Have you noticed that Cinnabon stores in shopping malls are almost never located within the food court? In the last year, I doubt I have been in a mall more than three or four times, but I don’t recall ever seeing a Cinnabon store adjacent to other food stores. In fact, the Cinnabon kiosks are intentionally situated away from the other food vendors.
At first glance, that does not seem to make sense. After all, when you are at a mall, and you become hungry, the image of the food court or a fast-food restaurant located there typically will come to mind. Since that is what usually happens, why would the baked goods store deliberately put their facility far away from the food court?
Here is the reason: The executives of the company want the smell of the cinnamon rolls to waft or float undisturbed dawn the corridors of the mall, to reach the unsuspecting shoppers, and to start a subconscious craving for the rolls.
In many shoppers, the fragrance triggers a powerful habit. Such habits have a more significant influence on our lives than we usually realize.
The choices we make each day feel like the result of our logical and deliberate decision-making processes. But over 40 percent of them are not! That is according to a paper published in 2006 by a researcher at Duke University.
If close to half of our decisions are not the product of conscious thought, what are they? They are the product of a unique pattern of neurological processing. In concise terms, they result from a habit.
Charles Duhigg defines a habit as “the choices we all deliberately make at some point and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day” (The Power of Habits, xvii).
When we establish a habit, we stop thinking about the options we have. Instead, at an often-subconscious level, a neural pattern engages, and we act accordingly.
By understanding how conscious, thoughtful choices become subconscious, automatic processes or programs the brain plays, we can stop useless or harmful habits, create new habits, and replace existing habits. Changing habits is not particularly quick or easy. In fact, it is often a little complicated, but it is doable. The investment in time and effort is well worth the benefits that precisely chosen habits can produce.
Today researchers know the mental and behavioral loop that constitutes a habit. It begins with a trigger and cue. The cue could be anything: a fragrance, the time of day, a question, a color, a sound, music, an emotion, an image or sight of a person’s face, etc.
Second, the trigger sets in motion a routine or pattern. Like triggers, patterns can take countless forms: brushing your teeth immediately after the alarm clock sounds, putting the key in the ignition, taking a particular route to work or home, check email, saying, “hello” to a coworker, turning out the light at bedtime, etc.
Third, the routine or pattern of behavior produces a reward. The pattern has a payoff. You gain something, or you avoid something. As with triggers and patterns, rewards can take an endless number of forms. For instance, if you take the same route to work each day, you avoid the stress of choosing it. That saves mental energy (electrical and chemical) for other activities such as paying attention to drivers.
To create a new habit or change an old one, along with a trigger, a pattern, and a reward, two other dynamics come into play: First, we must create a compelling desire—what researchers call a “craving”—for the reward. Second, we must believe or have faith that the pattern of behavior will produce the desired reward.
As Duhigg summarizes, new habits are created “by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.” In many situations, believing the routine will produce the reward is also necessary.
One of the best examples of the need for a new habit is when the doctor says, “I have the EKG report, and you must start exercising.” If you have been a couch potato for the last 10 or 20 years, how can you make exercise a habit?
First, decide on a simple trigger. When do you want the habit of exercise to engage? Let’s suppose it is in the morning. The trigger could be the sound of the alarm clock, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the early rays of sunlight that fill your bedroom, lacing up your running shoes. For simplicity, we will use the alarm clock.
Second, set out and begin following a pattern of behavior when the alarm clock, our trigger, sounds: put on exercise clothes and shoes, pick up the keys or fab and drive to the health club, head for the elliptical trainer, etc.
Third, decide on a reward. In the example of exercise, you will want to choose the reward carefully. You will probably wake up the second-morning feeling soreness from head to toe because of the activity the previous day. You may, therefore, feel worse, not better.
In that case, the reward might be a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that you are doing something beneficial for your health and mental wellbeing, etc. Of the many other possibilities, you might decide each morning you exercise you will indulge in a midmorning snack.
As the soreness wains and you begin to feel the positive results of exercise, you can change the reward to include the good physical feeling. For many people, the experience of exercising itself becomes very positive and a reward in itself.
In one study, 92 percent of the people who exercised regularly said they did it because it made them feel good. That is the craving that is necessary to habituate the pattern of exercise.
When you exercise, the brain releases endorphins that produce the “feel good” sensation. People who form and keep the habit of exercise begin to crave the natural lift or high that exercise provides.
Finally, for many people, beginning the entire process of habit formation is an act of faith. They come to believe that the exercise the doctor tells them they need will, in fact, make a positive difference in their lives. The process of habit formation—and in our example, the benefits of exercise—is not likely to be achieved unless we believe that the process will work.
Settle on a simple trigger. Select a pattern. Choose a reward. Develop a craving for the reward. Believe the process will work!