Triggers and Habits

By Leo Babauta

Triggers are a little-known key to forming a new habit (or breaking an old one).

A trigger is an event that will kick off that automatic urge to do a habit. For example, smokers have a number of triggers — when they drink alcohol or coffee, many smokers will want to smoke.

But this works for positive habits as well. Waking up can trigger habits such as drinking coffee, brushing your teeth, going running, or anything you want.

Habits become automatic after we’ve created a bond between the trigger and the habit — the stronger the bond, the more ingrained the habit.

Triggers and automatic habits are how we’re able to drive home sometimes without even thinking about what we’re doing — the drive home has a series of triggers (a stoplight, a turn after a store, etc.) that cause us to do certain actions out of habit — turning, slowing down, etc. We want to put our new habits on autopilot, right after a trigger.

And if we have bad habits, we want to take them off autopilot and disassociate them from their triggers. We need to list every trigger for the bad habit, and then come up with a new positive habit for each trigger.

For example, when I quit smoking, one of my triggers was to smoke after meetings — instead, I went to my computer and typed up my notes for the meeting and sent out any necessary emails. Another trigger was stress — so instead of smoking when I got stressed, I did deep breathing and exercise. These are just examples, but you can think of your own positive habits to go with each trigger for your bad habit.

What you want to do is create a strong bond between the trigger and the new habit. So each time the trigger happens, you need to consciously perform the new habit. It has to be very conscious and deliberate at first, but over time this gets easier, and the new habit becomes almost automatic. Do it as consistently as possible, every time the trigger happens. The less consistent you are, the weaker the bond between trigger and habit. The more consistent, the stronger the bond.

How to Choose a Trigger

Think about the habit you want to create and when you want to do it.

You need to find a trigger that’s already ingrained in your daily routine. Something you do every day, at about the same time, without fail.

Some examples of triggers you might already have:

  • Waking up
  • Brushing your teeth
  • Showering
  • Eating breakfast
  • Reading your morning paper/checking email in the morning
  • Commuting to work
  • Coming into the office in the morning
  • Eating lunch
  • Commuting home
  • Arriving home
  • A morning meeting
  • Taking the kids to school

There might be many other examples, but find one that happens when you want to do the habit, and happens regularly.

Doing the Habit Daily

Every single day, commit to doing your new habit right after the trigger. Immediately — with no delay. You’ll need to do this very consciously at first. You might want to post a reminder for yourself where you won’t forget it.

When you do the trigger, do the habit without fail.

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