Retraining Deeply Ingrained Habits of Mindlessness

By Leo Babauta

It’s hard enough to change a habit that you can physically see: going for a daily walk, sitting down to write, having a salad for lunch each day. These are easily seen, but can still be quite a challenge to instill in your life.

But what about habits of mindlessness, that you don’t even know you’re doing? Maybe you notice it later, maybe you never notice. How do you change those kinds of habits?

For myself, I have a number of mindless habits that I could focus on:

  • Judging other people
  • Eating mindlessly, especially when I’m talking to people or watching TV
  • Sitting too long and getting distracted online
  • Comparing myself to others or judging myself
  • Shutting down into self-concern when someone is unhappy with me
  • Hiding things from others because I’m ashamed or afraid for them to know

Of course, these are just a handful that stand out. They’re deeply ingrained, because I’ve had them since childhood.

They are not a reason to beat myself up, or judge myself. There is nothing wrong with me for having these habits. And yet I can see how they’re unhelpful to my happiness, to my relationships, to the work I want to do in the world.

So it would be helpful to retrain these mindless habits.

How do we go about that?

What to Know About Changing Mindless Habits

Before we start, it’s important to know that there are two big obstacles to changing these kinds of habits:

  1. They are deeply ingrained. You’ve been doing them for years — reinforcing them for years — and so you won’t just be able to flip a switch and change them in a day or a week. It could take months to retrain, and in some cases, longer — depending on how much focus you give this retraining, and how consistent you’re able to be.
  2. They are unconscious. If you don’t know you’re doing it, you can’t retrain it. It just keeps happening without you being able to do it. Without awareness, you’re powerless.

So it will likely be a messy process, with starts and stops, lots of “failures” that aren’t really failures if you’re using them to learn and grow your awareness. It can get discouraging, unless you look at every failure in this way, as a necessary step to becoming more aware, a necessary stepping stone to crossing this river.

A Retraining Method for Mindless Habits

With the above ideas in mind, here’s how we might retrain these mindless habits:

  1. Focus on just one habit. Look at my list of mindless habits above — these all seem like great candidates to take on immediately. So why not do them all at once, right? But it’s hard enough to be aware of just one of these habits — trying to be aware of several habits at once is like trying to pay attention to 5 televisions at once. I’d say it’s impossible. Pick just one — you can get to all of them eventually.
  2. Recognize the habit’s effects on you. Before you get started, reflect on how this habit affects you. Maybe just watch it for a few days and see how it affects your happiness, relationships, and the meaningful work you’re doing in the world. Start to get very clear on exactly what this habit does to your life, and all of the ripples it has on all parts of your life. Then get clear that you don’t want to keep doing this to yourself and others around you. You can’t afford it.
  3. Create a practice container to give it focus and create awareness. With focus on one habit and clarity about what it does, you can now set up your retraining practice dojo. Here’s the key: create a space where you become as aware as possible of the habit. For example, if I wanted to work on the “being judgmental of others” habit, I might have a practice hour each day where I walk around in public looking at people and noticing when I have the tendency to judge them. I’m actively watching for the habit. Maybe it’s just 30 minutes, or 5 minutes, depending on the habit. But it has a defined start and end, and I’m very deliberately practicing during this time. I can slowly expand it over time, or have multiple practice sessions a day, but it shouldn’t be all day long. Sometimes I might shrink it. The key is to try to be as aware as possible during this practice container. 
  4. Imagine an alternative habit that would be more helpful. What would be a more helpful habit to do instead? For example, instead of judging people, I might try to look at them with compassionate eyes. Instead of eating mindlessly, I might try to fully savor each bite, pausing in between to ask if taking another bite would be a loving act or just mindless satisfying of cravings. Instead of sitting too long, I might have focused work sessions for 15 minutes, getting up and exercising or stretching in between. Instead of comparing myself or judging myself, I might see myself with loving eyes. Instead of shutting down when someone is unhappy with me, I might try to see their pain and what they’re going through. Instead of hiding things from others, I might be open and vulnerable about what I’ve been hiding. These are only examples — take a little time to imagine the habit you’d rather have.
  5. When you notice yourself doing the old habit, practice the new one instead. This one is obvious — during your practice session, if you notice yourself starting to do the old habit, do the new one instead, as deliberately and consciously as you can. Every single time, as consistently as possible. If you don’t do it consistently, just notice when you don’t, just increase awareness.
  6. Repeat many times. This one is obvious too — repeat it often, until it becomes easier and more natural and more and more automatic. Reinforce each time you do it by giving yourself a mental pat on the back — feeling good about this success, even if it’s not perfect. Take a moment to feel grateful for your effort.
  7. Then learn to do the new habit earlier. With some practice, you can learn to do the new habit much earlier in the process. For example, instead of judging someone and then switching to seeing them with compassion … I might look at someone and immediately try to see them with compassion, as soon as I see them. This takes a lot of awareness and practice, but it gets easier with time. You’re cutting out the old habit completely, so that the new one gets reinforced.
  8. Repeat many more times. Again, repeat this method as many times as it takes to become more and more automatic. You might add additional practice sessions. You can even try to catch yourself outside of the practice sessions, until it becomes really easy to be aware of this during the day.
  9. Important: see every mistake as a stepping stone to greater awareness. Remember that you’re not going to be perfect at this. It’s going to be messy. The old habit has been strengthened over years. Develop patience with yourself, understanding, compassion. Learn to encourage yourself when things are hard. And see every failure as information to use to get better and better.

This is the method. It works, I promise — I’ve changed some difficult habits this way, even if it took me longer than I’d care to admit. I’m still working with this method, in spurts and starts, in a very messy way. But shift happens. It can for you as well!

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