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How to Build Creative Habits Using Triggers

Trigger-Habit chain

Trigger-Habit chainTake a look at what happens when you wake up in the morning. I’m pretty sure that you do most of visiting the toilet, washing your hands, brushing your teeth, dressing, making breakfast. It may not be exactly this but I’m going to make you a bet: no matter what you do in the morning you do the same things in the same order every day.

That’s because your morning routine is a ritual.

I don’t mean a chanting, dancing and sacrificing small animals type of ritual. I mean a habitual ritual, something that, once triggered, leads to a series of actions in an unchanging sequence.

Habits are triggered mental units

Here’s what happens. You sit down to eat dinner. You pick up your fork. You start eating. Normally you don’t go for a refreshing run in the middle of your dinner. Your dinner, with all the actions in it, the lifting of your fork, the chewing, the putting away of the dishes, is a single mental unit in your brain.

Breaking the habit of eating your dinner would be as unthinkable as a smoker smoking half a cigarette, going away for a while then coming back to smoke the rest: it can be done but it would require outside influence, a disturbance, to do it. Otherwise the ritual will complete itself.

Twyla Tharp writes in her “The Creative Habit” that each morning she would go down to the street, hail a cab and go to the studio to practice. The hailing of the cab was the triggering event, the ritual, for her creative work. The same way you waking up triggers your morning ritual or you sitting down to eat triggers your eating ritual. It launches you onto a path where you don’t have to think about what you do, you don’t have to make any decisions, you don’t have to engage mentally. You just do, effortlessly.

That’s what you want in your creative processes: to do, effortlessly.

I’m not saying that it will become easy to create, that you’ll never doubt yourself or anything like that. But I am saying that if you’ve got a working ritual to start your creativity then it will become a lot easier to create, or do any work that you choose to build a ritual around.

Eliminate your bad rituals

Stubbed Out CigaretteBut first a word to the wise: you’re likely to have rituals, right now, that prevent you from doing good work.

For me that’s my “switching on the computer” ritual. It consists of clicking on all the four icons on my taskbar: my web browser, my email client, my Evernote client and my file explorer. This is what I do every time I boot up my computer. I click those four icons. It’s a ritual that’s built into the triggering action of “sit down in front of the computer”. And that’s fine. I need those programs to work.

Except what happens then is that I go to the web browser and check the comics. Then I check my email, which has some other interesting stuff to read (I subscribe to a bunch of mailing lists). Then I check the news sites. Then I realize that it’s time for a short break.

And no work gets done.

Tacking on triggers

So I’ve been working on creating different rituals, ones where I sit down in front of the computer and start writing.

Except that I can’t use the trigger of sitting down in front of the computer. I need another trigger. So now my trigger is to look through my ideas. After that I start to write.

It’s a decent trigger but it’s not optimal as it requires an action that isn’t tied into a natural (that is pre-existing) trigger. So while I can get a sequence of events that consists of either A) writing or B) checking for ideas, then writing, I don’t get a common trigger like C) drinking tea, then writing.

So, how would I go about building a new trigger? Let me give you an example for a trigger change that did work.

A working example

TeethFor quite some time I wanted to start flossing my teeth. I know it’s good to floss, even better than brushing (even better if you can do both), but I never managed to get it ingrained into my teeth care ritual. So I looked at what I had tried to do: floss, then brush. There was no trigger associated with the flossing. In fact I was going against the triggers I’d set for myself which started with me brushing. So I changed the order, even though the dentists say you should floss first. And, lo and behold, I managed to tack on the floss action onto the trigger(s) that started the brush action. Ok, it was a bit tougher than that.

In the beginning I only added a minuscule amount of flossing. I knew that I didn’t like to floss, that my gums weren’t used to it and my technique sucked so that I’d cut myself often. So I did the minimum required to start a habit. I decided to floss one tooth.

That’s pretty useless, right?

No, it’s not. I wasn’t out to floss my teeth, I wanted to create the habit of flossing my teeth. And starting with a trigger action linking to flossing was enough.

So for days I’d floss a single tooth. Then that started to feel a bit silly. I mean, I’m there, I’m flossing. Why not continue? So one tooth became part of a row, a full row, then all my teeth. A month after I started flossing a single tooth I was flossing all my teeth every day. Now If I don’t floss it feels wrong, as if I’d skipped brushing.

That’s how habits are built.

As for my writing, well, I’ve got the habit of idea-to-writing. And I’ve got the habit of starting all my programs when I start the computer. So now I’m trying to add the check ideas to the end of that starting programs sequence. I’m not there yet, and I get derailed lightly, and sometimes I’ve got early meetings or other things that keep me from completing the chain of actions but I’m working on it.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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