It’s 4:00, Tuesday afternoon. You’re finally home.
It was a rough day – two big tests and a surprise quiz. You really should outline your history paper that’s due in three days. But maybe you’ll stream a little Netflix first. Or do a quick Instagram check. The next time you look up, it’s 6:30.
Sound familiar? You don’t realize it, but your behavior is a response to one of the key habit triggers. In this case, you’ve associated one event (coming home) with another (fun phone or computer time).
In an earlier post on poor time management we learned about executive skills, which we need to function effectively in our daily lives. We also learned that it can be hard for high school and college students to build executive skills because of how the human brain develops. But executive skills are something you can learn with practice.
Like learning a sport or how to play a musical instrument, to get really good at executive skills, you have to work on them consistently. You have to make them a habit.
But how do we develop habits? Especially when it comes to something like goal setting or planning? And how do we change the bad habits that hold us back?
In this post we’ll look at the five habit triggers. Over many years of research, scientists have found these five things help us develop good (and break bad) habits. We’ll go over how each of the habit triggers works and give some examples of how you can use habit triggers to transform your behavior.
But first let’s look at the role habits play in our lives. You’ve heard the saying “humans are creatures of habit?” Well, it’s true.
The key to forming good habits (and breaking bad ones) is understanding the habit cycle, which has three stages.
The Habit Cycle
Stage 1. The trigger/cue. A trigger is something that stimulates your brain to perform a certain action. There are different kinds of triggers, including place and time.
Stage 2. The response. This is the action you take in response to a habit trigger. Responses can be positive or negative, which is where the idea of good and bad habits comes from.
Stage 3. The reward. This is the benefit you get from performing a habit. The reward is why you perform habits over and over – you like how taking the action makes you feel, even if it’s associated with a bad habit.
So how can we use the habit cycle to transform our habits? The best place to start is the first stage. If we can train our brain to respond in certain ways to specific triggers, we lay the foundation for developing good habits or for changing bad ones. And good news: most of the five common habit triggers are easy to add into your daily life.
5 Triggers That Can Transform Your Habits
Habit Trigger #1: Place
Scientists have found that location is one of the most important habit triggers. If you want to develop a new habit, pick a particular place that you will associate only with that habit.
If you get distracted by your phone when you’re studying, create a “no phone zone.” This is an area set aside specifically for studying where you must turn off your phone.
(Gasp! No phone??! I know. Look, developing good habits is important, but not always fun.)
Your no phone zone could be at the library or in your house. The important thing is that you turn off your phone every time you enter this space.
The space acts as a location trigger, the response is turning off your phone, the reward is getting more quality study time (and maybe better grades). If you do this consistently, it’ll become a habit and soon you won’t even remember that your phone is off.
If you want to develop a “no phone zone” you’ll probably need to pick a new study spot. Why? Because it’s a lot easier to develop a positive response to a new habit trigger than to change your response to an old one.
If you’ve been studying at your desk with your phone on, it will be hard to start seeing your desk as a “no phone zone.” If possible find a new study space. If you can’t do that, try rearranging the furniture in your room so your desk is in a new spot. Giving your space a new look makes it easier to start seeing it in a different way.
Habit Trigger #2: Time
Time is also a really important habit trigger. Most of us already have time-based habits: brushing your teeth before you go to bed, taking your vitamin right after breakfast and so on. Over time these habits have become so routine that we do them without much (or any) thought.
However, if you’re trying to develop a new habit, you’ll need to consciously set aside time for it. It’s true: you do what you make time for.
If you’re rushing out the door in a blur every morning, you can set aside time the night before to pack your bag/backpack for the next day. This task won’t take long, but could reduce the stress of your morning routine.
The best way to develop a habit like this is to set aside a specific time to do it. Maybe you’ll take five minutes before you go to bed to pack your bag. Or do it right after dinner. When is up to you. What’s important is that you consistently make the time to do this each day. Eventually you’ll pack your bag without thinking about it and will wonder why your mornings used to be so stressful and rushed.
Habit Trigger #3: Existing Habits
One effective way to develop a new habit is to attach it to an old habit. Scientists call this a preceding event. I refer to it as the 1-2 punch, because you knock out two habits in quick succession.
For example, after I wash my dinner dishes each night, I clean the kitchen countertops. For me, washing dishes is the preceding event that triggers my cleaning response. With this 1-2 punch, I am able to keep my kitchen clean and organized, which is the reward.
So how can you use the 1-2 punch? Maybe (hopefully) you brush your teeth before bedtime. If you want to set aside time to organize your backpack every day, you could tie that to your teeth brushing habit. After you brush your teeth, you pack your bag for the next day. In this way, you use one good habit to help develop another good habit.
Tying one habit to another like this is called habit stacking. This is an effective way to build habits and routines that can help with time management and productivity.
Habit Trigger #4: Your Peeps
The people we hang out with have a huge impact on our lives, for better or worse. If you want to develop good habits, you need spend time with people who have good habits.
Imagine this: you’re meeting several friends to study for a big test. When you get there, everyone is chatting. The topic of conversation soon changes. Someone starts talking about hating French class. Then someone else says they hate French class too. Pretty soon, everyone is griping about French class, the French teacher, life in general. No one is actually studying.
That’s how most group study sessions start. But complaining isn’t going to get your homework done. What can you do instead?
Form your own study group. Find students who always seem to have their work done on time. People who seem responsible and won’t flake out on a study session. Students who have good time management skills so your time is used effectively.
You can still spend time with your friends…just not your study time.
Habit Trigger #5: Your Emotions
Emotions play a huge role in our habits – usually a hugely negative one.
“Stress eating” is one way our emotions negatively influence our behavior. “Retail therapy” is another. Procrastination…yep, you guessed it.
Procrastination isn’t about time, it’s about motivation. People procrastinate when they feel bored. This is another example of how our emotions negatively influence our behavior.
Emotion-based habits are the hardest to overcome for two reasons.
First, we usually aren’t aware of the emotions driving our behavior at the time we’re taking action. So you may eat or buy something impulsively, even if you know you shouldn’t. Later you realize you were stressed out, but at the time, you weren’t aware that stress was driving your decision-making.
Second, we often stack emotion-based habits with other habits that have different cues. For example, suppose you do biology homework right after you get home every day. You don’t like biology, so you tend to eat junk food while doing your biology homework. In this case, you’ve created a good habit (specific study time for biology), but have a stacked a negative emotion-based habit (stress eating) with it.
Changing Emotion-based Habits
Because emotion-based habits require a high level of awareness of our emotions, it’s difficult to use this cue to our advantage. Most of us just don’t carry enough awareness on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis to create positive emotion-based habits.
However, you can make yourself more aware of how emotions exert a negative influence on your behavior. One method many people use is journaling. The act of recording what you did and why you did it can help you recognize and cope with similar situations in the future. Once you’re aware of what is driving your behavior, you can focus on creating a different, positive response to the trigger.
Developing good habits takes time and commitment, no doubt. But if you really want to build good time management, planning and other skills it takes to be successful, building good habits is worth the effort. You can start by paying attention to how common habit triggers like place, time and emotions influence your behavior. Awareness the first step to overcoming bad habits and creating new ones.
Have you overcome a bad habit? How did you do it? Or do you have a good habit you want to share with others? Let us know in the comments section.