Triggers for Automated Habits

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:

  • waking up
  • going to sleep
  • eating a specific meal
  • an alarm set on your watch
  • opening your computer

Here are some contextual triggers:

  • feeling tired
  • the phone ringing during work
  • feeling hungry
  • receiving an email
  • turning on the TV

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.


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