, and it’s reaching for that treat. Often you’re not even aware of these cues, you just find yourself surrounded by empty husks of diet soda all over your desk (to use an entirely random example).

The bad news is once the habit loop is in place, it’s incredibly difficult to dismantle. But there’s hope. You can hack the habit loop. The key is to keep the same behavior and reward, but change the routine.

Hacking the Habit Loop

Dunhigg uses the example of Alcoholics Anonymous. Here’s what an alcoholic’s habit loop looks like according to Dunhigg:

Cue: Tough day at the office.
Routine: Hit the bar HARD. Shots! Sing-a-longs! The bartender so gets me.
Reward: Feeling good, supported, and stress-free.

Now the alcoholic joins AA:

Cue: Tough day at the office.
Routine: Hit AA. Stories! Donuts! My sponsor so gets me.
Reward: Feeling good, supported, and stress-free.

Now, my habit isn’t as damaging as alcoholism, but it’s easy to apply the same principles.

Here’s my typical diet soda run:

Cue: Tough day at work, I look up from my inbox to see it’s 4 p.m., diet soda o’clock. Time for a treat!
Routine: Walk away from my desk to the vending machine. Crack open a cold can.
Reward: Ahh! Sweet, sweet soda. Pleasure centers in the brain light up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

My mission was to keep the same habit, but replace the outcome. Afternoon “treat time” could not be undone. But it could be another routine.

My problem: The reward needed to be the same. That’s when I took a hard look at diet soda itself.

Breaking Down the Formula: Bubbles and Sugar and Caffeine, Oh My!

What could give me that same kick in the prefrontal cortex? I examined the formula and tried to replace those components. In diet soda, I get three things: bubbles, a sweet treat, and caffeine. Finding all three in a natural beverage was tricky. But I could find a substitute for each. Seltzer could give me my festive bubbles, iced tea or coffee my caffeine and milky-sugary additions to that would be my sweet treat.

Real talk: That last one wasn’t exactly healthy. When I first started hacking my habit loop, I was basically swapping diet soda for cake-in-a-cup: I drank coffee or tea with a giant splash of milk and heaps of sugar. But, it was all natural, and that was my starting point. Step by step, I pulled back on the sugar, swapped in almond milk, and my treat became a bit more healthy.

This took time. My brain was wired for a big wallop of sweet, and yanking that away wouldn’t give me the reward I expected. The game plan was to shift my palate slowly so I’d still “read” the beverage as my treat and my brain would be fully fooled.

Meet My New Habit Loop

My reward in place, I subbed in my new routine into my habit loop. It unfolded like this:

Cue: Tough day at work, I look up from my inbox to see it’s 4 p.m., iced tea o’clock. Time for a treat!
Routine: Walk away from my desk to the coffee shop. Grab an iced tea with a splash of almond milk and some Stevia.
Reward: Ahh! Sweet, sweet iced tea. Pleasure centers in the brain light up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

= Success!

Yes, my fellow diet soda fiends, the system works. Miraculously my brain picked up this new flight pattern knowing the reward would be waiting, and I managed to dupe myself into my new MacGruber-ed faux diet soda. The happy ending is that years later I can confidently say I’m in diet soda remission. I can walk past the vending machine with my head held high.

“To all the other diet soda fiends out there I can say: it gets better.”

And to all of you out there trying to break a bad eating habit… Following Maria’s road map for success may just get you where you want to go too.

Are you thinking about how to stop smoking weed? If you smoke marijuana, it probably started out slow with only one or two joints a few times a week. After a while your weed habit grew to several joints every day and before you knew it, you were addicted.

Breaking the marijuana habit can be a complicated experience. You may spend time with friends who also smoke marijuana and put pressure on you to do the same. Turning to drugs could be an emotional crutch that you have used in times of great stress.

Breaking chemical dependency has to be your choice. Do this for yourself, not your family or your friends. Not owning your own addiction and recovery is one of the main reasons addicts relapse and slip into their old habits. Once you have made this choice, an easy ten step program will be helpful in breaking your marijuana addiction.

How to stop smoking weed

These steps should be as follows:

1. Removal: This step is very important and will be crucial to your success. Remove all weed and its facilitating instruments such as bongs, wrapping papers, and ashtrays.

2. Find a support group: Drug addiction is not only physical, it is mental as well. Finding a support group is an easy way of ensuring that you are victorious in breaking the habit.

3. Evaluate your friends: When trying to kick the marijuana habit it is important to hang around people who will support your choice, not hinder it. Having friends who do drugs or sell them is not going to be a good influence on a recovering addict. Be honest these people are probably not real friends anyway.

4. Find something to do: When breaking the weed habit, filling in the void is critical. You need to replace the unhealthy habit with an activity that feeds your mind and soul. This may be a good time to take a class, or just to read a good book. The main point is to find something you enjoy.

5. Get healthy: Smoking weed takes a big toll on your overall health. It affects your lung function and suppresses your central nervous system. Start a new exercise program and remember to eat lot of fruits and vegetables, as well as drinking plenty of water. You will be amazed at how much better you will be feeling within a short period of time.

6. Involve your family in your recovery: Be honest with yourself, your family loves you and wants what is best for you. Involving them in your treatment will give you another outlet of support, and it will also help them to understand what you are going through.

7. Stay positive: When kicking the weed habit you are bound to have some low moments. This is the time to remind yourself why you chose to quit, and how much better things will be without marijuana. Remember, these feelings are normal and won’t last forever.

8. Self praise: Celebrate those little milestones by treating yourself to something. It doesn’t have to be big, just a reminder to yourself that you are doing great.

9. Volunteer: Spending time with others who need help can be an aid in your own recovery. Nursing homes and hospitals always need help.

10. Look forward to tomorrow: Tomorrow will be easier than today. The day after will be even easier. You will be more knowledgeable tomorrow than you are today. You gain something every day and the future brings you even more.

Take it one day at a time, appreciate the insight that you have gained from being alive and sober today. This 10 point approach usually enough to quit smoking weed for good, but if you need additional help, I suggest you to check out this guide.

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, the idea of the habit loop was a quintessential part of the narrative. The idea of the habit loop is that every habit is made up of three essential parts, the cue (or trigger), the routine, and the reward. For me, the idea led to a simplified concept of how habits form. In this article I will talk about the three separate parts of the habit loop and also address how to create new habits or replace old habits using the idea of habit loops.

The Cue, Routine, and Reward

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

The cue is the trigger that tells your brain to go into cruise control (automatic mode) and ushers a specific routine. The cue can be a person, place, thing, or even emotion. I had a gambling problem for a few years and my cue was both emotional and locational. My emotional cue was when I worried about money. My locational cue was whenever I drive by a casino.

The routine is the second part of this three-part loop. The routine is an action that can be mental, emotional, or physical. This is what really makes a habit, a habit.

The reward is what makes doing the routine worthwhile, in your brain’s opinion. A reward may not seem like a “reward” on its surface, especially if your habits cause you financial, physical, or emotional pain. But your brain thinks of it as a reward; and rewards are what keep habits going. It’s that shot of endorphins (a “feel-good” chemical) you get every time you perform the routine. The reward is what helps your brain figure out if this loop is worth remembering and repeating in the future. Runners who get “runner’s high” actually get a shot of endorphins after a run—that’s the reward. Gamblers get the same chemical reaction in the brain when they gamble. Even the act of checking your e-mail can give someone the same shot of endorphins, even though doing so does not feel like a form of reward.

Breaking the Habit Loop and Creating New Habits

You can never really eradicate habits, per se. This partially explains why it is so hard to create new exercise or eating habits. Once you develop your routine of flopping on the couch after work and unhealthy eating, these neurological patterns remain inside the head, and never really go away. However, what you can do is build new neurological patterns that overpower old neurological patterns. If we can build a routine to exercise right after getting off of work instead of flopping on the couch, then the routine of exercising will often win the battle.

The inability to completely eradicate habits also helps us explain why extended vacations can sometimes wreak havoc on our new habits. Being on vacation for a couple of weeks allows your old unhealthy habits, such as eating junk food and not exercising, to surface and potentially overpower newer competing habits. This happens when the new habits have not developed a deep enough pattern in the brain and when you fall back into old habits during vacations. Vacations are horrible enablers.

The lesson here is that you can disrupt a habit by replacing the routine in the habit loop, while keeping the same cue and reward. That is how you “break” habits. You keep the cue and the reward essentially the same; all you have to do is replace the routine. For instance, if you want to quit smoking, instead of smoking (the routine) when you have a craving brought on by stress (the cue), you can go for a jog instead or talk to someone. And similarly, if you want to start a new habit, all you have to do is create or identify a cue that will initiate a routine.

In the illustration below, we get to see the old habit loop of an alcoholic. In the picture to the left, we see the cue is stress, which leads to the routine of alcohol use, leading to a reward of relaxation and feeling better. In the picture to the right, we keep the cue and the reward the same, but we just change the routine, and thereby breaking the habit of resorting to alcohol to solve problems.

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

With that said, identifying a cue and reward is often not enough to create a habit. Only when your brain begins to crave and expect this reward or a sense of accomplishment (the endorphins) does a new habit truly form. So only when you crave the runner’s high will running truly become an ingrained habit. Research says it takes 66 days to create a new habit but I say do it until you begin to crave the reward. It’s easy after that.

A practice for recognizing when our habit loops flare, and observing what happens in our mind and our body when that happens.

  • By Judson Brewer
  • April 2, 2019
  • Mindful Meditation

How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

We’re going to be exploring how our minds work and how to work with our minds.

We form habits in a very specific way, which is great news. It means this is a system that can be observed, examined, and even altered. But first we need to understand how it all works.

In these four sessions, we’ll begin by learning how a habit gets formed in the mind and body. We’ll get more concrete in the second session, exploring habits that are formed around eating. Then, in the third session, we will work with habits around our cell phones. In the fourth and final session we will examine more closely the habits formed specifically around stress and anxiety.

The goal here is to first understand the mechanics and observe them at work in our mind and body; then, by bringing awareness, and injecting curiosity and kindness into the process, we look at specific habits we might have. We might even manage to change a few habits in the process. But the first and most important thing is to get better at recognizing when our habit loops flare, and get good at observing what happens in our mind and our body when that happens.

These explorations are cumulative, so I encourage you to do them in order. Understanding the mechanics of how habits get formed is the subject of this first practice—and this prepares you for the greater challenge of working with specific habits around food, phones, and stress.

What is a Habit Loop?

Let’s look at how the mind actually works when it comes to forming (and maintaining) habits. In fact, let’s call them habit loops. They have a pretty simple, and consistent, formula: there’s a trigger; there’s an accompanying behavior ; and there’s a result or reward.

For example, let’s look at habits that get formed around smoking cigarettes: There could be stress (trigger) that moves someone to go outside for a cigarette (behavior); and then, for a brief time, that initial stress is reduced (reward). Our brains simply recognize that a particular behavior—in this case, smoking—alleviates, however briefly, the feelings that the initial trigger sparks in us. So with that reward of lowered stress, the brain says, essentially: go do that behavior again.

Trouble is, smoking the cigarette does not fix the root of the problem. That smoker still has to go back in to face his unruly classroom or her angry boss or that looming deadline. But what does get reinforced is the behavior—and all it takes is that little bit of stress relief that keeps us going back to the perceived stress reliever, in this case the cigarette.

So, what we want to begin doing with this practice is learn to raise our awareness of our own habit loops and get more adept at observing their mechanics. It’s helpful to think in terms of gears here: Being in habit mode is like being on autopilot—we go through our day, habitually reacting to whatever stimuli we encounter. But first gear is recognizing what our habits are. And this basic practice can help you get there.

Hack Your Brain’s Habit Loops

Watch the video:

Listen to the practice:

Hacking Your Brain’s Habit Loops

Read the practice:

  1. Get comfortable and anchored in your physical body. You can be standing, sitting or lying down for this practice; aim for being at ease and alert. Bring your awareness to the physical sensations in your body or your breath—whatever is most available and predominant for you. Be curious. For example, ask yourself: what does my breath feel like right now?

Become aware of any thoughts that are arising. Maybe you’re encountering a few triggers already: thoughts spurring you to think about the past or the future; regrets, fantasies, planning for next week or anticipating your next vacation. Each time a trigger-like thought arises, simply note it as “trigger” or “thinking.” If you wake up in the midst of a fantasy, regret, worry or thought, note that as “thinking” as well. Check in with the attitude of your mind from time to time, too: Am I resisting thoughts or trying to make them go away? Am I holding on to certain thoughts? If that’s the case, simply notice resistance or holding on or craving. See if you can bring a truly curious attitude to it all as opposed to judgment. That way, you’ll be primed to really investigate and notice what thought streams arise rather than get caught up in them.

  • Become aware of any type of habit loop that arises. As you grow in awareness of your physical sensations and your thoughts, plant in this mind-stream an aspiration to look out for any type of habit loop. Maybe a craving has occurred to you? Maybe a desire to check your phone? If noticing triggers or habit loops or specific mental behaviors seems too much, simply stay grounded in the physical sensations of your breath or your body.
  • Our minds are set to form habits through a trigger-behaviour-reward system. See how many different habit loops you can recognize in your life. Ask yourself: What are my triggers? What are the habitual behaviors I go to, whether mental or physical? What are the results or rewards that come from these behaviors? Welcome to mapping your habit loops. As we begin to drive in first gear, we move out of autopilot and into being with ourselves and with those loops just as they are. We’ll work with them more closely in the next session, but for now, simply mapping this territory of your mind so you can see your habit loops more clearly is preparing you for expert driving up ahead.

    Explore Session #2

    How to break a habit and hack the habit loop

    Rewire Your Food Cravings and Triggers

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    • Judson Brewer
    • April 2, 2019

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    • Cara Bradley
    • April 2, 2019

    Are you thinking about how to stop smoking weed? If you smoke marijuana, it probably started out slow with only one or two joints a few times a week. After a while your weed habit grew to several joints every day and before you knew it, you were addicted.

    Breaking the marijuana habit can be a complicated experience. You may spend time with friends who also smoke marijuana and put pressure on you to do the same. Turning to drugs could be an emotional crutch that you have used in times of great stress.

    Breaking chemical dependency has to be your choice. Do this for yourself, not your family or your friends. Not owning your own addiction and recovery is one of the main reasons addicts relapse and slip into their old habits. Once you have made this choice, an easy ten step program will be helpful in breaking your marijuana addiction.

    How to stop smoking weed

    These steps should be as follows:

    1. Removal: This step is very important and will be crucial to your success. Remove all weed and its facilitating instruments such as bongs, wrapping papers, and ashtrays.

    2. Find a support group: Drug addiction is not only physical, it is mental as well. Finding a support group is an easy way of ensuring that you are victorious in breaking the habit.

    3. Evaluate your friends: When trying to kick the marijuana habit it is important to hang around people who will support your choice, not hinder it. Having friends who do drugs or sell them is not going to be a good influence on a recovering addict. Be honest these people are probably not real friends anyway.

    4. Find something to do: When breaking the weed habit, filling in the void is critical. You need to replace the unhealthy habit with an activity that feeds your mind and soul. This may be a good time to take a class, or just to read a good book. The main point is to find something you enjoy.

    5. Get healthy: Smoking weed takes a big toll on your overall health. It affects your lung function and suppresses your central nervous system. Start a new exercise program and remember to eat lot of fruits and vegetables, as well as drinking plenty of water. You will be amazed at how much better you will be feeling within a short period of time.

    6. Involve your family in your recovery: Be honest with yourself, your family loves you and wants what is best for you. Involving them in your treatment will give you another outlet of support, and it will also help them to understand what you are going through.

    7. Stay positive: When kicking the weed habit you are bound to have some low moments. This is the time to remind yourself why you chose to quit, and how much better things will be without marijuana. Remember, these feelings are normal and won’t last forever.

    8. Self praise: Celebrate those little milestones by treating yourself to something. It doesn’t have to be big, just a reminder to yourself that you are doing great.

    9. Volunteer: Spending time with others who need help can be an aid in your own recovery. Nursing homes and hospitals always need help.

    10. Look forward to tomorrow: Tomorrow will be easier than today. The day after will be even easier. You will be more knowledgeable tomorrow than you are today. You gain something every day and the future brings you even more.

    Take it one day at a time, appreciate the insight that you have gained from being alive and sober today. This 10 point approach usually enough to quit smoking weed for good, but if you need additional help, I suggest you to check out this guide.