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What Triggers Your Habit?

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

What is the first part of a habit, and how can it help you change? A client of mine, let's call her Angela, has a nightly ritual (and dilemma) that might shed some light. She has kids, but this applies whether you have them or not!

Since COVID hit, Angela has been working remotely and homeschooling her seven-year-old who is chronically starved for interaction. By the time she puts her daughter to bed at 8 p.m., Angela is often still wearing the sweatpants she put on first thing in the morning (business on top, party on the bottom!) and dishes have piled up in the kitchen. Her work-brain is spent, and her human adult brain is starved for pleasure, something easy and fun. Nighttime is her time, so she turns on an episode of Bridgerton, grabs a box of Peanut Butter Puffins cereal and goes to town, devouring half of the box before curling up under a blanket for episodes two and three.

This happens every night, with some variation on the choice of snack and show. It's a habit that helps her reduce stress... at least it does until the morning, when she wakes up feeling like left-over cereal.

In last week's newsletter, I asked you to make a list of habits you already have to relieve stress and habits you'd like to try more often. Making this list, you may have realized that just because a habit temporarily relieves stress doesn't mean it's one you'd like to keep! All of these routines are coping mechanisms though. They make sense in the moment! And behavioral science shows us there is a relatively low-drama way to replace habits you don't like or build new ones you do like.

One of the group workshops I do with companies and universities is called The Anatomy of a Habit: What's Working, What's Not, and What Do We Do About It? We discuss the parts of a habit, the first of which is called the "cue" or "trigger." It's the thing that nudges you to engage with your routine. In Angela's case, that cue is her daughter's bedtime. They go through their nightly ritual to soothe her little one to sleep, and then Angela is free... and, for her in a pandemic, freedom equals TV and snack.

If this routine was working for Angela, she could and should happily stick with it! Relief is relief. But because this particular kind of relief doesn't make her feel good in the long run, she wants a replacement. In order to build that replacement, she needs to be aware of the trigger in the first place.

So this week, let's think about cues. Go back to look at the list you made, or take a minute now to start or update it:

1. What habits do you already have that relieve stress?

2. What would you like to do more often to get some relief?

And then, for one of the habits on each list, ask yourself:

1. What triggers a habit I already have for stress relief?

(This existing one can be healthy or not.)

2. What existing routine could trigger a new one I'd like to build?

Write it down, and see if you can stay aware this week as those triggers (or opportunities for new cues) come and go. No judgment on the outcome. The whole thing starts with guilt-free awareness. From there, you'll find you have a lot of power to make a change... or choose to stay exactly as you are!



Ain't I a Woman - Read by Kerry Washington

I hope we're moving toward a day when Black history is as universally studied and known as white history in America, but we're far from that day. I know I still have a lot to learn, and Amanda Gorman's inaugural poem inspired me to learn more of this history through live readings and poems. I read Sojourner Truth's Ain't I a Woman speech a long time ago, but I had never seen it spoken. This 3-minute reading from Kerry Washington brings it to life and sent me down a rabbit hole of more videos.

The one that followed in my youtube feed was Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. That's what happens with these algorithms. They feed us back more of what we ask for which, in this case, is a very good thing.


Last! Speaking of parenting in a pandemic, Ariel Green Andersson and I had a great conversation on her podcast, Imperfect Parenting. She, her husband, and daughter recently moved from Prague to Northern California, and we found our conversation wandering into the challenges and benefits of finding time and space for creativity as a working parent, especially as we're working from home.


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