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.)
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 restless → comfort-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.)
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!