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Forming Of A Habit

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It is twelve thirty in the afternoon. Lunch time, thinks Amit, as he gets up from his desk. His regular gang of friends has started leaving its cubicles. They trudge purposefully towards the cafeteria. Light banter flows. There is a mild stress on their foreheads, a vestige of the day past. And a readiness for the day to come, nothing unusual. 
A hearty lunch, punctuated by usual talks of inflation, movies and jokes. The cafeteria food is free for all employees and is usually very good. 
Lunch time is over and they get up. Time for some dessert. Gulab jamun occupied the centre stage that day. Light brown, deep fried milk dumplings dipped in sugar syrup with a soft sweet interior and a crusty skin. It is said that Alexander was served Gulab jamun to welcome him in India. The famous Indian sweet is also a calorie bomb. Each dumpling may pack as much as four hundred calories. 
Amit knew this. He also knew that he would not be eating the sweet. He did not have it while helping himself with the food. He was on his way to shed weight and attain lower cholesterol levels. The last time, the doctor's words had been ominous. "At this rate, you will have a heart attack in the next three to four years", he had said. 
They got up once they were done with lunch.On his way back, Amit passed through the serving area once again. His eyes casually glanced at the serving bowl. The sweetmeat's texture and rich colour invited him gently. His eyes moved from the bowl to a person enjoying the same. The mildly intoxicating sugary smell wafted into his nostrils. He paused. Very soon, he had a bowl empty of two Gulab Jamuns. And a feeling of extreme guilt.
What made Amit break his resolve so easily? Could habit have something to do with it? Let us explore the science and the essential construct of a habit. 
Every habit has three parts: a cue,routine and a reward. A combination of these three makes a habit work (Duhigg, Power of habit).
A cue initiates a habit. It is the set of patterns that helps the outer brain (neo cortex) recognize a pattern from past. Think of it as the key to a lock. Nothing will happen untilthe pattern fits. It is derived from our senses (sight, touch, feeling, smell). For example, when we sit in the driver's seat, a certain pattern kicks in. This is different from the one when we sit in the passenger's seat. Once a pattern is identified, the neo cortex passes it to the inner (limbic) for executing the routine.
The execution of the routine then takes place. It may be driving, eating, walking or anything else. At this stage, the active brain disengages and lets the limbic brain carry the execution. The limbic brain coordinates multiple simultaneous actions to complete the execution. It does not decide whether it is good or bad. This is the reason why at times we don't realize or have any control over a routine. Eating a plate of sweet in this case. 
Reward is the last and the most important part of a habit. This is what the brain is actually craving for. It may be in the form of calmness, happiness or a sense of gratification that hits the brain after the execution. 
Once the brain has realized the gratification, it passes the control back to the neo cortex, shaking it back to action. Now the brainstarts assessing whether this was a good or a bad action. Hence the guilt or happiness later. 
What makes a routine automatic though is the repetition of a pattern. Doing something the first time does not form a routine. It is when I repeat a routine with the same cue and reward that it becomes a habit. With repetition, the brain records the reward almost as soon as it receives the cue. So, the pleasure is realized before the execution. This creates a craving in the body for the reward, causing the body to automatically perform a routine. 
This synchronization of cue-routine-rewards is happening all the time. The brain is actively scanning our activities and environment to see what may be automated. 
Routines combine the spirit and body uniting the subconscious and the conscious towards a single purpose. As with any tool, the way we chose to exercise the tool depends on us.
In the next article we explore how to unleash this power for one's self. Till then, know that the world is limitless. Let us take the first step.
The author is an engineer from IIT BHU and an MBA from MDI, Gurgaon. He has worked with General Electric, Proctor & Gamble and Infosys. Reach him at [email protected]

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