Acting on Impulse: Building Better Habits

14/08/2016 23:15 | Updated 14 August 2016

I have a confession to make.... I am impulsive......Not just spontaneous. But speed of light, slave to my desires impulsive.

Sometimes it works well for me - I nab a bargain at an antique fair, respond quickly and intuitively to requests for help or discover an exciting off piste local attraction on a meandering walk in a new town or city on holiday.

But for some aspects of my life impulse is a real problem. It means I have gobbled down that brownie before I have had a chance to consider if it supports my diet efforts, committed and said yes to a new programme of work before considering how feasible it is or cried off a committed exercise session because I don't 'feel' like it today.

Consequence? A cycle of regret, a sense of shame, a lack of self-belief and self-confidence.
As a career transitions coach and a life designer, I am a fan of novelty and love to help my clients to catalyse and get started on their Life Plans. I know for them, as for me, that building the habits that support their goals is crucial to their success.

So I was doubly excited to read about 'action triggers' today, as I figured this could both help me with my impulses and my clients with getting into the routine and structure they need to move forward.

We all know how hard it can be to rely on discipline and willpower to help us change a habit or behaviour. It turns out we only have a limited amount of willpower and if, on any particular day, your willpower has been spent on controlling your temper with your boss or avoiding the coffee machine, you may not have the power you need left to take yourself to the gym.

Discipline also can only take us so far. Many of us experience having an inner rebel or saboteur, who are after a few days on the 'good' train, feels the need to go completely off the rails and leave us back where we started.

Neither discipline nor willpower can help us in our change effort if we are overcome by too many choices. Given too wide a range of options, we become overwhelmed and end up paralysed in inaction - not what you want if you are looking for change in your life.

This is where action triggers come in. The term 'action triggers' was coined by Peter Gollwitzer. Put simply, an action trigger circumvents the need to use your precious willpower or exercise discipline in the traditional sense. Action triggers can help to eliminate the paralysis of choice by removing the decision and automating your response.

So how does it work?

Basically, you anchor a new behaviour to an existing activity. We already have a number of routines and actions that work for us in our lives - that we do on autopilot - brushing our teeth, prepping our work bag the night before, setting an alarm.

You decide on a new behaviour and then build on these behaviours by using them as an 'action trigger' for this new behaviour, so that whenever you do the first activity you immediately follow it with the second new activity. This takes the brain power out of needing to either control your behaviour or take a decision about what and when, which can lead to paralysis.

Let's take a simple example. Say you are always losing your keys and would like to stop doing that. What you need is an action trigger that compels you to put your keys in the same place every day. This might be as simple as placing a bowl on the hall table or a key rack at eye level above where you remove your shoes.

By making it convenient to do so, you begin to associate arriving in the house with dropping off your keys. You no longer need to consciously decide where you will put your keys, nor do you need to spend hours looking in the variety of places they might be - the action of removing your shoes, causes an action trigger to place your keys in one place.

Or say, you want to get into the habit of running once a week. You identify that the best time to do that is when you drop the kids at tennis practice. You take the decision to create an action trigger that relates to the kids tennis practice - and every time you round up the kids, you also automatically gather your running shoes, your MP3 player and put on your running gear. This again removes the decision about 'will I go running and when?' and the procrastination that goes with it.

We are surprisingly trainable. As you become aware of this, you might see that there are a number of action triggers in the design of most places you go - from the ticket machine at the station to the lines denoting a space in a car park. Clear triggers help us to know what to do instinctively, saving our precious brain power for more tricky tasks and thoughts!

I encourage you to start small. Make one defined change of behaviour into an action trigger. Normalise it as something you do. Then pick another. Many change efforts never even get off the ground because they are too darn big!

So today, I invite you to take the strain out of your change, by finding one simple new behaviour you want to adopt and turn it into an action trigger.

Step 1: Choose a new habit/behaviour - keep it simple and specific
Step 2: Look at your existing habits and behaviours - is there one that sits well with the new behaviour?
Step 3: Decide - what are you committing to in terms of the behaviour - how frequently will you do it - always? Once a week?
Step 4: Make it easy - do you need to adapt the environment to make it easy to keep your new habit?
What will your action trigger be for this week?

How does it support the change you want to make in life? I welcome your comments below and if you want mroe tips and advice on building better behaviours to help your career changes, you can read my free report here.