Surf The Urge

Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight.
— Rollo May

Habits, routines, and schedules are intended to give us structure. Routines are a sequence of actions that we perform with a particular end in mind. Like maps, they give us directions for reaching a goal. Routines are most useful when they help us move through activities that are low in priority and allow us to conserve our mental energy. However, sometimes routines become automatic or outdated. They can become useless, or inappropriate to our goals or the situation we are facing at the moment. 

You probably have routines that are so much a part of you that you accepted them without notice or question. Routines are also instrumental in helping us form habits. If you want to change or establish a new habit, it is useful to understand how routines fit into the process. For example, if you want to start sitting up straight, you might begin with a reminder on your computer screen, then go into your routine of repositioning your body to allow you to sit up straight. If you do this enough, then you begin to form a habit of sitting up straight without the need of the reminder. Both routines and habits may not be an issue for us until we want to make a change. In those situations, we often feel powerless to overcome the deeply set pattern. Breaking a habit goes far beyond exercising will power. Human routines are stubborn patterns.

Habits and Our Brain

It is important to note that many habits are based on conditioning. Things become associated in our neural and chemical systems and our bodies exhibit a conditioned response. Think of Pavlov’s dogs. By striking a bell and then feeding the dogs, Pavlov was able to cause them to salivate at the sound of the bell, even when no food was present. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, has found that images alone can affect the rise of dopamine in our brains (Volkow & Baler, 2015).

This means that if we pass our favorite restaurant, or even see a picture of the menu, our brain may associate this with a meal and produces dopamine, a chemical related to feelings of well-being and pleasure. However, as human beings, we have a choice. We can learn to pause and notice the sensation of the urge and as the late psychologists, Alan Marlatt, said we need to learn to , “surf the urge as it peaks, crests and falls back down like the ocean" (Bowen & Marlatt 2009). It is important to know that many habits are conditioned and prompted by a stimulus. And we can choose to break habitual patterns by becoming aware and by introducing positive stimulus-response patterns for the habits we want to cultivate.

Mindfulness practice has been shown to activate the parts of the brain that are responsible for making conscious choices and to slow down those automatic responses.  This gives you the ability to widen the space between the stimulus and the response. In other words, practicing mindfulness gives you more time and space to make a decision about whether you want to act upon the impulse you are experiencing. It gives you more opportunity to consider your options and make a choice that is in alignment with your goals.

Make Routines and Habits More Intentional

Even if a routine is useful, that doesn’t mean it has to be mind-numbing. An example might be taking a shower, brushing your teeth, or getting dressed. Start each routine with the intention and freedom to experience it directly, and consciously—without falling into a habit or letting your mind travel elsewhere while your body moves automatically. How about changing the hand that you brush your teeth with? Have you ever taken a shower with your eyes closed or eaten your meal in silence? How would it feel to take a new route to work? Anything that changes patterns will enhance the experience and make you more aware of the present moment. Just slowing down and allowing yourself to be aware of your feelings and thoughts provides an opportunity to see routines in a new way.


Bowen, Sarah & Marlatt, Alan (2009) Surfing the Urge: Brief mindfulness-based intervention for college student smokers. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Vol 23(4), 666-671.

Volkow, N. D., & Baler, R. D. (2015). Opinion: NOW vs LATER brain circuits: Implications for obesity and addiction. Trends in Neurosciences, 38, 345-352. doi:10.1016/j.tins.2015.04.002


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