The Power of Triggers and Routines

The following article is a section from Module 03: Get Focused in the Nature of Work Foundations Program, where I talk extensively about how to optimize performance using the power of routines. In the program, I look at every aspect of structuring your work day, setting daily and weekly priorities and tracking your progress against your goals. In this article, I’ll dive a little deeper into different types of triggers and routines you can use in your daily routines.

Creativity and motivation aren’t ephemeral feelings that appear randomly. They are achieved through disciplined repetition, routine and practice.

Research shows us that consistent routines and triggers are a powerful tool in habit formation and in activating the brain to behave in ways we desire, such as focus or thinking creatively. When we create a ritual that we repeat before we want to perform a specific activity, our brain builds neural pathways as a way to automate the response to that trigger.

Many notable high performers use routines and triggers to activate the mental and emotional state they desire in order to achieve at a high level. Michael Phelps, who is the most decorated athlete in Olympic history with 28 medals over five Olympic competitions, is an amazing example of how to use rituals to prime for performance pre-competition. It’s not that he does anything particularly interesting, it’s that he follows an exact routine every competition day, from the moment he wakes up, through every single thing he does up to the moment the gun goes off for the race. One piece I really like is that he listens to the same playlist he listened to for the months of training leading up to the race. This allows him to feel relaxed and cognitively connected to all the work he has done in preparation for the big day.

The following are some basic conditions you can create rituals around to activate the brain for deep work or other creative and high performance states.

Conditional Triggers, Routines and Rituals

  • Timing — First and foremost, consistency in the timing of when you do specific types of work makes a huge difference in your ability to produce effortlessly. Setting exact times and days that repeat consistently is important.
  • Music — Music is a powerful trigger that activates the brain in remarkable ways. Music is a particularly useful trigger if you don’t work from a consistent physical place each day. Build playlists that get you into the zone and stick to them. If you’re on Spotify, search Nature of Work for playlists that I’ve created for creative and focused thinking.
  • Place — When possible, be consistent about where you work, specifically for your most cognitively demanding work. This could be your home office, your kitchen table or your favorite coffee shop, as long as it’s consistent.
  • Digital Environment —  Just like your physical space, your digital environment is important. Which applications you have open, and which you use for specific tasks. For instance, I do all of my writing in Google Docs, regardless of where it’s going to end up.
  • Scent — One of our most powerful senses for triggering emotion and our subconscious brain, where triggers and habits are formed, is our sense of smell. Find an essential oil blend or a scented candle that you love and use it to signal that it’s time to work (or relax, or go to sleep).
  • Any Small Action — The bottom line is that the substance of the ritual is less important than the fact that you repeat it consistently every time you sit down to do a specific activity.

Emotional Priming Rituals

Beyond creating triggers that signal to your brain when it’s time to activate, sometimes you need an emotional trigger to get you into the right emotional space. These rituals can help:

  • Visualize a positive moment from your past — One of the most powerful ways to induce emotions is to recall a time when you felt that way. Spend some time recalling a moment when you were happy, or felt confident or in your element. Write these moments down somewhere so you can bring them up in your mind quickly.
  • Deep Breathing — If you’re trying to relax your nerves or calm down before or after a particularly stressful event or conversation, a simple breathing exercise can do wonders. One is called the 4-7-8 breathing, which involves inhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of seven and releasing it slowly for a count of eight. Repeat this at least four or more times. Deep breathing has been shown to increase focus and significantly reduce cortisol levels, the chemical released when we’re stressed.
  • Power poses — A quick way to reduce stress levels is to hold a power pose. One example is to stand with your legs wide and your arms stretched wide above your head. Amy Cuddy’s research found that high power poses, held for just two minutes, decreased cortisol levels by 25% and raised testosterone by 20%. That is a dramatic shift on a biochemistry level in the body from this simple action.
  • Mantras and Self TalkResearch has shown that repeating positive messages to yourself can increase confidence and lower stress. One word of caution, research has also shown that for people with chronically low self esteem, positive self talk can actually backfire, when your ego doesn’t believe your positive self talk. So it’s not a fix-all approach; however for moments of stress or when you need an extra boost, this is a powerful technique. Each day in the Nature of Work Field Guide journaling questions, there is a prompt to create a mantra.

Photo by Alexander Ramsey on Unsplash

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