What are Trigger-Action Plans (TAPs)?

Dis­claimer: This is a tech­nique I learnt at CFAR (which said it’s backed by a large amount of Science!, but I haven’t looked into origi­nal sources much). This post is to ex­plain TAPs sim­ply, in­clud­ing for peo­ple un­fa­mil­iar with CFAR/​LW, with a quick ‘get­ting started’ guide. It is not in­tended to be a com­plete ac­count nor thor­oughly re­searched. For a more data-driven ac­count, see this post by Kaj_So­tala.

Trig­ger-Ac­tion Plan­ning is a tech­nique for chang­ing and cre­at­ing habits that are to­tally au­to­matic and don’t re­quire con­scious thought.

The ba­sic idea is that you tie the habit to a spe­cific, sim­ple, con­crete thing that ac­ti­vates the ‘do this habit’ pro­gram in your brain.

trig­ger—The sim­ple, spe­cific sight/​sound/​smell/​thought/​feel­ing/​etc. which you hook a be­havi­our onto.

ac­tion—The be­havi­our you en­act on con­tact with the trig­ger.

plan—A de­liber­ate plan to cre­ate the above pat­tern of trig­ger-ac­tion.

pat­tern—A pat­tern of trig­ger-ac­tion, whether de­liber­ate or not, some­times cre­ated un­con­sciously.

(TAP can mean ei­ther Trig­ger-Ac­tion Plan or Trig­ger-Ac­tion Pat­tern.)

Au­to­matic Habits

It’s far eas­ier to change habits when you don’t need to think about them. If we try to use our slow, con­scious think­ing to do a de­sired habit, it’s effort­ful, we of­ten for­get, and it takes up at­ten­tion we could be us­ing el­se­where. Au­tomat­ing habits makes ac­tu­ally do­ing them effortless and re­li­able.

For­tu­nately, hu­man think­ing ap­pears to be de­signed for this kind of au­toma­tion. (For more on this, see Think­ing, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kah­ne­man.)

Trig­ger-ac­tion pat­terns oc­cur nat­u­rally in ev­ery­day life. They can be use­ful, such as [Finish lath­er­ing hair wash sham­poo out] or [Close front door lock door], or they can be detri­men­tal, such as [Feel restlesscom­fort-eat].

Un­der­stand­ing how they work means you can in­ter­vene and break un­de­sir­able pat­terns, or cre­ate your own pat­terns.

Creat­ing a TAP

1. Pick a goal.

A de­sired habit or be­havi­our change. Usu­ally, we make TAPs in or­der to move the nee­dle a lit­tle, or give a pause to re­mem­ber the de­sired be­havi­our, rather than com­pletely over­haul en­trenched habits in one fell swoop.

It is pos­si­ble to chain TAPs to­gether to build up a more com­pli­cated au­to­matic be­havi­our. You prob­a­bly have such a chain already, such as when show­er­ing or driv­ing to work.

But this can take time to build up. When you first drive to your new office, you already have a bunch of driv­ing-re­lated TAPs run­ning; so in­stal­ling a “go left, left, right, left, straight for a mile, right” se­ries of TAPs is already built on top of some com­pli­cated au­to­matic be­havi­our. If you want to make a big be­havi­our change that isn’t already based on some­thing you’ve got au­to­matic sub-habits for – such as do­ing a work­out se­ries at a gym when you’ve never been be­fore – it will take some train­ing.

Sim­ple, mod­est goals are eas­iest to start with. E.g. “drink more wa­ter”, “get out of bed ear­lier”, “re­mem­ber to floss”, “do a few push-ups ev­ery day”, etc.

2. Find a trig­ger.

Prop­er­ties of a trig­ger:

  • Unique—Trig­gers must always be fol­lowed by the ac­tion, or else the TAP breaks. (Be­cause if there are ex­cep­tions, that means you then have to think about whether to do the ac­tion, in­stead of it be­ing your au­to­matic de­fault.)

  • Ap­pro­pri­ate—Are there any situ­a­tions where the trig­ger comes up and you wouldn’t want to do the ac­tion? If so, make the TAP sim­pler so that the ac­tion is always ap­pro­pri­ate, or at­tach it to a differ­ent trig­ger.

  • Non-vague—Ac­tions need a spe­cific, con­crete trig­ger to hook into. (Imag­ine try­ing to hook jello: it’d just go *whub­ble*. So make your trig­ger solid!)

  • Ac­tu­ally hap­pens—If it’s rare, the TAP might not stick. If the trig­ger doesn’t come up when you want to do the change of be­havi­our, or only does some­times, try to find a trig­ger that a) comes up in all situ­a­tions where you want to do the habit, and b) comes up in no situ­a­tions where you don’t want to do it.

3. Choose an ac­tion.

In ad­di­tion to shar­ing the above prop­er­ties of Spe­cific (non-vague), Ap­pro­pri­ate and Reli­able (ac­tu­ally hap­pens), fur­ther prop­er­ties of ac­tions are:

  • Low-effort—Some­thing you can ac­tu­ally do. (Prefer­ably, in your sleep.)

  • Sim­ple—Break it down to the sim­plest pos­si­ble thing. If you want a com­pli­cated be­havi­our change, you may have to in­stall a whole chain of TAPs (each in­di­vi­d­ual one be­ing triv­ially easy, so that you can do the pro­cess au­to­mat­i­cally).

  • Rele­vant—A good TAP is a lit­tle nudge in the di­rec­tion of your goal. A bad TAP is at best pointless habit; at worst, it could push the nee­dle away from your goal. So make sure the ac­tion is ac­tu­ally rele­vant to what you want to do, e.g. helps you re­mem­ber to do an­other ac­tion, or is a step to­wards your goal, or is it­self a lit­tle piece of your goal.

4. Do prac­tise runs.

The way a TAP gets in­stalled isn’t just by think­ing “wouldn’t it be nice if I had this be­havi­our trig­ger-ac­tion” – you have to ac­tu­ally do it (or vi­su­al­ise do­ing it) sev­eral times be­fore it be­comes a trig­ger-ac­tion pat­tern run­ning in your brain.

Typ­i­cal in­stall time: 10 re­hearsals.

(Yes, re­hearse it 10 times. This may sound like a lot, but the point is to help your brain clock on to the fact it’s go­ing to do this TAP ev­ery. sin­gle. time.)

Break­ing a TAP

Un­de­sir­able habits are sim­ple (if not always com­fortable) to break. “Never break a habit twice” ap­plies in re­verse to bad habits: if you in­ten­tion­ally break it a few times, this dis­rupts the au­toma­tion and breaks the trig­ger-ac­tion pro­cess.

It might be quite un­com­fortable and quite difficult to break a bad habit. We have bad habits for a rea­son. Change takes prac­tise.

You might have pro­cesses that stop you from even notic­ing you’re do­ing the habit un­til it’s too late. In which case, you could try in­stal­ling some TAPs to no­tice when you’re about to do the habit.

Note: Break­ing the au­to­matic na­ture of the habit doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily stop you from do­ing the habit. It just means that if you do the habit, you’re now do­ing it con­sciously in­stead of mind­lessly. It means you’re given back the choice.

(If you find your­self still do­ing a bad habit even though you’ve bro­ken the au­toma­tion, you may have some kind of in­ter­nal con­flict about whether the habit is bad. In which case, CFAR’s In­ter­nal Dou­ble Crux is a bet­ter tech­nique for that situ­a­tion.)

Fur­ther Reading

Ham­mer­time Day 3: TAPs by alk­jash sum­marises how to in­stall a TAP and gives lots of tips and trou­bleshoot­ing ad­vice, as well as ex­plain­ing the power of the Sapi­ence Spell.

His sec­ond post on TAPs ex­plains how to find trig­gers, and how to use the Sapi­ence Spell more pow­er­fully.

Cog­ni­tive Trig­ger-Ac­tion Plan­ning For Epistemic Ra­tion­al­ity on the Agenty Duck blog is a short post that has some nice ex­am­ple TAPs you may wish to steal.

Mak­ing in­ten­tions con­crete—Trig­ger-Ac­tion Plan­ning by Kaj_So­tala ex­plains what kinds of prob­lems trig­ger-ac­tion plan­ning helps a, is more pre­cise with the tech­ni­cal de­tails than my post, and has ac­tual data and cita­tions.

To re­ally un­der­stand TAPs (and many more su­per use­ful tech­niques like this), I recom­mend do­ing CFAR’s Ap­plied Ra­tion­al­ity Work­shop. On top of the in-work­shop train­ing, they give you a hand­book that has a lot more trou­bleshoot­ing ad­vice and how to im­prove TAP skill. But I hope this post will give you a good start to play around with the tech­nique. En­joy your new habit mas­tery!