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How to Change Bad Habits using Mindfulness

change bad habits

by Daron Larson

Last night I dreamed I drank a Diet Coke. It’s been almost two months since my last one. I know there are more scandalous habits to conquer, but if you’re paying attention using mindfulness, eroding one habit can lead to eroding others. The erosion process isn’t complex. It just requires steady repetition over a long period of time.

Any habit we want to change has been operating on autopilot for awhile. If we think of habits as operating like apps, then the “autopilot mode” of attention serves like an operating system required to run them. Strengthening skills of attention allows us to can change how we relate to specific habits and the autopilot mode (or “automaticity”) supporting them.

In the dream, I didn’t notice my slip up until the carbonated deed was done. The suddenness of the realization alarmed me. How could I have been so deep into autopilot mode that I sipped my way right past my new restriction without it ever crossing my mind? I had been doing so well! The surprisingly unpleasant caffeine withdrawal was over weeks ago. It doesn’t feel like I’m missing anything when I drink something else. I can even detect a subtle taste of being a little less at the mercy of automaticity.

The fact that the error hadn’t been conscious jolted me. I wasn’t sure how to navigate the setback. I didn’t want to have to set the calendar back to day one. Luckily I didn’t have to. This time I had only dreamed the unconsciousness. Yet it served as an effective reminder not to undervalue my successful efforts – something we all tend to do.

Broken streaks are demoralizing. This is why shooting for unbroken streaks leads so easily to feeling disappointed in ourselves and giving up on an entire project. If you are new to mindfulness practice, try to set expectations you’ll be able to meet. The primary goal at the beginning is consistency. If you want to practice every day with a timer for twenty minutes, consider building up to that goal gradually.

A better starting goal might be either a few minutes of timed practice most days or any attempt at all to notice something directly every day. Either way, progress doesn’t usually run smoothly.

What can you do when you break even your realistic attentional fitness training stride?

Feel the sting and jump back in

You’re not starting over. You’re continuing along the same crooked line. You haven’t been kicked out of the club. You’re simply realizing that instead of being a member of the Society of Perfect People, you actually belong to the secret tribe of Every Person Who has Ever Stuck to Anything Challenging Ever.

This is an unofficial organization that never holds conventions, by the way. We’re all secretly out there plugging along as best as we’re able. You’ll run into us everywhere once you start looking. We could also use a new anthem:

Modulate your definition of consistency down if it helps.

You have years to nudge your goals up in sustainable degrees. At first, just remembering that you forgot is a sign that you’re on the right track. Doesn’t every new habit really begin here?

Where else could it start?

Ease up on yourself

Feeling disappointed in ourselves can become just one more habit that we reinforce without realizing it. It’s easy to get stuck here. Instead of getting bogged down in what broke your stride, try to fold the experience into your practice as soon as possible. There is the story of what happened and there are the sensory components that comprise your current experience. What can you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell right now? Come back to your senses first and decide if you want to figure out what it all means later.

The tug of autopilot is powerful. However, you have the capacity to establish new behaviors and new responses to outdated ones. Habitual impulses don’t want to be extinguished and they will do anything to avoid it. They might even showing up in your dreams. But the endless project of intimate familiarity with both automaticity and direct awareness will always be a liberating habit worth picking back up.


Using these mindfulness tips can make it much easier to overcome bad habits. With a little bit of tenacity over time, you will free yourself from bad habits.

Read more from Daron Larson at Attentional Fitness Training


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