If New Year’s resolutions are notorious for one thing, it’s that they’re easy to break. Our resolve to eat healthier gets thrown to the wayside when we are stressed by work or home life. Our plans to go for more walks are pushed aside when more important matters compete for our time. 

And often by the time March 1 rolls around -- or even sooner -- we’re left wondering how we’ve managed to fall back into our old habits.

But breaking habits is never easy because, by their nature, they are ingrained in us until they have become automatic reflexes. It’s easy to mindlessly reach for snacks when we're bored, or sit down after dinner rather than go for a walk if that‘s how we‘ve done things for years. 

But perhaps the key to ending unhealthy habits is developing a skill called mindfulness. 

What exactly is mindfulness?

To psychologists, mindfulness means being fully aware of what is happening at this very moment. And one of the ways of maintaining this awareness is through mindful meditation.

In practical terms, mindfulness meditation involves sitting quietly and focusing the mind on one thing -- often the feel or sound of one’s breath. Then, as thoughts enter the mind, the idea is to take notice of the thoughts but not react to them; simply return the focus to the breath.

On the surface, it’s a simple technique; but it’s a skill that takes time to learn. Yet once mastered, mindfulness can have powerful effects, as a growing number of studies show.

Research over the last several years has found mindfulness meditation can help with depression by turning off the negative self-talk that often starts the spiral into deeper depression. Other studies have shown it can help with chronic pain and anxiety disorders. 

Those who regularly practise mindfulness say it does more than just relax them during the meditation itself; over time, they begin transferring the mindfulness technique of “quieting the mind”  into their thought processes throughout the day. 

Sarah Housser is a psychotherapist who teaches mindfulness techniques to those with depression and anxiety at The Mindfulness Clinic in Toronto. She says her patients often have a hard time understanding how simply sitting still for 20 or 30 minutes is going to translate into happiness or better mental health.

"People often ask, 'Okay, I'm going to follow my breath and then that's supposed to make me less depressed? What's the connection?'" she says.

But she explains is that mindfulness forces us to be aware of what’s happening right now, to fully experience the moment -- and not judge it.

While that sounds simple enough, it’s not easy to do, particularly when our minds are used to multitasking or focusing on several things at once.

"Usually, our minds are worrying about the future or the past, or criticizing something or wanting something or judging something," she says. "But what that means is we’re not really awake to the moments of our life. We’re just getting ready for the next thing. Instead of enjoying what we're eating, for example, we're thinking about what we're going to do after we eat. And we miss a lot.”

By focusing only on this moment right now, Housser says it gives our minds a chance to take a break and reset themselves.

"It's like de-fragmenting the computer or tuning an instrument; it just kind of settles you back to something that is more real -- so that those moments carry on,” she says.

Ending negative self-talk often key 

Mindfulness also urges us not to react to thoughts that enter the mind during a meditation. When thoughts begin to creep in and distract, instead of getting irritated, the idea is to simply notice the thoughts, send them away gently and re-focus on the breath. With enough practice, this ability not to judge or react to intruding thoughts becomes a habit in itself.

Housser explains that many of us, especially those with depression or anxiety, have a loop of negative self-talk playing in our heads -- even when many of the worries are neither helpful nor even true.

Practising mindful meditation can allow us to take a break from those thoughts and refocus, so that when negative thoughts begin again, they can be seen more clearly for what they are.

"So mindfulness is a way to come back. We can say to ourselves, 'You don't need to fix everything'," she says.

"The concept I like to think about is that the mind is going to pump thoughts the way the heart pumps blood. We can't stop our thoughts. We just don't need to take all of them so seriously. They're just thoughts and they're constantly changing."

Learning to use mindfulness to slow the mind, to take notice and appreciate each moment, and to recalibrate when we are over-reacting to thoughts are all skills that can take a little time to master, Housser says.

"In the program we offer, we ask our patients to practice a half an hour of mindfulness meditation a day for eight weeks," she says.

"And it's often by the fourth week that people start to notice that they're catching it more in their daily life, where they're not reacting quite as quickly to emotions or the automatic responses that they know will create the same dynamic or thought patterns."

Self-awareness as a way to shift habits 

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions -- which are often about habits -- the first step is awareness of our habits and what compels us to slip back into them. The next step is convincing ourselves to resist that urge.

Housser says mindfulness can help with both.

“People can use mindfulness as a way to shift habits because what you're learning is the ability to notice a sensation or a desire, and to just sit with those sensations without reacting to them. If you just sit with the sensations long enough, they will pass,” she says. 

Mindfulness can also help when we fall off the resolution wagon by reminding us not to beat ourselves up over our misstep and by renewing the resolve to try again. A key principle of mindfulness meditation involves acceptance. When the mind wanders during a meditation, the key is to accept that it will. As Housser says, that’s just what the mind does -- just as the heart pumps blood. 

“Instead of judging yourself, the instruction is just to bring yourself back to the present. The same is true with making goals for change,” she says. 

“You can try and promise to go the gym more often. But if you find after a time that you've fallen away, you can just start again if you let go of the judging story of: 'Oh God, here I go again, failing at this.' Instead you can say: ‘Okay, I've kind of lost my way with my goal. But I can just begin again,’ ” she says.

As simple as mindfulness sounds, it’s difficult to learn on one’s own, Housser believes. She recommends taking an introductory course, because an instructor can offer guidance on how to stay focused and overcome obstacles. 

But for those not interested in taking workshops, Housser says anyone can learn to incorporate more mindfulness into their day.

“It doesn’t have to be airy fairy or mysterious. You can practise it formally, but you can also try it out by resolving to bring a little bit of it into every day. Like when you're eating, really taste your food. When you're washing dishes, be there instead of rushing through it to get it done,” she says.

“What you'll find is what you get is more time. If you’re really awake moment to moment, you get to have each moment of your life instead of missing most of them.

“It’s about waking up to your life.”