In my previous article, I talked about creating boundaries so that I can have freedom. A noble, yet challenging aspiration since it relies on one’s own discipline and will. It’s only when I watched this 10-minute Ted talk last week that I had an ah-ha moment, because I realised I was missing a key ingredient: mindfulness.
In the TED talk, Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and addiction expert, talks about using mindfulness but with a twist, as a simple way to break a bad habit. The twist is ingenious; it employs the very method of how a habit becomes a habit – i.e. trigger, behaviour, reward – to break it.
An example of my forming a bad habit is: When I sit down to write (trigger), I usually start by checking my email (behaviour). But then I get caught up in ‘tasks’ – e.g. paying bills, replying to people, deleting spam – to empty my inbox (reward). So then I repeat this behaviour every time I start writing. Pretty soon, the behaviour is cemented.
Now, let’s add Dr Brewer’s twist into the mix: curiosity.
To a captivated audience, Dr Brewer poses, “What if instead of fighting our brains, or trying to force ourselves to pay attention, we instead tapped into this natural, reward-based learning process? What if instead we just got really curious about what was happening in our momentary experience [in our minds and bodies]?”
To show what this curiosity looks like, Dr Brewer uses an example of someone wanting to quit smoking. With my email–writing example, being curious might look like this:
What did I notice in my body in the pause before I start writing and checking my email? I noticed my fear – of writing crap, of not writing the perfect piece, of the words not getting out – and I felt it in my chest (it is tight), in my shallow breathing. And I noticed the urge to check my email (it’s quick; it’s heady; it pulls my hands before my mind notices what I’m doing).
What did I notice when I tended to my email instead? I noticed that be clearing out my inbox I felt instantly ‘accomplished’. But that feeling passes almost as soon as it arrives, when I realise I haven’t done what I set out to do: the real work. My body feels heavy; it’s weighed down by disappointment. It feels yucky. It wants to flee this sensation.
‘Watching’ all this I tried to be curious rather than judge-y. If I was curious, I noticed I was kinder when I succumbed to an urge, and I almost laughed at myself – not in nasty way – because I realised my mind was a child, needing its emotions and desires carefully held and acknowledged.
Curiosity with a sense of playfulness offers validation of one’s impulses without judgement, without having to yield to it. It also helps you see the truth – i.e. what are you really gaining from your habits?
Seeing our habits for what they really are, we might not need to muster up the strength to quash the urges that propel us into the thick of it. Instead, we might find we’re not as interested anymore – because we become “disenchanted” when we realise that the ‘reward’ isn’t really isn’t a reward, that it doesn’t even feel that great. And so the trigger-behaviour-reward pattern (hopefully) breaks over time, allowing us to naturally let go of a habit.
Perhaps there’s hope yet for creating a healthy relationship with technology – if one is willing to be curious.