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Habit Building: Triggers and Barriers

As all good stories go, it started with me on my toilet (ever since I started drinking Kombucha, my bowels have been moving more regularly than me). Before I knew it, I was pants down, sitting, scrolling through Instagram. This had become my ritual. Even after the deed had been done, I was still on my phone. On this particular session, however, the dots began to connect in my mind: what if instead of pulling out my phone every time I took a shit, I read a few pages of a book instead? What if I used me going to the toilet as a trigger for me to perform some other more productive task? And what if I made you read a whole paragraph revolving around me taking a shit?


The Problem with Motivation

A traditional view of habit building (as in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) goes something like this. I discover an action desirable enough that I want to make it a habit. I then do some research on how to perform this action well enough to ensure I become proficient in it. Finally, I gather all the will-power I can muster to make sure I perform this action regularly enough so that it becomes a habit. Habit building in this case is a perfect combination of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (motivation).

What I have found personally is that the motivation piece is where habit building most often breaks down. As the days and weeks roll on, what was a full tank of motivation slowly dwindles down until it finally sputters out. I am sure you have all experienced something similar. But is there an alternative to brute force will-power?


Overcoming Motivation

I first came across this idea of using triggers in habit building from the work of James Clear. A trigger is something that gets you to perform another action. For example, sitting on the toilet bowl triggered me to unlock my phone and open Instagram. The opposite of a trigger is a barrier, which prevents or makes it harder for me to take an action. For example, forgetting to bring enough cash may make it harder for you to buy an unhealthy snack on your way back from work.

The beauty is when you start to intentionally put triggers and barriers in place to maximize desirable actions and habits, while minimizing undesirable actions and habits. What does this look like? You could place a pull up bar on your door, and every time you walk pass you do 5 pullups – this is a trigger. You could place your TV remote away from your TV to make it harder for you to start watching Netflix – this is a barrier. You could combine a trigger and a barrier, and place your TV remote by your pull-up bar, such that you have to do 5 pull-ups before picking up the remote.

One thing James Clear talks about is how we all have these chunks of time that are determined by split moment decisions. If at bedtime I get in bed and in the moment decide to check my Twitter feed, that usually means I spend the next 20 minutes on my phone, thus pushing back my sleep time. If I get home from work and take meat out of the fridge, that means I am going to be spending the next hour cooking dinner. If instead I decide to take a nap, that probably means I will be ordering dinner tonight. We all have these “3 -second decisions” that determine how we spend the next block of 30 mins, an hour, or more. The key to gaining control over your time and productivity is not to sweat over those larger blocks of time. Instead, if you can master those split-second decisions, then you in effect have control over the larger chunks of time.


Triggers & Barriers

One tactic in mastering split second decisions? Utilizing triggers and barriers. Don’t want to spend 2 hours every night watching Netflix? Make it harder to make that decision to turn your TV on. Want to make going to the gym a habit? Put your workout clothes on your bed and change into them the moment you get home from work.

Find triggers and barriers that work for you. Sit down, plan it out, and be intentional with it. And don’t be afraid to experiment. So, what is a trigger in your life that you can begin to use right now?

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