The impact of mindset on habit formation is a topic of great interest in contemporary society, with insights on processes being shared across media platforms on how to best approach the subject. During a presentation at the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy’s Virtual Pharmacy Education 2020, Anita Cleven, PharmD, said that habits are not set in stone, as there are biological pathways that researchers have explored that highlight how mindset can be beneficial in changing preexisting habits.1

Before it’s possible to understand how to change habits, Cleven explained that it is first necessary to understand how we form habits.1 Cleven cited a book by Charles Duhigg that explained how scientists have come to understand that habits are formed due to the brain constantly trying to find ways to save effort.1,2

Left to its own processes, the brain will make almost any routine into a habit in order to minimize the effort that is required to engage in something new. Habits allow our brain to ramp down more often, making it an ideal choice in the attempt to save expendable energy.2

There are 3 main steps involved in habit formation, Cleven noted, which are cue, routine, and reward.1,2

The first step, cue, is a trigger that tells the brain when and how to respond in an automatic fashion. There are numerous cues that may arise in our daily lives, resulting from elements of time, hunger, emotion, or environment.1,2

The next step in the habit loop, routine, is a set of behaviors enacted in a particular order in response to a cue. According to the book by Duhigg, routines are not generally considered fun or pleasurable, but they have the potential to benefit our lives. Such routines may include doing laundry or backing up files on a computer, both of which are necessary and repetitive tasks.1,2

However, Cleven explained that routines are not frequently aimed at directly improving our lives, but instead are in place to avoid unpleasant situations in the future, as would be the case with the resulting consequences of not doing laundry or backing up files.1
The final step, reward, can be understood as the payoff in the habit formation loop. Cleven noted that this final step is not reactive to pleasure or desire to engage in the habit, as it is still able to generate a reward for an unhealthy routine. Such unhealthy routines that still have a reward could be overeating, smoking, using stimulants, drinking alcohol, or playing excessive amounts of video games. The nature of habit formation does not require our desire to engage in the habit for it to remain a rewarding one for us.1,2

For pharmacy students, this habit formation loop may directly correlate with study habits. During a weekend in which a student is very stressed regarding the amount of studying that needs to be done, a specific habit loop may become engaged.1,2

In this habit loop, the cue would be the emotion generated from the stress and the routine is the individual’s common reaction to this cue, such as going out and drinking with friends. The reward would be the ability to avoid studying, resulting in ignoring the amount of stress that the student would otherwise be experiencing if not engaging in that routine.1,2

However, this habit loop is not set in stone, according to Cleven. Mindset can allow us to become conscious of automatic routines that we have been engaging in, which then can allow us to change them.1,2

Cleven explained that the concept of neuroplasticity highlights how such a change is possible. Neuroplasticity explains that the brain is able to undergo biological changes throughout an individual’s lifespan, allowing the brain to adapt in cases of injury and disease in order to compensate for such problems.1

Neuroplasticity also allows the brain to adjust activities as appropriate in response to new situations or changes in the environment. This concept elucidates how the brain is still biologically able to undergo changes even throughout adulthood.1

In this way, Cleven explains that mindset becomes crucial, as it can change our openness to the biological processes that are available to us in regard to changing habits. With a fixed mindset, an individual believes that the skills and abilities they have is all that they will be able to acquire. However, with a growth mindset, the individual is able to acknowledge the possibility available to them to grow and change as new opportunities arise.1

For this reason, in order to change a negative habit, it is crucial to also believe that that change is possible, Cleven explained. If individuals believe they can or cannot change a habit, it is the belief itself that may guide the result.1

  1. Cleven A, Tanzer K, Pettinger T. How Pharmacy Students Can Adjust Their Mindset to Adopt Beneficial Habits. Presented at: American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy’s Virtual Pharmacy Education 2020; July 15, 2020; Virtual. Accessed July 17, 2020.
  2. Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House LLC; 2012.