Chapter 4: The rhythm of your heartbeat

There’s an invisible mechanism in action when you’re creating a habit, one that most people never notice.

I figured this out when I was trying to quit smoking, and I started to become more aware of my urges to smoke. I soon noticed a pattern: my urges would come after certain events — eating, waking, having coffee, stress, other people smoking. These events would trigger my urge to smoke.

This taught me a key concept when it came to building habits, and I learned to apply it to every habit. Every habit must be tied to a trigger. When the trigger happens, ideally, the urge to do the habit comes up and you do the habit immediately after.

It’s like the rhythm of your heartbeat: ba-PUM, ba-PUM, ba-PUM. A double beat, the music of a pulse. The trigger is the “ba” to the habit’s “PUM.”

Unfortunately, most people just try to do the new habit any time they like. I’ve seen it so many times: someone wants to form the habit of exercise, but they do it at any time that’s convenient. This might work for a little while, but what it means is that there’s no real habit forming, because it’s missing the trigger. It’s missing the first part of the heartbeat. If no true habit forms, you’re constantly just relying on willpower, instead of the automaticity of habit.

The way a habit forms is this: if you do two things together, one after the other, enough times, they fuse in your brain like a one-two punch combo. They become the iambic heartbeat rhythm, one-TWO, ba-BOOM, da-DUM! It becomes automatic, so that when the trigger happens, the urge to do the habit arises without the need of willpower.

Form the heartbeat rhythm.

How do you do that? Pick a trigger that’s already in your daily routine. Something you do once a day, ideally: waking up, going to bed, eating breakfast, drinking the first cup of coffee, arriving at work, etc. You could pick a trigger that happens more than once a day (getting to your desk, drinking water) or less often (sleeping in on weekends, seeing your friends every once in awhile at the bar), but those are harder to remember and fuse to a habit.

Once you’ve picked a trigger, you have to do everything possible to remember to do the habit immediately after the trigger happens. Set up reminders, put notes around where the trigger happens … make this your top priority.

When the trigger happens, do the habit. Without fail. Over and over. Until they fuse into the heartbeat rhythm.

Mission: Pick a trigger

Open up your Habit Plan and write down a trigger that’s already in your daily routine. If you decided to do your habit first thing in the morning, think about what you do every day at that time: get out of bed, drink some water, make coffee, brush your teeth, use the bathroom, put the teakettle on, check your mobile phone, etc. If you want to do it later in the morning, think about what you normally do then (open up laptop, eat breakfast, get to work, leave for work, take a shower, get dressed, etc.). The habit could also be in the evening, but often this becomes harder to form if you get busy around this time. Write down the trigger and start thinking of it as the start of your heartbeat.

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