The modern world is designed to create experiences that are potentially addictive. Left unchecked, you can easily substitute things, behaviours, and even thoughts for everything that can help you build a better life.

Our habits, actions, behaviours, and our very own thoughts determine what we do. Most of them are deeply wired, by constant repetition, into our brains to keep us from having to reinvent the wheel of our daily lives.

Habits (both good and bad) are also patterns. And until you are ready substitute new patterns in place of the bad ones, your brain will continue to crave the same behaviours.

Each time you repeat pattern of behaviour, it becomes more ingrained in your brain until it eventually becomes automatic — a habit.

Every habit is driven by a 3-part loop — trigger (the stimulus), routine (the behaviour), and reward (the benefit of the behaviour).

Bad habits are simply a way of dealing with stress and boredom. Dr Jud Brewer, a neuroscientist and addiction psychiatrist, argues that our bad habits have biological origins but they are not permanent — we can change them.

As a psychiatrist with a long-standing clinical practice in the field of addiction psychiatry, Jud has developed deep insight into the challenges of pervasive addictions of all kinds.

In his book, The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love — Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits, Brewer says addictions are not just bad habits that compromise our health, destroy our relationships or get us in trouble with the government. They can have less dramatic — but still negative — impacts on our lives, he says.

He argues that addictions to bad habits are everywhere. He writes, “Long story short: I found addiction everywhere. Continued tweeting despite adverse consequences. Continued shopping despite adverse consequences. Continued pining away for that special someone despite adverse consequences. Continued computer gaming despite adverse consequences. Continued eating despite adverse consequences.”

Once the brain locks in a habit, an expectation of a reward make it hard to break it immediately. Despite the effects of bad habits, people continue to repeat bad behaviours until they catch themselves in the process and substitute a different trigger.

The mindfulness approach

Brewer suggests a radical new way of dealing with bad behaviours. He recommends we examine them using mindfulness, then ask questions about them. He says tapping into our curiosity is key.

In one of his treatment sessions with cigarette-addicted participants at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in West Haven, Connecticut, Brewer slowly and calmly talked through the feelings that craving and smoking cigarettes brought up, and helped them understand how their thoughts and actions lined up.

Using mindfulness, he said, “I taught him to simply note to himself (silently or aloud) each body sensation that came along with a craving. We used the analogy of surfing: My patient’s cravings were like waves, and he could use this ‘noting practice’ as a surfboard to help him get on the wave and ride it until it was gone.”

To break a bad habit, its important to understand your addiction-craving cycle, turn toward (instead of away from) the cravings and understand them, and to be aware of your true feelings. When you notice your craving and refuse to give in to it, the behaviour changes and the cravings decrease.

That’s the basis for Brewer’s treatment of all types of addiction. His practice not only helped the patient quit, but it also formed the basis of further research.

According to Brewer, if you are not aware that you are doing something habitually, you will continue to do it consistently. If you’ve driven the same road a thousand times, it becomes pretty habitual, he adds.

“Building awareness through mindfulness helps us “pop the hood” on what’s going on in our old brain. We can learn to recognize our habit loops while they’re happening, rather than “waking up” at the end of them.”

He explains, “..If you don’t smoke or stress eat, maybe the next time you feel this urge to check your email when you’re bored, or you’re trying to distract yourself from work, or maybe to compulsively respond to that text message when you’re driving, see if you can tap into this natural capacity, just be curiously aware of what’s happening in your body and mind at that moment. It will just be another chance to perpetuate one of our endless and exhaustive habit loops … or step out of it.”

The power of substitution

Another strategy Brewer recommends issubstitution. Brewer writes “substitution is pretty simple, but also relies on the new brain. If you have a craving for X, do Y instead. As in, substitute Y behaviour for X. This has a lot of science behind it, and is one of the go-to strategies that we learn in addiction psychiatry.”

For substitution to work, you need to have a plan for what you will do instead of your bad habit. It’s also important to understand what reward you crave for every habit you want to break. “Any habit can be diagnosed and shifted,” says Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit.”

“You need to give yourself time to really figure out the cues and rewards that are driving that behaviour — and oftentimes the only way … is through a process of experimentation,” he writes.

Your environment can make or break a bad habit

Your environment plays a key role in building and breaking habits. Change your environment and you can change the outcome.

“The people who exhibit the most self-control are not actually those who have superhuman willpower,” Says James Clear. “They’re the people who are tempted the least.” If If you want to exercise in the morning, get everything you need ready to make it easier in the morning.

If you want to watch less TV, don’t just unplug your TV, get better books to read instead. If you are influenced by people, Clear suggests finding a group “where your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour.”

Behaviour change is hard. It takes time. Setbacks are normal and you should expect them. Have a plan to get back on track if you want to permanently replace bad habits with new ones. Be proactive rather than reactive.

No matter how long it takes to replace bad habits, your patience and perseverance will soon pay off.

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