Did you brush your teeth this morning? Do you remember any details about the event? Chances are that you performed this task without thinking much about it. Which arm did you put through your shirtsleeve first? Did you have to plan this out before you put your shirt on? Many of our daily activities are habitual after years of repeating them. Nothing about the previous statement was meant to mind blowing, rather an invitation to consider how much habits actually influence our lives.

We all want to form habits that are beneficial to us on some level. So how do habits form? To answer this I’ll share a story that I read in the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. If you have ever used Febreeze, you know that it is used to eliminate bad odors in your home. The chemical in Febreeze that neutralizes odor was, like many great inventions, discovered by accident. A scientist, who was also an avid smoker, realized that after handling this chemical, his clothes didn’t smell like smoke when he got home from work. Soon after the idea for what would become Febreeze was born.

Febreeze was initially an odorless product that was meant to remove unwanted smells.  When it was first released it was a flop, with sales so low that the project was almost scrapped. It wasn’t until some exhaustive market research that someone added a pleasant scent to the product, and it finally started selling. So why does Big Sur scented Febreeze sell better than plain, unscented Febreeze? After all, the product is intended to eliminate odor, so why the need for a scent? Simply put the pleasant scent provides a reward. No scent meant no reward, and no reward meant no habit was formed, i.e., buying febreeze.

Marketing firms are not blind to this phenomenon; many routine products that we assume are essential to our daily lives give simple consistent rewards for our behavior. Does your shampoo need to foam in order for it to work? Nope, but the research shows that foam is rewarding for people so now foaming shampoo is what sells. The same can be said for the minty aftertaste of toothpaste or the tingly feeling of your facial scrub. Neither of these feelings are a direct result of the product doing it’s job, but rather they are there to reward you for brushing your teeth and washing your face, and also reinforce the behavior so you continue to purchase the product.

The above products encourage beneficial behaviors that many of us would consider part of our daily routine, as do many others. So then how many behaviors or habits simply haven’t caught on? It’s not as if people in 1890 were brushing their teeth when they woke up in the morning; and if toothpaste tasted like sour milk, it probably wouldn’t matter how beneficial it is for our teeth, many of us would struggle to create that habit.

These habits help to satisfy a need for change, whether it is a change of environment or internal feeling. Your gym bag smells like it must contain at least one dead animal, this needs to change. You apply Febreeze to your gym bag and get rewarded with the smell of summer breeze. If you use Febreeze to solve all of your odor problems, this sequence will become a habit. Bad smell leads to Febreeze which leads to a rewarding smell, or put more simply, desire for change leads to satisfying behavior which leads to a reward; this reward is a chemical reward in the brain.

If this is the chain of events that lead to habitual behaviors then with a little self reflection we should be able to form new habits/change old ones. To break an existing bad habit, you first have to identify what is triggering the behavior.  For example, if you find yourself turning on the TV even though you know there is nothing interesting to watch, there is likely an underlying cause that needs to be sniffed out.   Maybe you are craving a mental break from a stressful day; maybe you know that the TV will attract other family members and you would like to spend time with them; or maybe you are simply distracting yourself from doing the dishes that have piled up in the sink.

Discovering the underlying cause then allows for the behavior to change and still be rewarding.   Finding an alternative way to relax, spend time with family, or acknowledging your procrastination is the first step to eliminate bad habits.

The above process is probably very intuitive to you, but make no mistake habits are not easy to change. Discovering what triggers a positive or negative behavior can take some serious investigative work and self-reflection. While not always pleasant, this is usually a healthy exercise to go through.  Changing/forming habits also requires a good amount of discipline, something that I’ll touch on in the 2nd part of this blog.

The exciting thing about habits is that we do have control over them. Take some time to plan out the healthy/positive habits that you want to form and create a strategy to form them.   For more information on habits and what drives our behavior, check out The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

Alex Harms – Alex is the Head Performance Coach at the PITT Training Facility located in Bozeman, MT.