More than a decade ago, I decided I needed to get back into regular exercise. I was overweight and tired of feeling exhausted. I needed to do something. But like everyone else, I was busy.
I had a habit goal I wanted to install: Exercise for thirty minutes, Monday through Friday, at 6:00 a.m. There was only one problem. I couldn’t seem to follow through. If you’ve ever failed at reaching a New Year’s resolution, maybe you can identify.
I usually started the week well. I would exercise on Monday and again on Tuesday. But by Wednesday, I was tempted to sleep in—and often would. Clearly, something had to change if I wanted to achieve my goal.
That’s when I decided to focus on setting my gym clothes out the night before rather than the goal itself. It sounds ridiculously simple, but that one practice enabled me to almost effortlessly develop the habit of regular exercise.
More recently, I discovered I was using a version of what goal achievement researchers call implementation intentions. I call them Activation Triggers™.
Understanding Activation Triggers
These are simple statements or actions that streamline the process of reaching our goals. How? By anticipating whatever contingencies or obstacles we might face, we can cue a desired response. Instead of relying on our decision making in the moment (when our willpower might be at its lowest), Activation Triggers lock in our decisions in advance.
Because they address contingencies, we can think of them as simple if/then or when/then statements. They work, says Heidi Grant,
because contingencies are built into our neurological wiring. Humans are very good at encoding information in “If x, then y” terms and using those connections (often unconsciously) to guide their behavior. When people decide exactly when, where, and how they will fulfill their goals, they create a link in their brains between a certain situation or cue (“If or when x happens”) and the behavior that should follow (“then I will do y”). In this way, they establish powerful triggers for action.
She adds, “We’ve learned from more than 200 studies that if-then planners are about 300% more likely than others to reach their goals.”
So how can you leverage that advantage for yourself? You can use Activation Triggers to reach your goals by following these five simple steps:
Step 1: Start with a Clearly Stated Goal
It all begins with a well-formulated goal. You’re partly there if you’re following the SMART system pioneered by GE in the 1980s. But you can improve your chances by making your goals SMARTER, as I teach in my goal-achievement course, 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever.
The best goals are:
- Specific enough to focus and direct your energies.
- Measurable so you can keep track of your progress.
- Actionable with clear initiating verb that prompts specific activity.
- Risky enough to leverage our natural tendency to rise to challenges.
- Time-keyed so you’re prompted exactly when to act.
- Exciting enough to inspire and harness the power of your intrinsic motivation.
- Relevant within the overall context of your life.
You can learn more about the logic behind this system, why it works, and how to use it for yourself in 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever.
My exercise goal fit the sevenfold criteria, so I already had that going for me.
Step 2: Brainstorm the Best Triggers for Success
So you’ve got a goal that meets the SMARTER standard. Now you want to identify the triggers that will work best for reaching the goal. Make sure your Activation Triggers are easier to achieve than your actual goals. That’s the whole point. You’re leveraging the easy to do the hard.
After you’ve come up with a short list of possible triggers (2 or 3), select the one you think will set you up for success. Here are a few Activation Triggers I have either used in the past or am currently using now:
- Program the lights in my office to turn off automatically at 6:00 p.m., so I follow through on my goal of quitting work by 6:00 p.m.
- Ask my assistant to automatically get dinner reservations for me each Friday night at 6:00 p.m., so I follow through on my goal of a weekly date night.
- Set up an automated macro that closes all my open programs and opens only the ones I will need for my quiet time, so I follow through on my goal to begin the day with prayer, Bible reading, and reflection.
- Hire a fitness trainer to work with me on strength training, so I follow through on my goal to do strength training, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
- Throw out all processed food from my refrigerator and pantry, so that I follow through on my goal to eat only clean, whole, organic foods.
- Have my assistant book appointments to interview authors, so I follow through on my goal to read one book per week.
- Set up an automatic deposit to my savings account, so I follow through on my goal to save a certain amount of money.
- Take my laptop out of the house, so I am not tempted to get back on my computer in the evening and follow through on my goal to have more Off Stage time.
Step 3: Optimize Your Activation Triggers
A major part of the Activation Trigger process is thinking when you’re at your strongest, rather than relying on your willpower when you’re not. With that in mind, you can optimize your triggers to further ensure success.
Notice in my examples above how I have taken the trigger out of my control as much as possible using elimination, automation, and delegation. For example:
- I eliminated temptations that could derail me. I threw out all the processed food in my kitchen. I removed my laptop from the house.
- I automated my Activation Trigger using technology. I set up an automated macro to set myself up for my quiet time. I programmed the lights in my office. I set up an auto-deposit to my savings account.
- I delegated my Activation Trigger using my assistant. He sets up my dinner reservations and books interviews with authors.
By taking the trigger out of your control, you’re no longer relying on yourself in the moment. You’re identifying contingencies (such as the desire to work late or forgetting to secure a reservation) and taking care of it in advance. When the contingency arises, you’ve already handled it.
Step 4: Anticipate Obstacles and Determine Your Response
Even with a set of Activation Triggers firmly in place, you can still get derailed unless you identify potential obstacles and detail how you will deal with them.
For example, I have a habit goal of leaving the office promptly at 6:00 p.m. But my goal can easily be undermined by a phone call or someone dropping by at the last minute. The key is to decide in advance how I will handle each of these contingencies. Here’s what I came up with:
- If I get a phone call after 5:45 p.m., then I’ll let it go to voicemail.
- If a colleague asks to talk on the way out, then I’ll tell him I’m happy to talk tomorrow.
- If I must attend a meeting at 5:00 p.m., then I’ll tell the organizer I must leave the meeting by 5:55 p.m.
- When important email arrives, I will answer it before 5:30 and will not check email again after 5:45 p.m.
This kind of if/then planning replaces an in-the-moment decision with a predetermined cue. “When people have formed an implementation intention, they can act [automatically], without having to deliberate on when and how they should act,” say goal theorists Peter M. Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen. The heavy lifting is already done.
Step 5: Experiment Until You Nail It
This is the key to success. You’re going to experience setbacks—especially if you’re normal. As I teach in 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever, when you hit a wall, it’s time to pivot. Your goal might be sacred, but your strategy isn’t. Don’t give up on your goal, just change your approach.
That means modifying your Activation Triggers until they’re working right for you. Sometimes all it takes is a small tweak. For example, when I first set a habit goal to have more Off Stage time in the evening, I thought it would be sufficient to close my laptop but leave it in the den.
That worked for the first few days, but, unfortunately, I soon started cheating by opening the lid and checking social media. I solved the problem by removing my laptop from the house. Now it remains in my office.