Positive Triggers: What They Are and How to Use Them to Build Better Habits

Have you ever heard of positive triggers? Here’s how I first uncovered one of mine:

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I’ve been placing my glass of water right next to my laptop on my desk for a few weeks. Once it’s empty, I immediately go and get a new one.

The result is that, for the first time in my life, I drink 2 liters of water daily effortlessly, and without even thinking about it too much.

That’s no coincidence. It’s actually an example of one of the simplest, yet most powerful strategies you can use to build a good habit – relying on a positive trigger.

Most people find it hard to drink enough water. They forget about it, skip going to the kitchen (or wherever) to fill a new glass, or else.

But if you have it next to you, things become much more easier.

That’s just a small proof of the effect of positive triggers, what they are and how they can help us turn our behavior from a bad one to a successful one without any pressure or the need to use too much willpower.

What Are Positive Triggers?

The term comes from one of the best books on habits – “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

Inside it he explains a concept called The Habit Loop.

It all starts with a behavior that triggers the habit, then we take the action itself, and in the end comes a reward (which is instant gratification when talking about bad habits).

Here’s how Noah Kagan (a successful entrepreneur and Internet marketer, founder of AppSumo) describes that:

“Fortunately whether I’m in a good mood or not I setup positive triggers to make myself take action or feel better.

It’s a handy trick I encourage you to use.

What I do is place things annoyingly in my way or completely out of my way to encourage a positive behavior. Over time these triggers develop into the power of habit which makes it all the more easy.

Here’s a sampling of the ones I currently do:

  • I put my running shoes in my hall way at night. FINE, I can’t get around them in the morning so I go running.
  • There are happy posters by my door so I try to smile as I leave my place. This is one of the best ways to get in a good mood and generate positive thinking.
  • I don’t bring a power cord with me to coffee shops so I am limited to how much time I can work and goof off less. (This is one of my tips & tricks for working alone.)
  • At the office I put some of my important items in a side room where I’m more productive so I tend to go work in that room more often.
  • Placing my scale at the end of my bed so I have to weigh myself each day.
  • My pull-up bar is on my closet door so I tend to do pull-ups each time I get dressed.”

So it all begins with the trigger. And as with everything else in life that includes our role, we’re in control. If we change the trigger, we can even turn bad old habits into successful ones.

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Mindfulness is crucial here. We need to be fully aware when a certain behavior of ours (or even a certain time of the day, location or person – yes, these can also be triggers) leads to another negative one.

Only this way can we stop for a moment, see the bigger picture, and choose not to act. Or even better – to do the opposite, which will be the good habit.

Every smoker (at least from what I’ve seen and heard), for instance, loves having a cigarette with the morning cup of coffee. But not all of them are actually coffee drinkers. And if they eliminate the beverage, they can smoke less.

That’s just a quick example. But things like these matter as in the long term – when done daily – they can reward us with better health, make us more productive, help us fix a relationship, motivate us to get things done, and more.

Choosing The Right Trigger

Here’s what James Clear (an entrepreneur, author and expert in habit formation) says about habit triggers:

“No matter what trigger you choose for your new habit, there is one important thing to understand. The key is to choosing a successful trigger is to pick a trigger that is very specific and immediately actionable.

For example, let’s say you want to build a new habit of doing 10 pushups each day at lunch time. You might start by choosing a time-based trigger and saying something like, “During my lunch break each day, I’ll do 10 pushups.” This might work, but it’s not very specific. Do you do your pushups at the beginning of your lunch break? At the end? Any time?

Alternatively, you could create a trigger around a very specific preceding event that happens right around your lunch break. For example, “When I close my laptop to leave for lunch, I’ll do 10 pushups.” In this case, the very specific action of “closing the laptop” is a perfect trigger for what to do next (your 10 pushups). There is no mistaking when you should do the new habit.”

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Here are some examples of triggers in our daily life and how to easily use them to our advantage:

  1. Waking up.

That’s one of the best examples as everyone usually does the exact same routine ones they wake up.

Some people go brush their teeth or take a shower, others crawl to the kitchen to make coffee, or lie in bed for 5-15 more minutes checking their phone.

There are those, of course, who have a quick workout, meditate, write/read something, or include other great morning habits in their success ritual.

Whatever your first action is, waking up is your trigger. So realize that and let’s make the best of it.

Here’s what you can do to turn the act of leaving bed into one of your positive triggers:

  • put your alarm in the other corner of the room so that you can get up immediately (if you struggle with getting out of bed);
  • put a notebook and a pen beside your bed so you can write something first thing in the morning without using any willpower or even thinking about it (you can start your day with some creative work – write down things you’re grateful for, or things that will make today great so that you can set yourself up for a positive and successful day).
  1. Going to work.

That’s also something you do daily and can’t skip (unless you’re working from home, but the tips are still applicable), so why not include a few good habits.

You can:

  • put your gym shoes and clothes near the door to make sure you get them when you leave(and once you do that you’re much more likely to actually get yourself to the gym);
  • don’t drink coffee at home in order to drink it at the office, which can help you make new friends and dedicate a little more time daily to forming relationships with colleagues. What’s more, if you’re a coffee lover, this will motivate you to arrive at work a bit earlier and make a good impression.
  1. Having breakfast/lunch/dinner.

That’s kind of a ritual as each meal (even if it’s not at the same time every day) happens (most of the times), and you can start associating it with some positive activities.

For example:

  • wash the dishes right after you finish – that’s a great new habit you can develop that will make you more organized;
  • check email or social media only after meals (as otherwise we can do it all the time);
  • floss immediately after breakfast and/or dinner to improve your dental health;
  • drink a glass of water before each meal (to feel full and eat less);
  • do a few pushups before you sit on the table.

Such little actions that take 5 minutes or less turn daily meals into positive triggers.

  1. Watching TV.

If you’re going to do it anyways, why not do crunches, squats or other basic exercises while in front of the screen?

This way you can turn the bad habit into a healthy one.

Over time, you’ll be working out on autopilot without feeling like doing any kind of exercise.

  1. Coming back from work.

This can be the period of the day you dedicate to some quality time with the family.

  1. Going to bed.

You can place a book beside your bed and thus be more likely to grab it and read a few pages before you go to sleep. Also, that’s a much better way to get yourself to sleep, compared to using devices.

  1. The weekend.

Some people go out every weekend, leave the city, meet friends, or dedicate time to hobbies and side projects.

You can also try implementing a new behavior, like cleaning the house every Saturday morning, or writing in your diary each Sunday, assessing the week and saying what you want to accomplish the next one.

So that’s the power of positive triggers. Amazing, right?!

It’s funny how going to the gym feels like a great deal of effort while at home, but if I put my gym clothes in a visible place before I go out, there’s a bigger chance to actually get to the gym and have a productive workout.

Once I’m there, I also drink more water, become more confident, push harder when seeing people around me do the same, and feel accomplished in the end.

And all that can be a result of this little trigger.

So what are the biggest triggers in your life? How can you make them positive?

See also:

Hacking Habits: How to Make New Behaviors Last for Good
How to Trick Your Brain to Hold on to Positive Habit Changes

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Lidiya K

Lidiya K

Author, blogger and podcaster in the fields of self-improvement and life hacking. Creator of Let's Reach Success.
Full-time freelance writer. Lifestyle designer.
Lidiya K

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