How to Form Great Habits Using Triggers

Forming habits is hard. But attaching a trigger to your habit can make it stick much more easily.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #414

The best way to learn something, complete a long term project, or pick up healthy routine is to form… habits! Without a habit, you have to use self-control. Hey, Oreo Ice Cream cake, I’m going out, now. I’m going to the gym, instead. See? I’m putting my gym clothes in the bag. What’s that you say? You’ll miss me? Oh, jeez. I’ll just come over to make sure you’re OK… and you’re more than OK. You’re delicious! You’re AMAZING! You’re … You’re.. ARGH!!! OREO ICE CREAM CAKE, TAKE ME AWAY!!

We hate self-control. 

Fortunately, there’s a better way: blind, unthinking habit. If you set up habits, all the self-control energy is freed up to devote to the actual work. But forming habits is hard. Ironically, it takes … self-control. Try as we might, we still don’t end up using that gym membership more than once a week. Or month. Or… year. So we need to find a way to make the habit stick.

One great way to do it is to use a trigger. 

Find the Trigger for Your Habit

A trigger to spur a certain activity can be anything. An unconscious one is light. When the sun streams through our windows in the morning, eyes snap open and we jump into the awesomeness of our day! Unless you’re like me and you use blackout curtains so you don’t have to wake up until it’s dark enough outside and time to eat.

The neat thing is that you get to choose the trigger for habits you’re establishing. You can choose a specific time of day to do the habit. Most of us brush our teeth right before bed, or right after breakfast. You can choose a place for the habit. If you’re trying to read more books, the trigger could be the comfy, comfy chair by your bookcase. It will become your “reading chair.” Sit in chair, grab book, start reading. Or you could choose a person, like a running or gym buddy.

Intern MG just got back from Cirque du Soleil where there was a juggler. Not just a juggler, a super juggler. He was tossing six pins hundreds of feet in the air. With one hand. And of course MG just has to learn everything epic he sees, which makes his humility all the more insufferable when he masters it. So he decided to learn to juggle. 

To establish a habit of practicing juggling, MG chose his lunch break as a trigger. Every day at noon, he would go far, far back into the copy room and juggle. Now the trick is attaching the habit to the trigger.

Practice or Rehearse When the Trigger Occurs

Perfect your ability to do the habit by consciously practicing it. If your trigger is a room, go into the room. Practice. Leave the room. If you’re going to practice, if possible, re-create the trigger first, or do it in that room. If your trigger is a time, be rigorous about how close to that time you practice. If the time is 12:00, don’t wait until 12:15. Be ready at 11:55, and then hit it right on the mark. It will lend ceremony and style to your new habit. Think of it as a Japanese tea ceremony. With juggling pins.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.