I've had a few friends who've gone through quitting smoking. The hard part, they say, is that certain things trigger wanting to smoke. Stressful situation? Time to smoke. Driving a car? Time to smoke. Drinking at a bar? Time to smoke. The reason that bad habits are so hard to quit is that we have these many triggers that start us down that path almost automatically. A compulsive eater might get into a stressful situation and have a hamburger halfway into their face before they even consciously think about whether or not they should be eating.
The silver lining of this nuance of human nature is that we can also harness triggers to create positive habits. Just as bad habits are so hard to break because of our triggers, good habits can be made resilient using the same mechanism. And just as bad habits are built slowly and incrementally, so are good habits.
I meditate for five minutes every day. As soon as I wake up, I grab my phone and press the start button on a five minute meditation timer. Waking up is my trigger. At first I had to remind myself to do the meditation every morning, but now I do it almost automatically. It would feel strange not to meditate. Just as a veteran smoker is likely to have a harder time quitting than a new smoker, the longer I keep my meditation habit, the easier it becomes to maintain.
There are two main types of triggers: contextual triggers and constant triggers. Waking up is a constant trigger, since I do it every single day and want to meditate every day. A contextual trigger is something that happens at an inconsistent frequency. For me, feeling tired during the day is a contextual trigger. Whenever that happens, I drink a glass of water, because I've found that sometimes I'm just dehydrated and not actually tired.
Here are some examples of constant triggers:
Here are some contextual triggers:
Constant triggers are best used for daily habits that aren't related to the trigger itself. For example, if you want to write a blog post every day, you might use your lunch as a trigger. Whenever you finish eating lunch, you start writing. Contextual triggers are best used to remedy problems or maximize situations. Maybe if you're feeling hungry, you eat a cup of raw broccoli and three walnuts. That will make you less hungry and force you to eat nutrient dense foods. Or maybe whenever you turn on the TV you do fifty push-ups to combat the sloth of TV watching.
Another trick I use is using habits as triggers. Meditation is a trigger for getting out of bed. Before I meditated I might sit in bed and read facebook on my phone, but now the final bell of meditation is my trigger to get out of bed. Getting out of bed is my trigger to put a pot of tea on the stove. Turning on the stove is a trigger to brush my teeth. Drinking tea is a trigger to go through email and star the ones that need replies. Finishing my tea is a trigger for writing my daily blog post. Saving the blog post is a trigger to plan my SETT work for the day.
By chaining these habits together, I'm able to have a very productive morning almost on autopilot. Sometimes I take a step back and notice that it's a little bit strange how set in stone all of these things are. I can sort of imagine a world where I wake up, leave the RV, and eat a stack of pancakes, but it seems like a very foreign series of events that couldn't ever really happen in my life. Just as waking up is a near-certainty, so are all of my chained habits. I have a similar chain for going to sleep as well.
The one chink in the armor of all of this triggering and chaining is that it falls apart very quickly when traveling. When I was in Japan last month I would usually meditate every morning (though only at about 70% consistency), but because I didn't have tea or proper brewing equipment, my whole chain fell apart. I'd often get writing done and usually get to my email, but it took thought, happened at random times, and just didn't happen some days.
I think that the solution to this may be to either go mostly contextual while traveling (write blog posts for the entire duration of any flight, go through email whenever alone on a train, etc), or to come up with a simpler chain that doesn't rely on anything I don't pack. Even that would fall apart when traveling with other people, I think. The good news is that having all these habits makes it very easy to fall back into the swing of things when returning from a trip, which makes me less concerned with falling off while traveling.
Anyone who has tried to quit a bad habit, which is probably all of us, knows how powerful triggers can be. If they're going to make more work for us when eliminating bad habits, we may as well co-opt them to make less work in our everyday lives.
AUSTIN MEETUP: TONIGHT, Thursday May 23rd at 7:15pm, at Casa De Luz on Toomey Road. This is my favorite (vegan) restaurant in Austin. We'll all have dinner there together until 8:30 or so. Everyone is welcome.
Photo is the temple on Mt. Misen.
I have found I create my chain for the weekdays. Weekends, I travel, so I only have the first chair, meditation when I first wake up. After you create the weekend chain, it is easy to fall into and not feel bad because you broke the weekday chain.
Works for me. But each person must find their own chain.
Flying, and Surgery both have chained tasks, with checklists. The problem with chained tasks is that when the chain is broken, tasks tend to get lost, missed without awareness, even when the chain is picked up later. For hang-glider pilots, one of the obvious failures is falling out of the sky --because the "buckle into harness" task got lost when the chain was broken.
To help pick up the chain, musicians and other performers practice picking up the chain at multiple entry points -- you don't want to have to start the play or music again at the start every time you loose your place -- but that doesn't repair droped notes or lost lines.
Surgeons, pilots, and soldiers also have to practice situational awareness -- where am I, how did I get here, where am I going-- as a part of mindfulness, in the context of extensive subject training. All of that is actually much more difficult than simply having chained tasks, which is why even the experts depend on chained tasks, and only use the extensive training as backup, in case the chained tasks fail for some reason.
Anyway, there are some lessons there. If you want to, you can practice entry into your chain of tasks at different points. That will help you pick up the chain if it gets broken. And you can include situational awareness into your mindfulness practice. That is a bit unexpected -- at first you expect mindfulness not to include the future or the past -- but really it is just expanding your curiousity and awareness as you should. We aren't talking brain surgery or combat here, just life, so the deep subject training for unusual situations is just life experience, and you get that if you continue to have variety in your life experience.
This is one of the key principles BJ Fogg teaches in his TinyHabits courses.
My favorite constant trigger: peeing.
You do it several times a day. One of the triggers Fogg reported having used successfully goes something like "after I pee, I do two push-ups."
Gets you in the habit of doing pushups. Once that is successful, you can increase reps. And it provides natural incentive to wash your hands, because your hands were just on the floor...
Waking up and eating a stack of pancakes seems foreign? Man, I would love to read Tynan+kid blog posts :) I love the idea of triggers and habits but with little ones it seems like we're always in travel mode. Things change so much that we can't rely on waking up and being able to meditate; even for 5 minutes.
I've been managing my free time much more closely lately. I can say my meditation trigger is my first free 10 minute slot in the day. Next is my exercises, then writing if I get that many free time slots. I don't do these things at the same time everyday but I do get to them most every day.
Great post!! I didn't know habits (formation as well as giving up) were such a big issue. It sure was for me - to kick the bad and build the new. I wrote a post on my creativity ritual, and my page views just spiked. Traveling does seem to mess up the schedule, but, I think if a habit is formed it doesn't take much to go back to it again. Like you said, triggers are the key.
Very interesting article. Im fighting with many bad habits and this seems to help me understand mechanisms behind the "doing".
Few days ago i thought about why we college students (in germany actually) seem to have so many bad habits and are kind of "tilted". Maybe its because we dont really have a regular daily routine. And so we dont have enough context triggers.
Great post and nice pic :)
I've recently started exercising every morning before work for about 50 minutes. In my case my trigger is waking up. As you said, once something becomes a habit it's almost engrained in your nature and then it's almost awkward not to do it. The though part is to actually have the will necessary to develop the habit until it becomes second nature.
I've also found travel to be a "chain-breaker" as you put it. Since I love traveling so much, and I'm away somewhere on most weekends, I've found it impossible to keep my habits during that time. So instead I try to focus on the weekdays or whenever I am not out somewhere.
Since a decision only happens when it happens, are you sure you really have anything to do with it? Maybe you're not deciding, maybe you're being decided.........
I just walked back inside from smoking a cigarette. I thought to myself why? Well, I bought the pack because I was out drinking. I smoked becuase I was at the office. I sat down and read your post, and wow look at that! Good mind reading skills sir. Cut out the triggers and the habit vanishes. If you must force the issue without changing the triggers, it's a very difficult thing to do.
I've also seen the opposite side of the coin with weight training, supplimentation & meditation habits linked to constant triggers, and can attest to it's power from my personal experiences. I really like your idea of using contextual triggers for positive actions and at first glance it looks very powerful, I will do some experimenting!
It's awesome to see a post that identifies concepts behind observable phenomena, and goes a bit further to suggest a real application. Observe, philosophize, experiment, apply.
Thanks for sharing this, a timely post for me as well... I was just having a similar conversation with a good friend about meditation, triggers and habits-- it's amazing how as you begin to build the good habits, it gives you a place to hang other habits on within your day to build that chain. Thanks for keeping up your daily posting :)
It seems like almost high achiever I know finds the time to meditate and lift weights. Those are two fairly different activities which are usually associated with disparate stereotypes, but tons of high achievers do both. Not only do they do both of these things, but they ascribe some of their success to them.
Because of this observation, I've tried to meditate several times in my life. I went to a Vipassana retreat and left after two days. For a month I meditated for twenty minutes every night. The habit never seemed to stick, probably because I didn't know why I was doing it and didn't see any results.
Then I read a book called the Willpower Instinct. It said that both exercise and meditation increased will power. Further, it said that five minutes of meditation a day was enough, and that it would take two months for it to pay any dividends. Okay, I thought, I'll meditate every day for five minutes, and not quit for at least three months.
My technique, as outlined by the book, is to close my eyes, focus on my breath, and think "breathe in.... breathe out...". After a minute or two I stop the silent breathe in, breathe out chant and try to just focus on my breath. I used to find this process very frustrating, because I thought that if I strayed from thinking about my breath, that meant that I wasn't getting the benefits of meditation. It turns out the opposite is true-- meditation is supposed to be difficult, and it's this very straying and regrouping process that builds willpower.
According to Leo Babuata of zenhabits, meditation is the most important habit to implement.
Three years ago, I began meditation after StumblingUpon Babuata's blog.
Every morning I woke up, sat on a comfortable cushion, and listened to my breath for 10-15 minutes. Well, every morning I wasn't hungover. And every morning I wasn't busy with school work. Aaand every morning I was at home, and not on the road.