Building effective habits: Triggers and Purpose

Habits are a powerful thing. When you’ve got a behavior nailed into a habit, you can get it done without thinking about it, saving precious mental room for the stuff you need to be thinking about — like that next vacation or taking over the world.

If you’re like me, you struggle sometimes to build good habits. After all, there’s a difference between a habit of doing pushups every morning or a habit of eating gravy fries with cheese for every meal.

So I got my friend Victor Mathieux, the founder of Everest, and habit-designing maestro to sit down and share some thoughts.
Enter Victor Mathieux
Habits help to lower the amount of friction we feel towards taking action. They help us take the things we do and make them part of how we define ourselves.

Let’s take the example of brushing your teeth. It’s quite likely that you’ve developed a habit of brushing your teeth and no longer need to consciously decide every morning whether you should brush your teeth or not. The decision is already made for you and since decisions require brain power, every morning you end up saving a little mental energy and walking out of your bathroom with clean teeth thanks to a habit.

You weren’t born with a particular interest in keeping your teeth clean, but there are several factors that have contributed to your daily scrubbing. Let’s take a quick look at two of them:

1. Trigger:
In simple terms, a trigger is a signal or event that kicks off an automatic urge or mental reminder to do something. For example, waking-up might be a trigger to initiate a hygienic routine in which your brush your teeth; or perhaps you’re reminded to brush your teeth every time after you eat a meal. The stronger the bond between the trigger and the action, the less conscious decision making it requires, and as a result, the stronger the habit.

2. Purpose:
Purpose can be seen as the reason(s) for which something is done. You may brush your teeth because you want to keep yourself healthy, dislike having bad breath, care about a social standard, or simply want to make your mom proud. Without knowing why you want to truly do something, it can be challenging to build a habit. Notice how it’s much harder to tell (or smell for that matter) at a glance if someone flosses every day as opposed to brushes their teeth. There’s less accountability and as a result it seems that more people have trouble building a habit of flossing. I know that I personally didn’t start flossing regularly until I heard about a study which claimed that flossing could dramatically reduce chances of cardiovascular disease. I didn’t even get the real statistics but as someone who values health this was enough of a reason for me to build the habit. It’s also important to acknowledge that knowing the purpose behind our actions helps us to remember the good reasons why we’re working hard, especially when things get challenging.

Without a trigger and purpose, habits can be challenging to build. Here are two personal examples of approaches at building similar habits, one which lasted for about a week and the other which was successfully formed into a lasting habit:

Daily push-ups — Approach #1
Trigger: Completing a task on the computer
Purpose: Consciously remembering to use the computer as a tool instead of a place (I often wish that working on the computer felt more like carving wood, but that’s a topic for another time).

Daily push-ups with team — Approach #2
Trigger: Ending our daily team meeting in the morning
Purpose: Increasing energy first thing in the morning amongst self and team. Strengthening a culture that’s aligned with Everest, the product we are building, which is built around the belief that there is separation between creating a better self and a better world.

Approach #1 ultimately failed because it would have required me to first build a habit of consciously acknowledging when a task was completed on the computer. In other words, the trigger I chose depended on a the existence of another habit I hadn’t built yet. The habit was also not particularly well suited for the purpose it was trying to serve. If all I wanted to do was  to consciously remember to use the computer as a tool instead of a place, perhaps it would have been more effective to change my desktop background to a phrase saying “this computer is a tool, not a place”.

Approach #2 on the other hand succeeded quite nicely. The trigger was something which occurred consistently with little dependency (as long as I went to work, the meeting was a regular occurrence in my daily life) and the purpose was well aligned with the action. Pushups gave us energy and helped us to build a culture where we push (no pun intended) each other to be the best we can.

In short, spending some energy to identify effective triggers can save us energy in the long term and better understanding what drives the purpose behind our actions to make sure they are aligned can allow us to build more effective habits.

My thanks to Victor for sharing his thoughts here. Check out his company, Everest. and feel free to tweet him @victormathieux