How to Change Your Habits by Figuring Out Your Triggers

Josh Spry

Habits—good and bad—are just behaviors we automatically do in response to a cue. A cue might be as simple as feeling your phone buzz in your pocket (reaction: check your phone), or multidimensional, like being bored on a Friday night when it’s raining outside (reaction: binge Netflix). 

Habit change starts with identifying the cue, but it can be tricky. Sometimes we’re quick to identify a cue, only to find out later that something different really drives our habit. Or, maybe it’s a perfect combination of factors that prompt us to react automatically.  

So how can we slow down and discover all those tricky habit triggers? Done right, this step will start your habit journey on the right footing.

What are cues?

Human brains are masters at laziness. They assume that if we’ve been waking up and eating breakfast for the past 100 mornings, we should do that again on morning number 101. They even turn off the question that asks, “Hey, we just woke up, would you like to eat breakfast?” Instead, based on the cue of waking up, our brain just has us start pouring cereal without thinking.

We don’t actively think about these cues, so they can be difficult to identify. One way to think of them is to classify them as physical, emotional, or time-based signals.

  1. Physical signals are driven by what we can see, touch, smell, taste, hear, or where we are. For example, if you smell a co-worker making popcorn in the office kitchen, your habit might be to go find that coworker and ask for a handful. Our phones are loaded with physical cues like buzzing (feel), chiming (hear), or notification circles (see) that are effective in getting us to check social media posts or a new email.

  1. Emotions can cue our habits. For me, boredom is a very strong cue to check social media or start watching TV. Happy emotions, too, can drive a behavior—like the joy of seeing a cute puppy in the dog park, which triggers a post to Instagram.

  1. Time, or sequence of events, is also a strong trigger. We get used to performing behaviors one after the other: wake up/eat breakfast, or get home from work/sit down and watch TV. 

These three kinds of cues can combine sometimes in unique contexts. If I’m happy and spending time with a friend, I might be more inclined to have a coffee if it’s morning or a beer if it’s afternoon.

Brainstorm your cues

Now that you know what cues to look for, use this exercise to identify all your triggers.  

Step 1: Write the following sentence on a piece of paper in large letters. “When I __________, I always get a beer.” Now replace “get a beer” with a behavior you want to change. Like “I start watching TV” or “I grab a snack.”

Step 2: Take a stack of  sticky notes and start writing examples that fill in that blank. Use a different sticky note for each example. For my alcohol habit, I filled in the blank as many times as I could. Here's my list of what cues me to reach for a beer.:

  • When I get home from work after a difficult day
  • When I sit down at a bar
  • When I am asked by a friend if I want one
  • When I am asked by a waiter what I want to drink
  • When I am at happy hour
  • When I am bored on a Thursday night
  • When I spend time with my friends
  • When I see a new beer brand I haven’t tried at the store

Set a timer for 20 minutes and write as many cues as you can. You might slow down, but keep at it for the full 20 minutes. If you find yourself stuck, think about the physical, emotional, and time categories discussed above. Ask yourself, “What about feelings?” etc.

Step 3: Once you have all your sticky notes in front of you, cluster them together into similar groups. Start by holding up one sticky, reading it aloud, and then putting it on your desk with lots of empty space around it. Then pick up a second, read it aloud, and ask yourself, “Is this similar to the first sticky?” If it is, place it next to the first. If it isn’t, then give it its own space on your desk. Repeat this until you’ve read all your stickies and either grouped similar stickies together or decided they’re unique.

Step 4: Look at your clusters and give them a name. For my list, this is what I came up with.

When I’m spending time with people

  • am asked by a friend if I want one
  • am at happy hour
  • spend time with my friends

When I go out to a bar or restaurant

  • sit down at a bar
  • am at happy hour
  • am asked by a waiter what I want to drink

When I’m in a bad mood

  • am bored on a Thursday night
  • get home from work after a difficult day

Not everything had a group. For example, “see a new beer brand I haven’t tried at the store” lives on its own. That’s ok. You may have grouped my sticky notes into different clusters. That’s ok too.

Step 5: Write an implementation intention for each group. Implementation intentions are statements that you will take xyz action when you find yourself in a particular scenario. For example, it’s clear from the above that I reach for a beer when I’m in a bad mood. So an implementation intention would be, “When I’m in a bad mood after I had a bad day at work, I’ll call a friend for a few minutes when I get home instead of reaching for a beer.” 

What next? Check in.

Practice these implementation intentions and check in with yourself after a few weeks. Habits can change as we work on them. You may find that new situations arise that you need an implementation intention for.  

My implementation intention for when I was bored on a Thursday was to pick up a book and read 10 pages (score points for another habit—reading more). But I found myself pouring a glass of wine instead of a beer; I'd developed this romantic image of a comfy reading chair and a glass of wine in my hand. So I created a new implementation intention that said, "When I read at night, I'll pour pomegranate juice into a wine glass to have while I'm reading."

I’ve always found it fascinating to figure out why I do certain things, but I haven’t always slowed down and done this self-exploration deeply enough. I hope this exercise helps you to understand your triggers and encourages you along your habit journey.