Staying on Course: Changing Unproductive Habitual Tendencies

No matter what you name it, if you want to change it, you have to rub your brain’s little orbitofrontal cortex nose in its own poop so that it clearly smells how stinky it is. That’s how your brain learns.” Judson Brewer

If you prefer to listen

There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery by Portia Nelson 

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost… I am helpless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I am in the same place.

But, it isn’t my fault.

It still takes me a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in. It’s a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

Your North Star

Your North Star is the direction you set your heart, devoting to live in a certain manner. You may never reach it, but it is your compass—your underlying direction— despite obstacles and changing outer circumstances.

Mapping Your Route

You will map route using skillful thinking and skillful effort to increase the likelihood that your speech and action will be skillful. Your route ensures that you don’t keep walking down the same street and falling into the hole.

Identifying Obstacles

Obstacles are like knots because they tie you up and obstruct your freedom. You need to find a way around or through desire/craving, aversion/anger, restlessness/worry, sloth/torpor, doubt, and delusion.

Once you have defined your north star, mapped your route and identified your obstacles, you will need to find ways to stay on course. One strategy to stay on course is to change your unproductive habitual tendencies. While this takes skillful effort, it is less about grit and more about how your brain’s reward system works.

Changing Your Unproductive Habitual Tendencies

Often our responses to our obstacles become habitual, automatic reactions and those reactions are not very skillful. Because we do not see things clearly, we say or do things we regret. It takes effort to stop and look at the stories our minds devise and to see the beliefs under those stories. If we don’t stop, we don’t even realize we are strengthening the neural pathways of our unproductive habitual tendencies.

To change our habitual reactions, we can use the three gears as described in Judson Brewer’s book Unwinding Anxiety. The three gears are:

  1. Mapping your mind
  2. Updating your brain’s reward value
  3. Finding the bigger, better offer
First Gear: Mapping Your Mind

The first gear of changing a habit is becoming aware of your habitual tendencies and mapping them out.  All habits have three components, a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. When you are aware of your habits, you can get curious about them.

The behavior is the least important component. While we can’t always avoid our triggers, we can change our reaction to them. But it is the reward value that determines the strength of the habit.


Why am I doing this? What triggered the behavior?

One habit many of us would like to quit is getting triggered. When we have unresolved pain from our past, it gets activated. Especially when we go back to where we experienced the pain or are with whoever caused the pain. When you are feeling triggered, you often feel like a teenager who is ready to battle or a seven-year-old who has no voice. We fall back into our immature states and into the patterns we used. To change, we have to be prepared. And one of the first steps is to quit being surprised by the unsurprising.

For instance, we may be like, “Wait, this person who has always behaved this way is acting this way again? No way! We have to stop being surprised by what we know about people.”  Vienna Pharaon

We hope that people will be different. We hope that:

  • You will be different than I know you are… 
  • You will acknowledge me when I know you can’t…
  • You will show up differently when you will not… 

We become free when we have a different relationship with our triggers. When we can say, ‘I’m going to stop looking for you to do that.’ When we admit that they are not the person, parent, or friend that we would like them to be.


What reward am I really getting from this? Do I want to keep doing this?

Your brain chooses what to lay down as a habit, and what not to do again. This is all based on how rewarding the behavior is.  The more rewarding the behavior, the stronger the habit.

Reward value has been mapped to a certain part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC)… The OFC takes all of this information, groups it together, and uses it to set that composite reward value of a behavior, so we can quickly retrieve it in the future as a “chunked” bit of information.” Judson Brewer

So, to change a habit, you can’t just focus on not doing the behavior or avoiding the trigger.  You must look at the actual result (reward or punishment) that behavior or reaction is providing. Often the reward we think we are getting is only part of the picture, and sometimes it does not even exist anymore. That is the insanity part, reacting the same way over and over and expecting different results.

Second Gear: Updating your brain’s reward value

I tried to use sheer grit to quit my Diet Pepsi habit, and it did not work. In mapping my habit I discovered that the reward I thought I was getting did not exist. The result was actually a punishment, not a reward.

  • Trigger: It is after lunchtime
  • Behavior: Drinking a diet Pepsi
  • Old Reward: Feeling comforted and connected
  • Actual Reward/Result: After the first couple of sips, diet Pepsi doesn’t taste that good, need to go to the bathroom at least once within the next hour, making me very uncomfortable in afternoon meetings, not able to connect with coworkers after the meeting

No matter what you name it, if you want to change it, you have to rub your brain’s little orbitofrontal cortex nose in its own poop so that it clearly smells how stinky it is. That’s how your brain learns.” Judson Brewer


Think about something you crave. It may be chocolate, junk food, shopping, alcohol, admiration, new experiences, attention, excitement, etc.

  • Trigger: What triggers this craving?
  • Behavior: What is the craving?
  • Old Reward/Result: At first glance, what did you think you would get as a result of indulging in the craving? What need was it supposed to be fulfilling?
  • New Reward/Result: What did you actually get as a result of the indulging in the craving?
Third Gear: The bigger, better offer

Third, for lasting habit change, you must find a bigger, better offer that is more rewarding and doesn’t simply substitute a different behavior. Substituting a chai latte for a diet Pepsi is not really changing my habit loop. Ideally, we shift from externally based behavior that can’t really fulfill our need to an internally based one, such as telling myself that I am enough.

A great third gear, bigger, better offer is your breath. Your breath is always available.  And paying attention to it helps you to step out of the habit loop. It may even provide the reward of calming your body and mind. Next time you have a craving, try meditation for a couple minutes to see if the craving goes away.

Instead of trying to use brute force to change a habitual response, you can use the reward-based learning our brains were designed for.  Whether your habit is eating, being anxious, being angry, being busy, drinking or procrastinating, the behavior became a habit as your brain felt there was a reward for that behavior.  To quit the habit, we must clearly see the habit, pay attention to the results of the behavior, and update our OFC with the new reward value.

When we try to live life as our authentic selves, we will fail many times. If we want to be authentic, we need to continually make course corrections, paying attention to both the direction we are going and our speed. By listening to our bodies and slowing down our mental chatter, we will see when we are veering off course. When we encounter obstacles, we will rise to the challenge. The more we practice being in the present moment and seeing below our thoughts to reality, the more resilient and authentic we will become.