How Mindfulness Can Help You Change Your Habits

Or – What I Learned from Reading “The Habit Guide”

If you’re like every other person on earth, you’ve tried and failed many times to change some habitual behavior. Humans are notoriously bad at purposefully shaping our actions, but we know it’s not impossible. I watched my grandmother quit smoking cold turkey after a 40-year pack-a-day habit.

Leo Babauta also knows it’s not impossible. But it is hard work. He’s spent many years changing his own habits and helping others do the same through his website, his habit support groups, online courses, books, videos, and coaching. His latest book, The Habit Guide, condenses that experience into a blueprint and reference for finally checking off one of those perpetual New Year’s resolutions.

I’ve been a fan of Babauta’s work for years, and although the concepts don’t specifically address learning or leadership on the job, the advice is invaluable if you want to help employees follow good fundamental practices or incorporate new processes into their work.

I won’t be able to review everything in the book here, but there were three ideas about habit development that I found particularly useful:

  1. We can doom ourselves to failure simply by having unrealistic expectations.
  2. Awareness of our resistance to change can help us overcome it.
  3. If we rely on being “in the mood” to work on a goal, we’ll never get there.

Unrealistic expectations can sink your habit efforts.

Babauta begins his guide by reviewing the mechanics of setting up a habit, including identifying a small habit, a trigger, a reminder, and a reward and then sticking with it for several weeks. But this is just the beginning because pitfalls await, and Babauta explains how to avoid them.

You can probably name common problems off the top of your head – procrastination, business distractions, and just not really wanting to do it.

But your own beliefs can derail you as well. For example, if you’re trying to eat more vegetables and less fried food, you may think that you’ll instantly lose weight or feel amazing or stop feeling depressed.

But you find as you tough out those first few weeks that none of that occurs. As you continue, your imagined reward disintegrates and discouragement settles in. Then the French fries settle in.

It’s not that we aren’t getting benefits from new habits, but the benefits come along gradually, not in a stunning flash as many self-help books want us to believe. As Babauta puts it, “in the end, the real reason we struggle with habits is because we let the stories or ideas in our heads cause resistance for us.”

So how can you set expectations properly? First, read a book like this one that explains how behavior change really works. Second, become aware of your “stories.”

Awareness of the process helps us get through it.

If you ask most people what it takes to start a good habit or quit a bad one, they’ll say “will power” or “discipline.” And they’re not wrong. But it struck me reading this book and trying out its advice just how much difference mindfulness can make.

That’s because much of our resistance and avoidance occurs subconsciously before we have the chance to engage willpower and discipline. Babauta explains:

“Think about the last time you skipped doing a habit (or a difficult task like a report) for a couple days – most likely, you didn’t even want to think about that habit. You felt guilty, you dreaded thinking about the habit, so you distracted yourself with other things. You put off dealing with it or even thinking about it until later.”

If we can start to catch ourselves at the moment of resistance before we push the habit out of our minds, and if we can learn to sit with the resistance, accept it, and work with it, then we loosen its hold.

From experience, I know this isn’t easy. It takes time to develop, and you’ll never be perfect at it. But it’s extremely powerful when you can manage it.

Babauta has other writings that dive deeper into this technique, but there’s enough guidance in the book to get you started. That is if you feel like it . . .

You’ll rarely be “in the mood.”

Most often, we start a new habit with some inspiration, excitement, and determination. For me, there’s nothing so great as that first jog when I’m training for a half-marathon. Every single one after that, however, is a slog.

Initial inspiration rarely lasts more than a few days, and we’re inevitably tired, cold, hot, stressed, hungry, uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or grumpy when it’s time to do our new habit.

I assumed for years that in order to do something, I had to be in the mood to do it. We’re given endless strategies for finding our passion, getting “fired up,” having a purpose that drives us on.

And these are great things. But on a dark winter morning, when the bed is warm and another hour of sleep beckons, motivation turns off the alarm and snuggles deeper.

Babauta reminds us that we have to expect these days and commit to getting our habit done even as we don’t feel like it. I found this surprisingly useful.

For me, it was a relief to think that I didn’t have to get myself in the mood. I have left the house on some morning runs grumbling all the way. But my commitment was to the run, not the motivation.

Every habit is different.

Babauta understands no one approach works for all people and habits. He offers dozens more strategies and techniques for successful change, such as how to deal with negative thoughts and how to see yourself as a “healthy person” or a “non-smoker.”

And he recommends starting with small easy habits and experimenting with what works best for you. That way you’ll build confidence in your ability to change and have the strength for bigger changes, like quitting smoking.

After reading this book, I understood much better why change is so hard when it seems so simple. But with a phalanx of options for tackling the challenge, I felt quite positive and optimistic about the prospect of making a real difference.


Carol Bleyle
Carol Bleyle
CAROL handles client services and marketing for Software, a training platform designed to promote experiential, on-the-job learning and development. She works to realize the vision of turning the 70% of informal learning we do at work into a powerful training and development tool. With an M.A. in Cognitive Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley, Carol views skills development through the lens of cognitive science and psychology And over the past 23 years, whether in traditional classrooms or on-the-go mentoring in her own company, Carol has constantly searched for realistic ways to make learning more natural and engaging. As a writer, trainer, consultant, entrepreneur and public speaker, Carol helps business owners find practical solutions to employee performance. She and her husband reside in beautiful Loudoun County Virginia with three energetic dogs and two lazy horses.

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  1. The habit, as we know, arises from a fundamental need of human beings to create security in their lives. The need for security in itself has a useful purpose. It is one of the primary needs of man, in many cases it facilitates existence when we have to perform tasks that we know by repeating the gestures. The return to the known area comes from the survival instinct. It belongs to all living beings, people, animals etc …
    If we want to change them we need awareness: we must be aware of our habits, understand the “trigger”, what causes them, and tune into the emotions that emerge when this mechanism is activated in us. In this way we could recognize the loop, the cycle, in which we find ourselves when “snaps”, trying to change it.
    Personally I stopped smoking from one day to another, 34 years ago, without having any problem!

    • Great points, Aldo – thanks for sharing! Yes, understanding our own actions and motivations is the first step and then understanding how powerful habits are so that if we slip in our efforts, we don’t fell discouraged.

  2. In my home town there is a Mental Development Centre where they treat people to manage and recover from various mental conditions. Because they were local, our local library had several of their research papers and books that the doctors written on the topic. When I read through them as a young teen, I found that behavior modification was effective for treatment as long as undesirable behaviors were replaced with more desirable behaviors a little bit at a time. There was one case where every time dinner was served, the patient would stand in one spot in the room and pee on the floor. By breaking up the “habit” into a chain of over ten small behaviors and focusing on each link, the patient eventually stopped peeing on the floor.

    So, I use a lot of cause-and-effect chains in my work, coaching and my training.

  3. Good points here. We talk about “HARD” behaviours quite a bit.
    [H]ammers – every new tool will be used in the same way as the old tools
    [A]uto pilot – mind shuts down and you react automatically
    [R]einforcement – environment and people reinforce habits
    [D]eep specialization – tendency to go deeper into a topical area than go shallow across multiple areas — stick with what you know.

    I like how your article touched on a few of these.

    • Thanks, Chris Pehura! I had never heard that HARD acronym before, but I especially love the R – reinforcement. We don’t realize how our environment quietly shapes our actions. Great points.