Success is nothing more than a few disciplines, practiced every day.
Failure is a nothing more than a few errors, repeated every day.

In 164 BCE, Greek Olympic Sprinter, Leonidas of Rhodes was a couple of seconds away from winning his third olympic gold medal.

His goal was simple—get out of the sprinting blocks quickly and let the rest take care of itself.

Approaching the starting line, Leonidas crouched down with one knee, leaning forward and assuming his usual running stance behind the starting block—as one cord held him by the waist, the other by the knees.

The packed stadium finally went silent— as the sprinters had crouched into their stance ready for the final sprint. Then the Umpire cried out……

“Apite!” (Go!)

Immediately, the cords of the starting block were released.

With no time to think, Leonidas automatically knew this was his trigger to start running and off he went into his usual routine.

All the sprinters belted down towards the finish line as the crowd in the stadium went into hysteria.

Within a couple of seconds, Leonidas crosses the finish line. The race was over so quick and his running routine so automatic, that he was unaware of the winning celebration around him.

As the first to cross the finish line, Leonidas was again crowned the champion for the third and final event of the olympic foot races.

Relief, happiness and a great sense of achievement were just a few of the emotions that he experienced in that moment.


The Hysplex Trigger: How Habits Work

In Ancient Olympic Games, starting pistols used to trigger sprinters into running looked very different. Instead of a pistol gun shot, a two cord mechanism tightened and stretched across the starting line was used to start the race—this trigger was called ‘The Hysplex’.

Trigger Habits

Modern reconstruction of the Ancient Hysplex starting mechanism. Image credit: wiikipedia commons.

As soon as the cords were dropped and the umpire shouted, the sprinters would immediately react to the trigger and begin their automatic running routine.

This routine had a purpose. Given that each athlete had dedicated their entire lives to training and preparing to win the race— the reward was a great sense of achievement and payoff for their hard work—just like Leonidas.

We can see from this that habits usually follow a simple three-part habit loop. [1]

Habit Loop

Image by Mayo Oshin.

 

Trigger  — This is the trigger that initiates the behaviour i.e you get bored at the office.

Routine —This is the actual behaviour in reaction to the trigger i.e you open a YouTube browser window to watch videos.

Reward — The benefit you gain from taking action i.e relief, de-stress and escape from reality.

Think about the habits you currently have and you’ll see this loop set off by a trigger effect.

For example, let’s say you have the habit of smoking. You may notice that whenever you feel stressed or lonely (trigger)— you stand up, walk outside with a packet of cigarettes and have a smoke (routine). You instantly get a rush of dopamine, stress relief and ‘sense of belonging’ if you’re socialising with other smokers (reward).

This habit loop was first discovered by researchers at MIT and then later popularized in Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book, The Power of Habit (audiobook):

The reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.

The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards. 

The key point to note here is that if the reward is positive, you’ll react to the trigger and repeat the behaviour again and again until eventually it becomes an automatic behaviour—a habit.

Now let’s look at how you can use the concept of the ‘Hysplex Trigger’ and the habit loop to create and stick to new habits.


Step 1: Identity Your ‘Hysplex Trigger’

Breaking Bad Habits

We spend most of our lives on autopilot, never really taking time to understand why we do what we do.

For example, let’s say you have a bad habit of drinking coffee every morning. Ask yourself, do you drink coffee because you’re tired? Or because you just happened to walk past a specific coffee shop everyday? Or because it’s 9am.

Typically, Habit triggers fit into one of these five categories:

  • Location

     

  • Time

     

  • Emotional State

     

  • Other People

     

  • Something Immediately before action

Whenever you are hit with that urge to eat a bar of chocolate, smoke or waste time on social media as an example, take note of the following:

a) Where am I? (I’m sitting at my work desk)

b) What time is it? (11 am)

c) How do I feel? (Bored, tired and agitated)

d) Who else is around me? (Work colleagues)

e) What did I just do that set off my craving? (scanned, photocopied         and filed a bunch of papers)

After repeating this exercise for a week, a pattern of trigger, routine and reward should start to emerge. Particularly, you should start to notice what you are actually craving i.e stress relief, happiness, sense of belonging etc.

In my case, I noticed I would walk into the supermarket on the way home from work to buy a bag of chips typically around 7 pm to get the reward of stress relief.

Once I became aware, I was in a much better place to replace this habit and stick to a healthier alternative.

 
Starting New Habits

If you want to create and stick to new habits, you can create your own trigger to set off the new habit using one of the five categories mentioned previously.

The key here is to choose an existing trigger that you already habitually do.

For example, let’s say you already have the habit of sitting down on your couch to watch your favourite TV show at 8pm everyday after work, you could use this trigger to set off your new habit of sorting out your messy email inbox.

In other words…

“When I sit down to watch Game Of Thrones, I respond to emails in my Gmail.”

By simply riding on the momentum of your existing habits and using them as triggers, you can stick to the new ones.


Step 2: Experiment With New Routines And Rewards

Breaking Bad Habits

Once you have a clearer sense of the reward and craving driving your habit, you can now experiment—specifically with the routines leading up to them.

For example, let’s say you have a bad habit of eating after midnight. After some observation, you may have noticed that it’s not hunger driving you, but instead at midnight everyday you’re bored and looking for something to fill in time—so you get up to cook and eat.

You could do one of two things:

  1. Experiment with trying out new routines that help you overcome that boredom i.e go for a walk, play an instrument, write in a journal etc. 

     

  2. Eliminate or reduce the incentives of the reward i.e create ‘stakes’ or negative consequences for taking action like setting your alarm to wake up earlier the next day.

Ideally, replacing your old routines with new routines while keeping the same rewards, could be an effective strategy for breaking bad habits.

You can also write down and use an actionable plan to take action on your new routine whenever the craving comes up.

 

Starting New Habits

It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on and anticipating pain and suffering whenever we start new habits.

It doesn’t have to be this way, you can take action and enjoy the process at the same time.

Experiment with rewarding yourself afterwards and celebrating your progress.

  • Did you exercise today? —Reward yourself by going to the cinema this weekend.

     

  • Did you write another 200 words for your project? —Reward yourself by catching up with friends at a restaurant.

     

  • Did you reach out to 5 new people in your network?—Reward yourself by going to a comedy show.

Whatever rewards you decide to use, remember that taking just even one tiny step towards your goals is a reason to celebrate.


What Next?

Our habits typically follow a 3 way loop —trigger, routine and reward.

Whether you’re looking to break bad habits or start to new ones,  you can first begin by identifying your trigger and then experimenting with your routines and rewards.

As always, it’s all about the process not the destination. You can expect to slip up and struggle here and there, but in the end as long as you are making progress— everything will work out okay.


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FOOTNOTES

  1. The habit loop process is the most basic framework of how habits works. Note that studies including the recent work from Ann Graybiel, Scientist at MIT, suggests that habit formation is multifaceted and complex by nature, see full study.

     

  2. I found this interesting article from the New York times that talks about the first archeology findings of the Hysplex mechanism.

     

  3. Leonidas, better known as Leonidas Of Rhodes was one of the most famous ancient Olympic athletes. He competed and won all three track events in successive Olympics in 164 BC, 160 BC, 156 BC and 152 BC. The intro story is not a historical account—just my imagination of what it may have looked like.

     

  4. Credit to Charles Duhigg for inspiring this article.

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