J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Habit Bending — Manipulate the Trigger and the Reward

Coffee is the trigger. Chocolate is the reward.

Coffee is the trigger. Chocolate is the reward.

As regular readers know, I’m in the process of establishing a daily writing habit. I’m doing decently well; on most days I write between 600-1000 words of fiction in the morning. Keeping a writing log has been very helpful on a day-to-day basis, and having a 5-year commitment has been equally helpful in terms of big-picture thinking and motivation.

Still, I’m ironing the kinks out of the system. My biggest issue has been starting work in the late morning (usually after 10am, sometimes as late as 11:30am) when there is nothing preventing me from starting as early as 8:45am. This doesn’t always mean I’m wasting time. Sometimes I’m productive during that morning time (just not writing fiction), but sometimes I am wasting time (on reddit or other online distractions).

I’ve tried using site-blocking software, or just turning off my wi-fi. This works well once I’ve started, especially in terms of preventing tangential “research” that can so easily lead to checking email, clicking on links, etc. If my wi-fi is off, I’m more likely to make a note like “look up native species of evergreens in Harz mountains” and then continue with the actual writing (instead of going to wikipedia and then making a left turn to Facebook or Twitter).

So my problem was really how to start “first thing.” Sometimes I managed to do it, but I was having trouble establishing a consistent habit of starting my work early.

Watching the video below provided some excellent clues.

Duhigg offers some real gems in this video, based on a thorough review of the latest neuroscience. Some of the highlights:

  • Most of what we do during the day is habitual and automatic. To do something that isn’t already a habit requires willpower, which is a scarce and depletable resource (Duhigg uses the analogy of willpower being like a muscle: you can exercise it and it gets stronger, but it also gets tired over the course of a day).
  • “Keystone” habits like exercise and journaling tend to ripple out in terms of their positive effects on other parts of your life (I’ve found this to be true; taking quick breaks to lift weights during writing sessions helps maintain concentration and tends to boost both word count and quality).
  • Once your brain has established a trigger and a reward for a habit, it’s more or less impossible to get rid of it. What you can do is “swap out” one behavior for another.
  • Taking control of your triggers, queues, and rewards is pivotal in terms of establishing new behaviors to replace the ones you want to “overwrite.”

I watched the video, thought about it, and a few hour later got out my P-Touch labeling system and printed out two labels:


I stuck them on my computer monitor and went to bed. This morning, I woke up, had breakfast with my family, got the kid ready for summer camp, and waited to have coffee.

At 8:37 I poured myself a cup of coffee, started to write, and had met my word count quota by 10:06. A much better start time than usual. Then I ate some dark chocolate.

I realized that coffee was already a trigger for me: a trigger to turn on my computer and start surfing the internet. So all I had to do was replace the behavior that followed the trigger.

This is only Day 1, but I’m excited enough by this new technique to share it immediately. I’ll write a follow-up post in a few weeks and let you know how it’s going. In the meantime, let me know if you have any success modifying your own triggers and rewards to change behavior.



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Happy Wednesday!


  1. been on this habit kick for a few months now. great journey. thanks for this video. it’s really good. here’s my thoughts: http://danscreativeoutlet.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/what-ive-learned-about-habits/
    p.s. is this kind of “i like ur post, check out my post” post spammy?

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