Experiments in Habit Triggers

I’m a close follower of James Clear’s work, and recently attended his annual habits seminar. This seminar was brimming with information, but one thing that stood out was a nugget about how to use triggers to effectively build new habits.

Here are two ways to automatically tell your brain to start doing something new:

  • Piggy back new habits onto existing habits (James Clear calls this Habit Stacking.)
  • Use time as a reminder for the new behavior (i.e. schedule your habits)

One thing I’ve been struggling with is getting productive in the morning. I’m pretty good at getting up at 5am (more here), but I regularly fall into the trap of sinking into the couch first thing in the morning and reading facebook.

Boom. Just like that, an hour of my life is gone.

So for the last week I’ve started my day off a little differently. As soon as I get out of bed, I make my bed. Then immediately I brush my teeth. By the time I’ve done all of that, my brain is a little less foggy, and I can be deliberate about what I look at first thing in the day.

Here’s the trigger for this new behavior: getting out of bed in the morning.

I would also like to build a meditation habit. I’ve meditated previously with success, but recently I’ve had a mental block that tells me, “this is going to be too hard.” Combined with my routine of getting something productive done first thing in the morning and exercising on days where I have extra time, I usually skip the daily meditation. Once I leave the house, I’m much less likely to do it.

Here’s the trigger for this new behavior: ending a run.

I’m experimenting with this: as soon as I return from a run, I sit on my porch and meditate for 10 minutes. I’m exhausted, so I don’t have the mental energy to argue with myself. I simply know that after a run, I sit and meditate, no questions.

Another place where I’m applying these techniques is arriving at work. Here’s my usual schedule: arrive at work around 8, fill up my tea, check my email, and then get lost for a few minutes in reddit. Why did I get to work at 8 if I was going to waste an hour?

Instead, I’ve decided not to get tea first thing when I arrive. By avoiding the tea, I put myself in a different mindset. For the first hour, until our daily standup, I’m going to get something done. I can get tea just before standup starts, or just after, but by then I’ve already set the tone for the day.

Here’s the trigger for this new behavior: arriving at work.

It would be great if I could extend these ideas to my night routine. I’d like to start habits like flossing at night, as well as wearing blue blocking shades for better sleep quality. I’m not sure quite how to do this, since my bedtime habit currently is “stumble into my room, turn on my alarm, and fall immediately to sleep.”

Here’s one idea I’ll start trying: set an alarm for 8pm and get ready for bed.

What habit triggers are you using?

*Edit* Coincidentally, this week I stumbled upon Gretchen Rubin’s new book, Better Than Before, Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. So far I’ve only read a few reviews, but the gist seems to be that you need to schedule new habits into your life. The reviews seem very positive – definitely check this one out.


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