Two Words Stop Toxic Habits and Addiction in Their Tracks

Yes, you can bust through the hold of toxic habits. Neuroscience shows how.

Posted Jan 20, 2021

We are all creatures of habit. So before we get into the two words that are powerful enough to break through toxic habits, let's spend a moment exploring why habits are so easy to create and difficult to break.

Renjith Krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos
Say Enough to Annoying Habits!
Source: Renjith Krishnan/FreeDigitalPhotos

Research in the field of behavioral psychology has long shown how easily we can become conditioned and habitual in our tasks. From the perspective of brain science, there’s actually a very good reason for this.

Basically, it’s easier for the brain to have a habit than to really think, because thinking requires more energy. In this sense, habits are useful. Imagine, for example, how hard it would be to drive your car if each time you got behind the wheel was like the first time!

On the other hand, habits are hard to change because the habit area of the brain (known as the striatum) is something we share with reptiles, and this more ancient part of the brain operates in a way that is very automatic and unconscious

That's why behavior quickly gets shaped by repetitive choices. In one sense, this creates your karma, a Sanskrit word that roughly means the effect of your actions. Where you place your attention, the choices you make, and even the thoughts you focus on, all make an impression on you. Enough impressions create a force of habit, which is very much the opposite of reflection—and the free will that comes along with it.

Now, we're getting closer to the two words mentioned in the title: Volitional Attention. Now, while the words volitional attention don't exactly roll off the tongue, they are critical to rerouting old brain behaviors. What these words mean is that you need to engage energy--your mental willpower--and pay attention to the habit and what you want to replace it with. 

Of course, not all habits are bad. There are good habits, too, like exercising and eating right. But the moment you go off autopilot—choosing instead to use your laser-like Volitional Attention—you immediately short-circuit and inhibit the habit. 

In his abridged version of The Principles of Psychology, the visionary William James wrote, “Volitional effort is effort of attention.” It means that you need to engage your willpower to turn your attention inward to find what is beneficial. Not surprisingly, there is a strong link between meditation and this ability for inner, reflective appraisal—often referred to as metacognition, and shown in research to enhance introspective awareness. 

What makes this possible is that you’ve activated your brain’s reflect and relate module. This is a term I coined in Simply Mindful to describe the prefrontal cortex, a highly integrative area of the brain located behind the eyebrow ridge that is responsible for insight, empathy, and even the sense of self. 

Once your reflect and relate mdule goes online, you can access your values and can take the time to discern and evaluate how a particular habit is either beneficial or harmful. Does your next action really align with the person you want to be? Pausing to reflect lets you consciously create new, more positive habits.

Keep in mind that reducing harm and seeing the truth of things is the key purpose of mindfulness. Just noticing things by using nonjudging awareness only takes you half the way there! You then need to discern and evaluate what you are noticing. Only then can you wisely make choices that reduce harm to yourself and others by knowingly moving in another direction. This is a real exercise of free will and the power of Volitional Attention. 

Now, you might be asking: Is this hard to do?

The practice of pausing and reflecting is not much different from going to the gym and doing a workout, except that this workout energizes the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It gives you the capability to generate genuine willpower that can veto negativity, while practicing habits that engender happiness and health.

If you truly want to shape and sculpt a life that matters, you need to apply focused attention and intention, which are the underpinnings of willpower. 

Brief Practice for Building Volitional Attention

The power to reshape your life and habits is attainable for you right now. As a demonstration, let’s try a brief experiment that will literally retrain the brain for reflecting. To do this, I would like you to turn your attention inward for a few moments as you ponder the following questions:

  • What is one choice I made that could have been positively affected had I first paused and reflected?
  • How would my life be different if had reflected on my values and put them into practice?

Congratulations! By pausing to focus and reflect—even for a few moments—you just strengthened a key area of your brain, the prefrontal cortex. By strengthening your brain’s reflect and relate module, you can restore lost focus and concentration, harness intention to shape the life you want.