The Ted Talk That Changed My Life

Breaking bad habits is not only possible, but also way simpler than you think

janatun Islam
11 min readDec 12, 2020

No one is fully exempt from bad habits. They’re a large part of the human condition because, heck, life is stressful and unpredictable. Take a moment and reflect on your own journey. What is your battle? Is it smoking? Emotional eating? Self-judgment? The truth is, we’re all going through something, whether it’s life-threatening or surface level.’ve been battling with several of my own habits for years, and I’m finally experiencing some breakthroughs. Why? I watched a ten-minute Ted Talk that transformed the way I not only approach my habits, but my overall perspective on life as well.

If it sounds too good to be true, it’s not. This may be the most life-changing paradigm shift available to you right now, and it won’t even cost you a penny. Without further ado, introducing the superpower of curiosity.

Exposing The Formula for Bad Habits

Judson Brewer’s ‘A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit’ Ted Talk brings a refreshing perspective to the battle against bad habits. Being a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, he’s invested over 20 years into researching how our brains form negative behavior patterns and addictions. All of that time has culminated into a surprisingly simple discovery that has the potential to change the way we operate.

“We’re constantly fighting the evolutionary conserved learning processes currently known in science as positive and negative reinforcement.” — Dr. Judson Brewer

One could argue that every single one of our bad habits comes from a lack of evolutionary adaption to our 21st-century environments. Back when we were hunters and gatherers, we’d see food, eat food, feel good, and then remind our brains where we found said food as a conservation strategy. This is the fundamental process of every habit we form: trigger, behavior, reward.

The root of every habit can be simplified into a trigger, behaviour, and reward.

The problem with this cycle is that we’ve ‘outsmarted’ the system in our modern day. Instead of listening to physiological cues and responding accordingly (experience hunger, find food, eat food, feel good), we’ve adapted it into a stress response. This means that we also listen to our emotional brain when triggering behaviors. It’s the same process, but just with a different, more costly trigger.

“We’ve gone from learning to survive to literally killing ourselves with these habits.” — Dr. Judson Brewer

The result of these emotionally-charged behavior triggers is quite disastrous for humankind. Take overeating and smoking, for example, two of the most prevalent ‘bad habits’ in our society. Smoking, obesity, and cardiovascular disease are among the leading killers in the last 100 years, and they all have one thing in common: they’re extremely preventable. Sure, there are unavoidable factors at play (such as genetics, prenatal influence, etc.…), but the majority of major health conditions can be attenuated by positive lifestyle adjustments.

Maybe you’re healthy as a horse but struggle with shopping, anger, or pornography. These habits can be just as hard to shake as the ones stated above. But why is this the case? Why can’t we just read one more self-help book, download a fancy app, or will ourselves to make it all disappear?

The frustrating reality to this problem is that we’re trying to put barriers up against our bad habits (AKA dissociating or distancing ourselves), as opposed to running at them head-on.

This is where the power of curiosity truly shines.

The Simplest Form of Mindfulness Is Also the Most Effective

Most of us are cognitively aware that our bad habits are, well, BAD. The challenge is that our prefrontal cortex (front section of the brain) that is responsible for this awareness is the first to go offline when we get stressed. When this brain center logs off, we start to feel ‘numb’, give in to our stress, and fall back onto negative habits.

Let’s go back to the 3 pillars that form a habit one more time. You experience a trigger. You respond with a behavior. You receive a reward.

Say you’re battling the urge to have that fourth slice of pizza. You’ve already experienced the trigger that’s telling you, “Yes, this is a great idea…you’ll feel so good after”. What if we took a split second here to pause before caving in? What if we were to use curiosity as a tool to disrupt the cycle? Here’s what it looks like:

You feel a trigger that spurs temptation. Instead of caving in, you pause for a moment and get curious. Ask yourself…what’s going on? Why am I feeling this way?

From here you have two possible routes, both of which are a step in the right direction. The first path is that you still give in to your bad behavior, but with a heightened state of mindfulness. The act of caving in feels much less satisfying. You become consciously aware that the reward is just a guise covering up the reality that you’re in an endless loop of going nowhere.

In one of Brewers’s studies, a subject involved with smoking admitted that mindful smoking, “smells like stinky cheese, and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!”. This paper eventually reveals that mindfulness training may confer benefits greater than those associated with current standard treatments for smoking cessation. No money, drugs, or therapy required.

The second route is when things get really exciting. This is when you experience the trigger, but you’re now inherently aware that this is a poor choice and you take a halt.

This is how you move from knowledge to wisdom. We’re all cognitively aware that bad habits aren’t good for us. Curiosity bridges the gap to allow us to be mindful of this, even when we’re stressed out or ‘in the act’.

When you start to implement this curiosity technique into your behaviors, bad habits simply become less enchanting. You start to wise up and realize that you don’t need to give in to every trigger that comes your way. An amazing bonus to this mindset is that curiosity in itself is rewarding. Being mindful amidst your stressed-out state will deliver the prize that you were initially seeking from your ‘drug’ of choice. It may not be as powerful of a hit, but over time, your brain will realize that it’s the one you need.

This is a rewarding, sustainable, and life-changing way to think about human behavior. Will it solve all of your problems instantly? Absolutely not. Many addictions are as much physiological as they are psychological. At times, it may be necessary to get professional help. Regardless, this is a powerful tool for initiating an important conversation with yourself. It is one that empowers you to ditch the dissociation and start attacking your bad habits head-on.

Photo by Jason Hogan on Unsplash

In Closing,

Curiosity is the ‘bad habit killer’ that we’ve all been desperately searching for. Next time you experience a trigger, take a moment and just be inquisitive. Why are you feeling this way? What’s really going on? More often than not, this pause will be enough to alter the trajectory of your bad habits and spur on the adaption of new-and-improved behaviors.

If you’re looking for some anecdotal evidence, I can confidently say that the three months since I heard Dr. Brewer’s Ted Talk has been some of the best of my entire life. It’s not a perfect ride, but rather a continual journey to becoming a better version of myself every day. Each trigger I overcome is another mini-victory, contributing to the collective effect that is transforming my life.

Be curious. It has the power to give you freedom as you’ve never felt it before.