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How To Start A Habit In 2 Simple Steps

Press To Start Habit (White Wide Crop)

We all have things that we’d like to do more often.

For me, I’d like to read more regularly. I’d like to spend more time writing in my journal. I’d like to jump on the trampoline more often with my kids.

People generally have good intentions. The problem is that we don’t always do the things we want to do. This is why we need action triggers.

An action trigger is a simple and effective way to start a new habit.  It is a form of planning that primes the brain to do the things you want to do.[1] Setting an action trigger is easy. Just imagine yourself doing a new behaviour (an action). Then link it to a specific time and place (the trigger). When you reach this time and place, your brain will activate your mental plan and perform the action without much conscious effort.

Here’s the magic formula for creating a killer action trigger

Just ask and answer these 2 questions:
1) Where will I do it (what place)?
2) When will I do it (what day and time)?

For example, take a typical goal like “Talk to Bill about my risk management plan.” Now add a specific time and place to turn it into an action trigger: “Talk to Bill about my risk management plan when I see him at morning tea in the staffroom.” As you wash up your coffee cup on Tuesday morning, you’ll be reminded to have that chat with Bill.

Sound too simple? Here are some stats from the research

  • Workers who set an action trigger, pre determining where and when, were more likely to submit written assignments on time when compared with those who didn’t.[2]
  • Women who wanted to perform a monthly breast self-examination were more likely to do so after setting an action trigger (100%) compared with those who didn’t (53%).[3]
  • Workers who set an action trigger were almost three times more likely to achieve a hard goal (62%) than those who didn’t (22%).[4]

A word of warning. While action triggers can give incredible results, they can only motivate people to do things that they already want to do. You can’t trick yourself (or others) to do something you’re not committed or interested in doing.

Some examples

Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find you can use action triggers everywhere. Here’s a few ways that Tim and I help improve people’s productivity by using action triggers:

  1. Time blocking – we ask people to book calendar meetings with themselves to initiate desired behaviours (I.e. ‘process my email inbox to zero’ at set times during the day).
  2. Physical cues – we hand out notebooks / Moleskines for people to carry for 2 weeks. This physical cue helps to pre-load the habit of capturing ideas as they come into people’s heads.
  3. Clear to-do lists – we teach people to formulate to-do’s into action triggers, by adding contexts, team members and scheduled dates.

So next time you find yourself procrastinating or feeling overwhelmed, set an action trigger for yourself: 1) imagine yourself doing a new desired behaviour and 2) commit to where and when you’ll do that action.

Tell us what you’ve tried to do to start a habit?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2010). Switch:How to change things when change is hard. Random House, New York.
  2. Koole, S. and Spijker, M. (2000). Overcoming the planning fallacy through willpower: effects of implementation intentions on actual and predicted task-completion times. European Journal of Social Psychology, 30:873-888.
  3. Gollwitzer, P.M. and Oettingen, G. (1998). The emergence and implementation of health goals. Psychology and Health, 13:687-715.
  4. Gollwitzer, P.M. (199)): Implementation intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans. American Psychologist, 54:493-503.

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