The 5 Triggers That Make New Habits Stick

Time is perhaps the most common way to trigger a new habit. Common morning habits are just one example. Waking up in the morning usually triggers a cascade of habits: go to the bathroom, take a shower, brush your teeth, get dressed, make a cup of coffee, etc.

There are also less commonly recognized ways that time triggers our behavior. For example, if you pay attention you may notice that you repeat certain tasks mindlessly at different points during the day: heading off to get a snack at the same time each afternoon, taking a smoking break at the same time each morning, and so on.

If these patterns are bad habits, then you may want to take stock of how you feel at this time of day. In many cases, your habits are a signal of how you feel. Bored? Maybe your afternoon snacking habit is a way of breaking up the monotony of the day. Feeling lonely? Maybe your smoking break is a way to connect with fellow co-workers. The point is, if you understand the reason why these habits pop up at the same time each day, then it can become easier to find a new habit to fill the void. Bad habits are replaced, not eliminated.

How I use it: Time-based triggers can also be used to stick with routines over and over again. This is my preferred method. For example, every Monday and Thursday I write a new article and post it on JamesClear.com. The time and date drive this pattern. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad I feel about the article. It doesn’t matter how long or how short the article is. All that matters is that I stick to the schedule. The time triggers the habit.

If you have ever walked into your kitchen, seen a plate of cookies on the counter, and eaten them just because they are there in front of you, then you understand the power of location on our behavior.

In my opinion, location (i.e. environment) is the most powerful driver of mindless habits and also the least recognized. In many cases, our habits and behaviors are simply a response to the environment that surrounds us. The famous study on water versus soft drink consumption is one example of how our environment can either promote good habits or lead us toward bad ones.

However, location-based triggers are not simply things we respond to, they can also be things we create. Multiple research studies by David Neal and Wendy Wood from Duke University have discovered that new habits are actually easier to perform in new locations.

One theory is that we mentally assign habits to a particular location. This means that all of the current places that you’re familiar with (your home, your office, etc.) already have behaviors, habits and routines assigned to them. If you want to build new habits in these familiar locations, then you need to overcome the triggers and cues that your brain has already assigned to that area. Meanwhile, building a new habit in a new location is like having a blank slate. You don’t have to overcome any pre-existing triggers.

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