Why track triggers? The importance of tracking habit triggers

The Importance of Tracking Your Habit Triggers [30DHC]

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Why do we follow bad habits–even when we want to quit?

That's a question many people wonder.

While we all would like to change our lives, it's not as easy as it sounds.  We start out with the best intentions to eliminate a habit.  But somewhere along the way, we hit a roadblock and end up quitting.

Unfortunately, it's hard to know why we can't make a lasting change.  Part of the problem is we all have different triggers that cause us to follow a bad habit.  So there's no “one size fits all” solution to this problem. The best you can do is find out what causes a habit and create a customized solution.  And the first step of the process is to understand your habit triggers.

So for the sixth month of the 30 Day Habit Challenge (30DHC),I focused on tracking three bad habits to learn why I follow them.  By monitoring these routines, I hoped to get clarity on the actual reasons why I do each of them.

Here’s how it went.

30DHC for June – Track Three Habit Triggers

Here’s an overview of this month's habit challenge:

#1 – Reason Why

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about the importance of looking at habit triggers.  His point was simple–understanding your triggers is the first step to eliminating a bad habit.  Once you know why you do something, you can try different rewards, which ultimately helps you find a substitute routine.  So my 30DHC goal wasn't to change three habits.  It was to understand why I follow them.  By tracking them for a month, I hoped to truly know the reasons why I keep doing things that I hate.

Here are the three habits I picked:

  1. Eating fast food
  2. Snacking after 10 P.M.
  3. Checking web stats (too often)

None of these habits are major issues, but I think they could be minimized or eliminated.

#2 – Description

I had an easy goal for June–whenever I felt the urge to follow one of these habits, I would jot down five pieces of information which is based on the common triggers that most people experience:

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Emotional State
  4. Other People
  5. Immediately Preceding Action

You can use a app like Coach.me to help you track triggers and goals.

#3 – Obstacles

The challenge to this habit was remembering to record these triggers when they occurred.  Triggers happen all the time–even when you're in the middle of something.  So it's not always convenient to stop what you're doing and take time to record down what you're feeling.

One solution that helped was a simple iPhone alarm (set twice a day) that prompted me to record habit triggers.  Basically, I used the same app that I did in conjunction with April's “Daily Positive Thoughts” exercise.  Twice a day, I'd see a reminder to track my triggers, which helped reinforce this habit.

#4 – Results

I was very happy with the results of this challenge.  While I haven't eliminated any of these habits, I now understand why I follow each one.

(a) Eating Fast Food: I discovered my desire to eat fast food was caused by stress from my business and forgetting to eat something before I got into the car.  Typically, I would be running errands and then suddenly I'd get the urge to eat something.  Next thing you know, I'm pulling into a McDonald's drive-in.  This 30DHC helped me understand that location and preceding actions contributed to the bad “fast food habit.”

The solution? First, eat more in the morning (in addition to what I do in my morning routine).  Next, eat a larger lunch so I'm full before leaving my apartment.  Finally, maintain a “stash” of healthy snacks in my car for those random food cravings.  The idea behind all three solutions is I'll constantly replenish my body, which basically eliminates the glucose depletion that often happens during a busy day.

(b) Snacking After 10 P.M.: This habit isn't that big of a deal, but once in a while I feel compelled to snack late at night.  What I learned from tracking this habit is it's directly related to reading.  As long as I could remember, I've enjoyed snacking while reading a good book before bedtime.  Oddly enough, I never realized the connection between these two habits before I started tracking one of them.

The solution?  This one was simple–I now brush my teeth right after dinner.  Since I don't want to brush them again after snacking, I'll typically skip the late-night trip to the refrigerator.

(c) Checking Stats: As an Internet entrepreneur, my business relies heavily on web stats.  Metrics like traffic numbers, email subscribers, book sales and affiliate commissions all directly relate to my overall success.  But, while it's important to track these stats, I don't need to check them numerous times in a day.

While tracking the “stat checking habit,” I learned it directly relates to boredom.  I'd write for an hour, become tired and then think “oooooh, I wonder how _______ is doing?”  Then 20 minutes later, I realize I've wasted my time looking at random charts and numbers.

The solution?  Since this routine typically occurs between my working “time blocks,” I had to find a substitute habit.   One thing I'm currently trying is to take short, 15 minute walking breaks between each block of time.  That way, I reduce boredom while receiving a major health benefit.

#5 – Verdict

Keep it!

I like the idea of tracking triggers whenever trying to eliminate a bad habit.  From now on, I'll record these five pieces of information whenever I want to eliminate a routine.  The problem?  In July and August, I did a lot of traveling.  So I won't start tracking new bad habits until September.  But once I get home, this will become a permanent part of my normal routine.

The Importance of Tracking Your Triggers

The key to eliminating a bad habit is to understand its underlying triggers.  The simplest way to do this is to record these five pieces of information:

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Emotional State
  4. Other People
  5. Immediately Preceding Action

You can change any bad habit.  The trick is to know why you do it and have an action plan for handling your triggers and understand the mistakes that will derail their habit change success.

IF you want to get some more great ideas for handling triggers and successfully changing your bad habits, there are a few great books you can read that can teach you EVERYTHING you need to know about changing bad habits, including lots of tips on how to track triggers.

Here are some great habit books you should take a look at:

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