6 Immediate Fixes for Breaking Bad Habits: Behavioural Mastery, Part 4

The work involved in finding and challenging the causes of our self-defeating behaviours and negative emotions can take time. Sometimes, this is a luxury we do not have. Yet, what can we do when the habit arises?

This article presents a small selection of short-term techniques. I have to stress that they are best used with letting go as described in the rest of the series. If used just by themselves, some of these can lead to repression, and force underlying causes to express themselves in a different way.

You’ll also find that not all of these are applicable to all behaviours. Play around with them, and find out which works for you as an individual, and for your particular issue.


The first “technique” was actually covered in the first post, but was severely under-emphasised. In the Key to Behavioural Mastery, we discussed how simply being aware – mindful – of what is happening inside you is the first step to catching your habits as they arise. The more you do this, the earlier you will catch yourself in the cycle. And all we have to do then: Breathe.

Watch your breath, many teachers say. And what was so automatic, so unconscious, becomes a means for us to centre ourselves and regain control. It does not matter where in the habit cycle you are. Perhaps you caught yourself reaching for the bottle of whiskey. Maybe you’ve already drank your first glass. Maybe you’re already throwing up. It doesn’t matter. Just take a few breaths – and be as aware as you can of them.

Feel them. What does the air feel like as it enters your nostrils, your mouth? What does it feel like going down your airways into your lungs? Feel it, be aware of it – and you’ll find that your breathing gets naturally deeper. Just pause, and breathe for as long as you need. In doing so, you interrupt and weaken the mental-emotional patterns that underlie your behaviours, without the need to analyse them.

By itself, this was enough for me to stop many unwanted behaviours. Whenever I felt the habit energies arise, I would simply pause, and breathe mindfully until the urge went away.

What Would You Have?

The next technique to try would be to ask yourself: What do you think you would have after you’ve carried it out? Take a few moments and analyse the habit you are working on.

Sometimes, the answer would be something external – a relaxed body; respect from my peers; a happier household. Then ask yourself the same question again. What would I have when I have that? It might take several rounds of questioning, but you will find that you are ultimately looking for a feeling.

And isn’t that good news? Some things we can’t get – but a feeling, we always can. It might take some practice, but simply give yourself the feeling you are searching for.

If you are having difficulties with this, try to remember the last time you indulged, and how you felt afterwards. Try to hold that feeling, that memory in mind, and try to relive the feeling without indulging in the behaviour.

If you are still having troubles, an article on developing your visualisation can help.

An Alternative Behaviour

This is a variation of the previous technique. Is there a healthier alternative? If you drink to de-stress after a long day of work, and would like to get sober, what other activities could you try? Make a list, and see which ones seem best. For example, it is often suggested for smokers to try chewing gum instead.

This technique sounds like common sense, and is standard advice for those quitting a bad behaviour, but when you consider that what you want is internal, your list of alternatives becomes a lot bigger.

For a slightly extreme example of this, a man might have a habit of shouting and punching walls in the false belief that it gained him the respect of others (perhaps mistaking fear for respect). Might he be better served by developing some assertiveness skills? Wouldn’t that be a far healthier way of reaching for what he wanted?

An interesting alternative behaviour is to journal – what were you feeling at the time? What are the advantages and disadvantages of your behaviour?

When you journal, you are no longer identifying with your habit. No longer does it control you, no longer is it you. Now you are looking at it like a scientist would, dispassionate and distinct, and that takes away the power it has. It will also help in analysing and finding the underlying causes, as discussed in the previous posts of the series.

Temporary Satisfaction

Next, remind yourself that most of your behaviours are caused by underlying desires and attachments (Read Part 1, and Part 2 of the series). The behaviours do not satisfy these painful cravings for long – they are merely a temporary cover-up. Soon after you indulge, they will show up again.

So capture that – hold it in mind, as much as you can. Remember the last time you indulged, and how long the satisfaction lasted before the craving arose again. Remember how you felt when you realised the painful craving was still there, that it never left.

Also, is there a price you are paying? Did you alienate your loved ones, is your body suffering, did you spend too much money? All the temporary pleasure you gained is a memory, but the price you are paying is right now. And right now is all we could ever have. Memories are fragile, prone to disappearing, and – to be honest – are not worth much if we look at it. What price are you willing to pay for a memory?

I remember when I was depressed. Sometimes I would go out and spend all the money I had on alcohol and cigarettes. I would be driving home a few hours after, lungs hurting, head thumping, completely broke – and suddenly I would realise the pleasure I thought I had was just a memory. And to make it worse, I knew the next morning, all the same old anger and sadness would still be there.

Even worse were the behaviours which are not pleasurable at all. Throughout this series I have discussed my strong tendency to hold a grudge. Periodically the urge to contact the people I resent for another argument would arise. Sometimes I gave in. Did I feel good afterwards? No. Not only did I not feel a “release”, I would often feel guilty and even worse afterwards.

So keep this in mind, as much as you can. A section below will discuss affirmations and reminders.

What are you feeling?

This is a curious one. I’m not sure if it will work for you, but try it. The next time you are thirsty, instead of going to get a drink, pause. Examine closely the sensations you are feeling. Can you be absolutely sure that it is thirst you are feeling?

Is it possible it is just a sensation? You automatically label the sensation as thirst, and with that labelling comes the urge to drink some water. But what if it isn’t? What if it is just a sensation and you don’t have to do anything with it? Let the sensations be, and soon they will disappear.

Then carry this inquiry across to the habit energies around your particular behaviour.


Last, and definitely least, is old-fashioned will-power. Just say no. How you do this, specifically, differs according to the individual, so this article won’t go into detail. A reader, for example, said he simply shook his head every time he felt the urge.

Some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy books recommend wearing a rubber band around your wrist, and snapping it whenever you feel the craving arising. It’s mild punishment, and makes you associate pain with your behaviour instead of pleasure. I’ve played around with this before, but I stopped because it felt like fighting fire with fire, but I know a few people who have used it for a while and they love it.

Others like to use affirmations. Try creating an affirmation – not a fantastic, magical one, but a gentle reminder of your decision to stop, and of the consequences of your behaviour. Repeat it to yourself whenever you remember to. This works well with the material covered under the “Temporary Satisfaction” section above.

Sometimes little sticky notes left in visible places will help. For example, I used to smoke in the toilet. I would leave notes stuck to the mirrors reminding me of the painful lungs, of the financial cost, and so on.

Note that if you use any of these, it is also helpful to switch things around. We easily get desensitised to affirmations and printed reminders. We just don’t see them any more, even if they are right there in front of us. So change the wording in your affirmations and the location of your notes every few days to prevent familiarity blindness.

Further Reading:
Removing Negative Thoughts, Part One
Removing Negative Thoughts, Part Two
Removing Negative Thoughts, Part Three


As a side-note, does anyone know much about 12-step programs? What are your experiences with them? I have never been to one, and besides just quickly browsing through the internet, don’t know much about them. The steps seem sound, though. Many readers have told me there is much crossover between what I write about and the programs, so I would love to hear any experiences, opinions, and whether they work for you.

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