TED Talks: ‘A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit’

UPDATED: April 11, 2020
PUBLISHED: November 23, 2016

Breaking a bad habit isn’t always easy.

Psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer says habits are the product of reward-based learning, the same event that trains the mind to crave “feel good” moments, such as eating a piece of chocolate cake. He says replacing behaviors like these takes time—mostly because every habit that’s ever risen to the surface has gone through a three-step process: trigger, behavior and reward.

Related: Why Bad Habits Are So Easy to Make and So Hard to Break

It takes a deep understanding of the habit, an awareness of what’s going on in the mind, to change for the better. But in this TED Talk, Brewer reveals a simple way to do it.

Historically, the reward system for eating food was simply a matter of survival. Brewer says signals were sent to the brain to remember where food was found, especially if it tasted good. But over time, the mind found a more creative way to tweak the reward system. Habits became more than just a way to find food—they clung to emotions and became a catalyst for feeling better.

“Now, with these same brain processes, we”ve gone from learning to survive to literally killing ourselves with these habits,” Brewer says. “Obesity and smoking are among the leading preventable causes of morbidity and mortality in the world.”

Related: The 4 Powerful Ways to Change a Bad Habit

One deceptively simple way to combat this is by being curious, Brewer says. In his lab, he tested the effect of mindfulness on smoking, an experiment where participants were encouraged to smoke but had to really take in the event and be curious about what was happening in those moments. He found that one woman’s description completely took the excitement out of the habit: Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals.

“Seeing what we get from our habits helps us understand them at a deeper level—to know it in our bones so we don”t have to force ourselves to hold back or restrain ourselves from behavior,” Brewer says. “We”re just less interested in doing it in the first place.”

Brewer says this is what mindfulness is really about. It allows people to get a clear view of their behaviors, and what they notice could make all the difference. It doesn’t happen overnight, but people can be inspired to form new habits as they see the results of their actions.

“The paradox here is that mindfulness is just about being really interested in getting close and personal with what”s actually happening in our bodies and minds from moment to moment,” Brewer says. “This willingness to turn toward our experience rather than trying to make unpleasant cravings go away as quickly as possible. And this willingness to turn toward our experience is supported by curiosity, which is naturally rewarding.”

Related: How to Make Mindfulness Part of Your Daily Routine

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics—from science to business to global issues—in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world. See more at TED.com.