Instrumental Rationality 4.2: Creating Habits
[Instrumental Rationality Sequence 4.2/7]
[Part two of a three-part series of habits.]
[We go over three techniques for creating habits: TAPs, Systematic Planning, and Scaling Up.]
Techniques: Creating Habits
[The Techniques section has been broken up into sections: one on creating new habits and one on breaking existing habits. They are split up based on what they do rather than what they are because I think it makes more sense.
Splitting things up by function allows the given examples for the techniques to be more focused on one of the two uses at a time, which I think makes the explanations easier to understand.]
As we touched upon in an earlier section, the process by which habits form, when simplified, looks roughly something like this:
Figure out what you want to do.
Identify the situation where you want the action to occur.
Actually perform said action in said situation.
Repeat the [Context cue → Response] loop until habituation occurs.
Therefore, from a theoretical standpoint, a useful intervention would try to affect at least one of the above steps.
The three evidence-backed techniques we’ll go over are Trigger Action Plans (TAPs), Systematic Planning, and Scaling Up.
Often, the best results occur when they’re all used in tandem, as they each affect different steps of habit formation.
Trigger Action Plans (TAPs):
[TAPs are a way of framing intentional habit creation by focusing on both a salient trigger (i.e. context cue) and an action (i.e. response). They are well-backed by over two decades of research and build off the standard habit model.]
Trigger Action Planning is a technique by CFAR that is an adaptation of the implementation intention technique by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer.
Implementation intentions are also known as “if-then plans” because they take the form of a conditional, not unlike those used in programming, where one thing follows another. Basically it’s a way of chaining together actions and situations.
In writing, it roughly looks like:
“I intend to do action X when I encounter situation Y!”
As an example, a typical implementation intention for eating healthier might look like: “I intend to fill up half my plate with veggies whenever I am at a self-serve restaurant.”
Compared to many other behavioral change interventions, implementation have a stronger evidence base, and they’re simple to put into practice.
In a meta-analysis of over 90 studies involving implementation intentions, we found that they “had a positive effect of medium‐to‐large magnitude ([effect size] = 0.65) on goal attainment” *23.
Thus, as one would expect, research that shows people who make implementation intentions have a far higher success rate of achieving their target behavior compared to people who merely hold normal intentions (EX: “I intend to do X”) *24.
CFAR’s Trigger Action Plan model builds on the implementation intention model and tailors it to the standard habit model, focusing on selecting concrete context cues and specific actions †4.
TAPs combine what we know about the standard habit model of a context cue paired with a response with the if-then nature of implementation intentions.
Trigger Action Planning has us specify specifically when and how we’d like to behave via a Trigger and an Action. It deliberately utilizes the same process that our habits naturally arise, allowing us to intentionally create new habits.
A TAP takes the form of:
When [Trigger X] happens, I will perform [Action Y]. Schematically, it’s almost identical to the implementation intention setup. But the TAP model stresses a few different factors.
Here’s a step-by-step walkthrough of how to make your own TAP:
Identify an Action you want to do.
EX: “Go jogging more.”
Find a concrete sensory Trigger for the situation where you want the action to happen.
EX: “The feeling of the coarse rope that opens my curtains in the morning.”
Describe the Action you’d like to perform, in detail. Be specific about the action you’d like to.
EX: “Pick up my jogging shoes and walk outside the door to begin jogging.”
Put the Trigger and Action in a “When [Trigger], then [Action]” loop.
EX: “When [I feel the rough coarseness of my curtain rope,] then [I’ll go grab my jogging shoes and open the front door].”
Write the TAP down somewhere you can find it again.
EX: Having a digital or physical “TAPs List” document can be a very strong way to make it easy to review which habits you’re currently training. If you end up forgetting the cue or action, then it’s obvious you won’t be able to practice the behavior.
Mentally rehearse the TAP at least 5 times.
EX: Actually take the several minutes to do some visualizations—going over it in your mind helps you recognize the Triggers when they show up in the real world.
Specificity and concreteness are very useful here because a more salient cue is easier to recognize. Thus, for any TAP, the best Triggers are the ones that are a clear sensory sensation you can recognize. You don’t have to be limited by external cues, though; this can also be applied to internal sensations if you’re noticing them.
As an example, if you’re trying to avoid snapping at someone when they irritate you, you can try to break down the feelings right after they speak. Maybe it feels like a tightening in your chest, or a sinking feeling in your stomach.
The important thing here is to describe the internal feeling with enough detail such that you can recognize it the next time it happens.
Questions to perhaps ask yourself are “Where in my body do I feel the sensation?” and “What does the sensation feel like it’s doing inside?”
Good places to insert TAPs are at the end of existing routines, a procedure called piggybacking. We see that people who put their implementation intentions at the end of habits they already have, like deciding to floss right after brushing, are more successful *25.
Thus, TAPs can themselves be the Trigger for future TAPs.
The most important thing is that both the Trigger and Action are specific enough such that you just do it without thinking. Vaguely-specified Actions are not as good as well-quantified ones because you need to spend time trying to remember what it means.
For example, say we have this TAP:
Trigger: “When I finish a reading an online article…”
Action: “then I will summarize it.”
Both the Trigger and Action could be made more specific. Going into more detail, a perhaps improved version of the above might look like:
Trigger: “When I click the red ‘X’ to close a window after reading an online article…”
Action: “then I will set a 5 minute timer. For the next 5 minutes, I’ll type out a summary of what I just read on Microsoft Word.”
I think the second formulation is better because it’s more specific about what the Trigger is, and it also unpacks the word “summarize” by turning it into a more concrete set of actions.
Oftentimes, like above, it can be good enough to let the Action part of your TAP be the start of a longer action chain.
Above, the 5 minute timer is merely a way to get started. After the 5 minutes are up, you can continue writing your summary, especially if you find yourself in the middle of something interesting.
Likewise, in the earlier exercising example, the Action simply has you go through the front door. But once that happens, the TAP doesn’t need to worry about describing the actual jogging; once you’re outside, the rest of your body can take over.
For both of these examples, TAPs are used as a way to simply get started in the first place.
In terms of habits, TAPs help you get started on things you already wanted to do, but might otherwise have forgotten. They’re a type of reminder of sorts. You’ll typically want to use them on things that you would feel driven to do if you had the opportunity to act on them in the first place.
To get more of a feel for TAPs, here are four additional examples of Trigger Action Plans that I use. I’ll admit that they don’t conform exactly to the ideal TAP model, but such is the process of translating from theory to practice. Still, I think they help give a better idea of what TAPs might look like in practice for you.
To-Do List TAP:
My memory isn’t perfect, and I often need to remember things that randomly pop into my head that take the form of to-dos. For example, “talk to Daniel”, “send this email”, or “purchase more pens”.
To help with this, I have the Todoist app downloaded on my phone, and I use this TAP:
Trigger: “When I think of something I need to do…”
Action: “then I will open up Todoist on my phone and put it in.”
After doing this TAP a few times, it’s become far more automatic; once I think of something, my next logical thought is, “Okay, now let me put it into Todoist.” While this doesn’t go all the way (after all, I still need to actually do the item), just having this TAP has made it far less likely that to-dos slip through the cracks in my mind.
In conversations, I’m not always on top of things. It can be easy for me to zone out, as I think of something, and then all I hear are meaningless word-shaped sounds. In the past, I’d often want to ask the other party to repeat what they just said, but by the time I finished deliberating whether or not to ask, more words would have been said, and I’d be even further behind in the conversation.
Now I have a TAP for these sorts of situations:
Trigger: “When I hear sounds that should probably be be words but which feel like they have no meaning…”
Action: “then I will immediately respond, ‘Sorry, my bad! I didn’t quite understand. Could you say that again using different words?’”
In my experience, people are largely forgiving if you’re genuinely trying to stay focused on the conversation, and I’m all for little hacks that make communication better.
A related issue for me is when someone says something that I understand on a S2 level, i.e. I know what all the words in the sentence mean, but I still don’t have a good idea of what they mean by such a sentence. In these types of situations, I have a similar TAP:
Trigger: “When someone says something that doesn’t give me a clear mental picture…”
Action: “Then I will immediately say, ‘Sorry, I’m not sure I follow. What’s an example of that?’”
Hopefully the Trigger here makes sense. I often think in terms of quick mental pictures. As the other person is speaking, I’ve got some visuals that correspond to the words they’re saying. It’s not exactly like I’m imagining a mental movie as they’re speaking, but it’s a little similar.
Therefore, if someone says something that doesn’t lead to a mental image, this is a good sign for me that I probably don’t understand as much as I thought I did. Hence the Action in response to ask for more examples, which can hopefully make their point more concrete.
This TAP is a good way to remind myself to journal, and I’ve successfully been using a variant of it for several years; I’ve been journaling daily since about 2014. It’s an example of piggybacking in that it uses the ending of an existing routine as the trigger.
Trigger: “When I finish brushing my teeth…”
Action: “I will go and write down today’s events in my journal.”
Brushing my teeth is already an invariant in my schedule, so that makes it a good Trigger to build new routines off of. Like I mentioned earlier about TAPs being used to initiate action, the Journaling TAP is used to get myself in a position to start writing.
Once I’m automatically in position, my more conscious thinking can take over, dictating what I actually write. The TAP is used to make sure I get there in the first place without much effort.
Actually Practicing: Make Your Own TAP
Going over a technique like TAPs in your head can be useful, but the trick is to really use it in the real world. Thus, it’s very, very strongly recommended that you take the next 10 minutes to try out the following exercise:
Grab a piece of paper and a pen.
Set a 10 minute timer.
Create a TAP, following the steps already outlined above.
Make sure you actually walk it through at least 5 times in your head!
Sure, you could always try out a TAP later, but this is a natural stopping point before we move on. Meaning that this is an especially good opportunity for you to stop reading, take 10 minutes, and actually start making your own TAPs.
[Systematic Planning is a synthesis of interventions based around planning and monitoring. It focuses on additional ways to increase habit strength and frequency by building off the TAP model.]
Systematic Planning draws from both two interventions: action planning and active monitoring.
Action planning, as the name very clearly informs us, is a form of planning *26. It involves trying to answer questions like “What barriers would prevent me from carrying out my intended behavior? How can I remove those barriers?”
In essence, it’s a very top-down approach to figuring out behavior change. When you’re action planning, you’re literally just planning for the action. You’re trying to make the task as frictionless as possible for Future You by identifying potential problems and making contingency plans.
Given that we’ve already covered how to plan better, we can apply those lessons here.
All our previous tools like Murphyjitsu and Reference Class Forecasting once again come into play.
(Five second summary: Murphyjitsu asks us to imagine the most common failure modes for our plans by first assuming that they’ll fail. Reference Class Forecasting says we should rely on past information to make more accurate predictions.)
An example of action planning might look like this:
You’d like to stop watching television. So you ask yourself whether or not you’d be surprised if you went all of tomorrow without watching television. Your gut says no because Game of Thrones is on. So you decide to hide your remote and check your surprise level again.
Maybe this time you’d be more surprised if you found a way to still watch television. Maybe not.
Either way, the point here is that action planning allows you to perform these constant feasibility checks to see if you’d really be able to perform the target behavior.
Active monitoring refers to the act of checking in to track your progress on a habit and seeing how far along you are.
Both action planning and active monitoring take a sort of outside view, where you’re evaluating things without taking part in them. In contrast, TAPs are about being able to respond in the moment; they provide more of an inside view. Compared to action planning and active monitoring, TAPs are more reactive than evaluative.
For example, someone doing active monitoring on their vegetable-eating habit might spend some time every day tracking their meals. They might look at how many meals had vegetables, keeping track of their progress over time.
Both action planning and active monitoring have been shown to increase uptake of desired behavior. Action planning has been shown to be effective in several studies, including longer-term effects *26. And a meta-analysis of monitoring in 138 studies showed that it had a small-medium effect size (0.4) on actual goal attainment *42.
Basically, we have the unsurprising result that making plans and writing things down helps make it more likely that people actually get things done.
As a technique, TAPs play the role of answering the question “How can I form intentional habits?”
Conversely, Systematic Planning as a technique is about answering the question “How do I make sure I actually use my TAPs?”
As a result, Systematic Planning is less about providing an alternative model for forming habits. Rather, it’s about providing additional useful considerations when using the TAP model. This also means that it’s a combination of ideas rather than just one thing.
First, though, there’s something interesting to note about how planning and habits, Murphyjitsu and TAPs in particular, are related:
You can run Murphyjitsu when making a new TAP, but you can also make a TAP out of Murphyjitsu.
An example of using Murphyjitsu when making a new TAP might look like this:
Say you would like to check email more on your phone. You make a TAP that looks like [Open phone] → [Check email]. Unsure if your TAP will be successful, you imagine that it’s a week later and you didn’t start developing your habit.
Using Murphyjitsu, you ask yourself, “What is the most plausible reason that this TAP didn’t stick?” In response, your internal simulation of events tells you that it’s likely the Trigger wasn’t salient enough. So you update your TAP with a more specific Trigger.
An example of making a TAP out of Murphyjitsu might look like this:
Say that as you tell your friend what time you’ll meet them at the park, you pause—something about the situation feels odd. Internally, a TAP fires off: [Give a time estimate] → [Imagine one thing that might cause a delay].
As a result, you end up adding an extra ten minutes to your estimate to account for potential traffic. While what you’re doing isn’t exactly the whole Murphyjitsu process, you’re able to get most of the value by turning it into a quick TAP that habituates.
So there’s something interesting going on here where you can feed one technique into the other and vice-versa. They complement each other in part because each process involves the other—planning well is a habit, but you can also figure out how to make your habits better if you do some planning.
I bring this up to introduce the idea of meta-TAPs, that is to say, TAPs which are designed to help out your other TAPs.
As a collection of considerations, I think that Systematic Planning is clearer to understand when the concepts are shown as practical meta-TAPs you can start doing right away.
Thus, I’ll be framing Systematic Planning as a series of three techniques: Active Monitoring, TAP Everything, and Murphyjitsu Your TAPs.
Systematic Planning 1: Active Monitoring
As we covered, actively monitoring the progress on your habits is a strong way to improve your habits.
You’re checking to see whether or not you’ve been executing your TAPs and mentally rehearsing the Triggers. You’re taking the time to sit down and track where you are in regards to learning all of your TAPs.
Like most other routine activities, Active Monitoring is probably best done piggybacking off an existing part of your schedule. I’d recommend the mornings as an especially good time, as you can review your TAPs once more before you go off on your day, where you’ll start to see all your potential Triggers.
While everyone’s actual monitoring questions might be different, here is a sample set of questions you can feel free to use:
What is the TAP you are trying to learn?
Did you do it sometime in the last week? Write down at least 1 example situation.
What are 3 examples where the Trigger might come up?
Visualize yourself doing the Action 3 times.
Repeat these questions for each TAP on your TAPs list
(If you for some reason want to print out a hard copy, here is a Google Drive link.)
This is what Active Monitoring might look like as a TAP:
Trigger: “After I finish eating breakfast…”
Action: “Then I will immediately go and fill out my Active Monitoring TAP Worksheet.”
Don’t worry if you’re not going through every question or you’re using a different format. While people often tell you not to half-ass things, I think that I’d recommend consistently doing a poor job rather than sometimes doing in-depth Active Monitoring.
In the studies involving active monitoring, the actual method of monitoring was less important than the actual monitoring itself.
Systematic Planning 2: TAP Everything
By now, I hope it’s clear that the TAP framework is a simple and flexible way to frame behavioral change. Yet, thinking of new behaviors in this model isn’t always our default mode of thinking. We’re often thinking about just what we want to do, rather than the when, where and how.
Having a structured way to make new habits like the TAP model is good, but you also need to get into a habit of actually using it. Thus, one way to make this process more habitual is to have a TAP designed to look for new opportunities to make TAPs.
(“So I heard you like TAPs…”)
For example, say you’re talking to someone who opens up with a very nice conversation starter:
Initially, you might think, “Oh, that was a pretty cool way to start things, I should try that next time.”
If you’re trying to hunt for practicality, though, you might want to think, “Huh, that phrase was a neat way to start things. Let’s make a TAP out of this. Maybe something like [Next time I meet a nice stranger] → [Say these words]…”
This way, you’re turning your desires into actual actionables and habits.
The important thing here isn’t to conform exactly to the specifics TAP model, but to get in the habit of viewing things in the “if-then” style, which makes it easier for you to actually execute on the actions you prefer.
A “TAP Everything” meta-TAP might look like this:
Trigger: “When I notice myself thinking, ‘I want to do X’…”
Action: “Look for a specific Trigger to do X and turn it into a TAP.”
Basically, I’m suggesting you should make a habit out of making habits.
Systematic Planning 3: Murphyjitsu Your TAPs
We touched upon this earlier in the example about how different techniques can feed into one another, and this section just states it a little more clearly.
Murphyjitsu and the related set of planning prompts is very useful, and having them fire off when making a TAP can make them more robust and likely to succeed.
Thus, we can also make a TAP for this!
TAPs work best when the Trigger is clear and the Action is explicit, so most of the common failure modes are because either one or both of the two components are unclear.
So an example “Murphyjitsu Your TAPs” meta-TAP might look like this:
Trigger: “When I think of both the Trigger and the Action for a TAP…”
Action: “I will imagine that it’s one week later and I haven’t done my TAP at all. What are the first two failures that come to mind? How can I patch my TAP to fix them?”
It’s less important that we plan for all failures and more important that we just do this in the first place, like in Active Monitoring. We can get most of the value by just checking for a few of the most common failure modes.
This is where things get interconnected and fun:
Once you’ve developed the “TAP Everything”-TAP, you now have a new routine action which would serve as a very good Trigger for your “Murphyjitsu Your TAPs”-TAP.
The end goal here would be for “TAP Everything”-TAP and “Murphyjitsu Your TAPs”-TAP to end up becoming chunked together, into one unit. Research in chunking shows that actions habitually done together can end up forming a cached sequence, where one action follows another *27.
So there’s some hope that we’ll eventually be able to “chain” habits together, in larger structures similar to how habits themselves consist of a context cue and a response.
(Although this is more geared towards motor skills, it at least seems plausible that mental actions could work in a similar way. )
[Scaling Up is one simple way to fight the “intention-action gap”, the phenomenon where our desires and actions don’t align. It involves gradually building up an action so that at every step, it’s not too difficult.]
Scaling Up is a technique intended to bridge the intention-action gap.
The intention-action gap is a term used in the research to point at situations where we might fail to take action, despite holding the intention to do so *28.
A typical example might be that of someone who wants to exercise more, knows it’s good for them, yet still doesn’t find themselves doing it. Or, the dieter who’d like to eat more healthily, is aware of the benefits, but still isn’t doing so.
Why is this important when considering habits?
Well, when forming TAPs, we saw earlier that they work best on actions you already wanted to do. But what about actions you know are good for you, but don’t really want to get done? This is where finding concrete strategies to bridge the gap are important.
First off, it seems good to differentiate between roughly two relevant reasons here that a habit might not stick:
You forget about the action when the opportunity comes.
You don’t want to do the action when the opportunity comes.
Most of the research on crossing the intention-action gap seems to focus on planning or implementation intentions as a way to increase the chances of actually acting on desired behavior *29. This is for the first problem, and it’s where TAPs and Systematic Planning work best.
To try and address all of the second problem—the question of “wanting”—would likely require its own primer. There’s a lot of intricacies to breaking apart exactly what it means to “want” or to “want want” something. Thus, the actual technique for Scaling Up merely scratches the surface of what could be a much deeper discussion.
As the name suggests, Scaling Up suggests taking an action and gradually building on it.
In short, Scaling Up says if the action you’d like to turn into a habit is undesirable to you, start small and build up. You initiate with a watered down, doable version of the activity, and gradually scale up.
The evidence base for this technique comes from a combination of shaping and exposure therapy †5.
Shaping is, roughly speaking, the idea of gradually rewarding behavior that gets closer and closer to the target *31. With incremental changes each time, this allows for the building up of even quite complex behaviors. When applied to habit learning, this means eventually doing the hard action you felt aversive to in the beginning.
A good example may be something like walking across a balance beam, where you don’t try to go all the way across on your first time.
Perhaps you first start out by just standing still and balancing. Then you try to take 3 steps with good form before falling. Then maybe 6 steps. And after that maybe halfway across the entire beam.
The point is that every step of the way, you’re working to an intermediate goal which brings you closer to the final step. You’re never biting off more than you can chew.
One of the main lessons here is that expanding your expected timeframe for goal achievement can make scaling up to the hard thing more bearable.
While this seems to be obvious for things like exercise, I don’t think people always translate this idea into other contexts like studying, which ends up with people doing things like trying to write an essay the night before.
The other part of the technique draws inspiration from exposure therapy, the process by which consistently being exposed to aversive phenomenon can decrease the degree of aversion *32.
Though this is speculative, it at least seems plausible that consistently successfully doing even an easier version of the hard or aversive action is useful. Doing so could provide additional experiential evidence that said action is not so bad after all, allowing your brain to update the negative feelings associated with the target behavior.
If we go back to the balance beam example, walking only a few steps is likely lower resistance. Then, the next time you go to the balance beam, your locally cached feelings of “Hey, that wasn’t so bad last time!” can help make it a little more palatable as well.
Taken together, these two parts form the evidence base for scaling up in level as a potentially viable solution for dealing with trying to habituate aversive behaviors. (Remember that there’s far more depth here, and the following technique merely scratches the surface.)
As an actual technique, Scaling Up is about finding first a manageable chunk of the actual target behavior you’d like to habituate and then gradually working towards the goal.
Step-by-step, it looks like:
Quantify the aversive Action you would like to be able to do.
EX: “Every day, right after taking a shower, I want to write 1000 words.”
Find a smaller version of the Action you can take without much resistance.
EX: “Every day, right after taking a shower, I will write 200 words.”
Scale up gradually and consistently (For a schedule, weekly is a good default, but pick what works for you.)
EX: “Every week I’ll add 100 more words to my daily writing goal.”
Scaling Up is simple, I know, and it’s not always clear exactly what the smaller version of the Action is. However, I stand by its role as a useful consideration in building habits. For things like homework, exercise, or coding, finding ways to get started at all is very good.
Too often, I think, we wrongfully look at actions and goals as all or nothing, and we get more easily discouraged when we don’t immediately hit 100%. Being able to Scale Up helps also bridge the gap between our expectations and reality.