A Blog without a Trigger

shoeWhen I began this blog, I made a commitment to myself that I would post a blog on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month. Imagine my surprise when I sat down to write this and realized today is the THIRD Tuesday of July! What does it say about this blogger of habits that I’m already behind on my habit of blogging? I hope it says that even 2 years into this journey, I’m still learning!

It turned out to be fortunate timing, however, considering my topic this week is about triggers. It’s clear to me I need a different trigger for this habit.

So, a word about Triggers…Actually, a question
Have you every left your house intending to go one place (say, the mall) but your mind drifts off and before you know it, you’re on your way to work? You’re pretty sure it’s not that you love work more than shopping, so what happened?

If you remember from my previous blog (Ready to Dissect Your Habits), the anatomy of a habit includes 3 parts: the trigger, the behavior or act, and the reward. Our gracious brains feature this energy-saving device so that when we perform something we do often, our bodies can go on auto-pilot, freeing our mind to do other things, like hashing the pros and cons of spending $75 for the most perfect pair of shoes like EVER!

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg agrees that the most important component of a habit is the trigger. Look at the case of Mall v. Work. I would bet a pair of Jimmy Choo’s that they both start out in the same direction, and hence share the same trigger. Here’s how that works. If you turn left on Main street every morning to go to work, your brain has identified “turn left on Main Street” as a trigger to take you to work. However, if you also turn left on Main street to go to the mall, unless you are paying very close attention, your body is going to react to the “turn left on Main Street” trigger and send your eyes, arms and legs into auto-pilot (don’t worry, overworked multi-tasking member of the new millennium, I’ve got this from here, I’ll get you there safe and sound… go right on back to your shoe dilemma.) By the time you’ve reasoned yourself into the purchase (but only because they go so well with THAT dress) you look up and find yourself alone in the parking lot at work.

So, what does this tell us? First, before spending that kind of money on shoes to match the dress, make sure you have the dress with you. There are an unbelievable number of shades of blue! Second, triggers are undeniably powerful! 

Once a Trigger Always a Trigger
In my last blog, I promised I would explain scientifically the power of the trigger. So, here goes (in totally ungeeky English). When you develop a habit, the trigger, behavior and reward (aka, the Path) are literally carved into your brain. The scary part of a habit is that it is permanent. The neurological path has been literally burned into your brain. (The Power of Habit starts with an amazing example of this with a man who could no longer tell you his name, but could, without assistance, walk a complicated path around his neighborhood without ever getting lost.)

The scarier part is that when you swap out an old habit for a new one – for example, smoking v non-smoking – your old habit doesn’t go away. That old path is still in your brain, lying dormant, just waiting for the trigger.

Wait! You don’t smoke!
A good example of this concept happened when I quit smoking in 2011. I hadn’t smoked in a couple months and believed I was finally over the worse part. I wasn’t actively fighting the urge every second of my life, so I stopped focusing on it so much. I went out to dinner with some co-workers. After dinner, as we lingered outside chatting, one of them offered me a cigarette.  I took it without even thinking – without even taking a break in my conversation – and was about to light up when my brain suddenly remembered “you don’t smoke anymore!”

Clearly, the old habit of “Whenever I finish a meal, I have a cigarette” was still alive and kicking, even though I hadn’t smoked in a month! What happened was my brain recognized the trigger of “finished eating” and my urge-stomping focus wasn’t clamped down on it anymore, so the habit just took over.

Harness the Power
Fortunately for habit-changers everywhere, we’ve learned that the best way to change a habit is to build a new habit based on the old trigger. If we use the smoking example, instead of just not smoking after I eat, I should have determined to do something else in its place, such as Go For A Walk, or Take 10 Deep Breaths (the extra lung work is a nice substitute for smoking – just trust me on this one).  If I did this, my new habit would have looked something like this: “Whenever I finish a meal, I take 10 deep breaths and say a prayer of gratitude.” This way, I’m not writing a whole new habit, I’m just changing the middle part, while leaving the trigger in-tact. As we saw with Mall v. Work, there is still risk when two behaviors share the same trigger. However, the more times you consciously choose the new behavior, the easier it will be for your brain to select that when it goes on auto-pilot.

This is why I recommended you start looking for your own triggers. When you are trying to swap out a less healthy habit for a more healthy one, the trigger is the key!!

So what about this Blog?

I realized my blog currently doesn’t have a trigger. I had set out some deadlines, but didn’t build any habits for the work. I love what Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, et al, say in their book Change Anything. When it comes to our own lives, we are both scientist and lab rat. We need to try something and then observe closely to see if it works. So, I’m going to employ that theory as I test out triggers for my blog. I do think weekly may work better than twice a month. Currently, my most available night is Thursday night, so I think I may try this: “After working out Thursday night, I write my blog.” I will still post on Tuesdays. I’m also going to set an alarm on my Outlook for Tuesday mornings to remind myself to post it if I haven’t. We’ll see how it goes this next week!  Stay tuned…


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