Build foolproof triggers for a bulletproof productivity system

The purpose of a productivity system, such as Getting Things Done, is to increase productivity while reducing cognitive load, moment to moment.

Yet for a productivity system to work, it also has to be manageable. If it takes a lot of cognitive load to interact with a productivity system, whether that’s capturing inputs, prioritizing inputs, or deciding what to do, you’ll stop following the system.

This is why triggers are so important to a reliable productivity system. Triggers reduce maintenance and clutter, and allow you trust the system so you can be in the moment.

A trigger is a stimulus that “triggers” an action. For example, an alarm goes off on your phone when it’s time to take a medication. Provided you keep your phone near you, you can be confident you won’t forget. It also reduces clutter: Imagine having “take medication” on your todo list, along with everything else—that would be a mess. The trigger allows the relevant stimulus to be kept in its own place.

The ideal trigger is:

  • Reliable: If you can’t count on this trigger happening when you need it, you can’t be in the moment.
  • Context-specific: The trigger should remind you at the exact time and place when you can take the desired action—no sooner, no later.
  • Easy to implement: Setting or following the trigger has to be easy to do, or you won’t be able to sustain using that trigger.
  • Attached to the action: When the trigger happens, you don’t have to do much to retrieve the action that needs to take place.

I had a great trigger when I was a kid. I’d leave my backpack by the door each night, packed with anything I needed. As I walked past my backpack on my way out the door, that was my trigger to grab it.

This trigger was reliable and context-specific, because I had to walk out the door in order to go to school. The trigger was easy to implement—I had to put my backpack somewhere, it might as well have been by the door. The trigger was attached to the action, because the backpack itself was the source of the trigger.

While these are the ideal characteristics of a trigger, it’s rarely possible nor practical for every trigger to have all of these characteristics to a full extent.

In building foolproof triggers for yourself, you have to balance ease of implementation with other characteristics, as well as the likelihood that you need to deliberately construct a trigger at all.

Here are some characteristics you have to balance to build foolproof triggers:

Mental load vs. complexity: Even my backpack trigger had some mental load. I had to see the backpack, recognize that I was, in fact, on my way to school, and grab the backpack to take it with me. It would still be possible for me to forget my backpack, especially if I was distracted.

I could have reduced the mental load of the trigger by blocking the door with my backpack. But what about other people who had to use the door?

I also could have set an alarm that went off right before it was time to go to school. There was no iPhone then, and if I had set an alarm for every little thing, I probably would have been shipped off to a mental institution.

At some point, a small amount of mental load is good enough—especially when other solutions are impractical. You have to balance the mental load required to follow a trigger with the level of complexity required to make it foolproof.

Distraction risk: My iPhone is the source of many of my triggers these days, but I try to avoid using my iPhone as a source of triggers whenever possible. The reason is distraction risk.

Distraction risk is the extent to which the tool you use as a trigger source exposes you to getting off task.

I find that if I have to interact with my phone in order to respond to a trigger—such as a notification or an alarm—I increase the chances that I’ll get sucked into another distraction, such as Twitter or Facebook.

For this reason, if I have to use an alarm to wake up, I use my iPad instead. I’ve set up everything on my iPad so that I don’t receive notifications or social messages, so the distraction risk of my iPad is very low. There is zero chance that I’ll waste the first hour of my day scrolling through Facebook.

(I would like to find a simple bracelet with a vibration function, and a primitive LCD display—though it’s possible vibration patterns could be enough complexity. If I could get triggers through such a bracelet, there would be no distraction risk to those triggers.)

There are a variety of techniques you can use to compensate for the mental load required to follow a trigger:

Habit stacking: I learned, in my BJ Fogg podcast conversation on how to build good habits, that habits themselves can be triggers. When you use a habit to trigger another habit, you’re “habit stacking.”

For example, it was difficult to build a foolproof trigger for remembering to bring my lunch to school. I couldn’t just put lunch in my backpack the night before—it would spoil. If I wanted to hang a sign on my backpack, well then I’d have to remember to hang the sign, and by the time I saw my sign, it’d be too late to make lunch.

I still rarely forgot to bring lunch because, as I now realize, I was habit stacking. After breakfast, I’d brush my teeth. After I brushed my teeth, I made my lunch. After I made my lunch, I’d put it in my backpack.

I used things I was going to do anyway—such as eating breakfast—as triggers for doing things I might forget—such as brushing my teeth (hey, I was eleven) and making my lunch.

The trigger cascade: Triggers help reduce clutter within your productivity system. You can keep information relevant to actions in various places, in manageable chunks. You can do this because of the trigger cascade.

The trigger cascade is the arrangement of triggers in your system. One trigger leads to another trigger. Each trigger along the way presents you with relevant information.

For example, my todo list may have an action in it, and I may have a trigger to check that todo list periodically. That action may trigger me to access a note in Evernote, that has further relevant information on the action, such as a checklist procedure I can follow.

There’s no point in having the checklist on my todo list. The todo list item is enough to trigger me to look at the checklist. One trigger cascades into another.

I personally have internal triggers based upon the time of day—even the time of week. For example, first thing in the morning is my writing time. That trigger cascades into me checking any notes I might have on things I want to write about.

To build a foolproof trigger, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the action I want to take?
  • When and where do I need to take that action?
  • If I could implement anything I wanted, what would make 100% sure that I wouldn’t forget the action?
  • Given the constraints of the context (when and where), what’s a practical trigger I can use?
  • Is there relevant information I need in order to perform the action? How can I silo that information so that I’m only presented with it as a result of the trigger?

Building foolproof triggers takes time and experimentation, but it’s worth it. With foolproof triggers as a part of your productivity system, you can operate fluidly throughout your day, and focus your mind on what lies in front of you.

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