TAP stands for Trigger Action Pattern/Planning. "Pattern" is a descriptive term, i.e. it's describing what's actually happening. "Planning" is what I hope to teach you how to do, i.e. how to create certain Trigger Action Patterns in yourself.
In the literature, these are sometimes called "implementation intentions", but that is a dumb name so we're not going to call it that. These have been studied pretty thoroughly and are probably one of the techniques that CFAR teaches that has the most rigorous evidence that demonstrates effectiveness.
In my view, the reason that TAPs work is because your brain doesn't really like making decisions. Making decisions is extremely costly, so, in a given situation, your brain will usually resort to doing the thing that it usually does in this situation. The idea of "installing" a TAP in yourself is to convince your brain that the action that you want it to do is also the action that you usually do in this situation.
You can think of TAPs as basically building habits. If you've read the power of habit, this general process will be very familiar to you. Today, I'll be covering how to give yourself habits that you do want; and maybe will cover how to get rid of habits that you don't want in TAPs 2 (maybe).
The steps of installing a TAP in yourself are pretty simple:
- Pick an action
- Pick a trigger
Picking an action
It is crucial that the action is specific. It should abundantly clear to you if the action has happened yet. If the answer could ever reasonably be "maybe," then you should pick a more specific action.
"Calm down" is not a good action because it is hard to tell if you are calm. "Take 5 deep breaths" is a much better action because it is easy to count breaths. However, it might be difficult to figure out if a breath is deep. "Breath in for 7 seconds and breathe out for 7 seconds 5 times" is a very good action because it is very clear when you have done it.
Importantly, the action should be something that actually advances your goals. The point is not to have a bunch of TAPs, the point is to get the things that you actually want. Sometimes, the process of making your action specific enough to satisfy the specificity requirement, the action no longer advances your goals. In this case, you should either choose a new action or conclude that a TAP might not be a good way to solve this problem
The action should also be atomic. This is desirable for two reasons. Firstly, if your TAP doesn't work, having small actions makes it easy to figure out where your TAP broke down. Secondly, the idea is to tie the trigger to the action in a compact way, which is easier to do if the action is atomic.
Sometimes, people will pick actions that are very large and are actually multiple sub-actions. For example, "go to the gym" is a very large action. It includes "change into gym clothes", "pick up gym bag", and "transport self to gym". Possibly, "transport self to gym" should be broken up further.
Using multiple TAPs with atomic actions can let you do large actions. You can multiple TAPs to chain "change into gym clothes" into "pick up gym bag" into "walk outside" into "go to car" into "drive to gym". My morning routine consists of "Trigger: alarm goes off. Action: take vitamins", "Trigger: take vitamins. Action: pull out journal and write date on top of blank page", "Trigger: journal is out. Action: plan my day", "Trigger: done writing in journal. Action: go brush teeth". I'm not quite sure how reliable this morning routine is, but since all the actions are fairly atomic, if it ever fails, it will be easy to observe which step it failed at.
Picking a trigger
It is even more crucial that the trigger is specific. Your trigger will not be specific enough even conditioning on the fact that I told you that your trigger won't be specific enough.
One possible trigger is "my alarm goes off." A better trigger is "I hear my phone buzzing and playing the generic alarm jingle." It is beneficial to incorporate as many sensory inputs as possible. (Note that none of the triggers in the examples are quite specific enough for brevity. An exercise for the reader is to convert them into triggers that are specific enough, e.g. at the level of sensory data.)
Your trigger should also occur immediately before you want to perform the action. Ideally, when the trigger happens, you should be in a location where you can perform the action and you should want the action to happen immediately (spatial location matters insofar as it takes you time to transport yourself places). You want the trigger to be strongly tied to the action in your brain; such a tie is easier to make and maintain if there is almost no time between when the trigger happens and when the action happens.
"Trigger: leave work. Action: go to the library" is a bad trigger/action pair because the library is (presumably) not right next to where you work. A better trigger/action pair is "Trigger: leave work. Action: put the library into my phone's mapping app."
Ideally, the trigger would happen if and only if you wanted to do your action. Every time that the trigger happens but you don't do your action, you're practicing not doing the action in response to the trigger.
Most importantly, you need to be willing to actually do the action when the trigger happens. This sounds a bit silly, but you can't have a trigger/action pair that you won't actually do. For example, there is an exercise routine that suggests the following TAP to get more exercise: "whenever you walk through a doorway, do 10 pushups." Walking through a doorway is a pretty specific trigger. Doing 10 pushups is a pretty specific action. You can do the action as soon as the trigger happens. However, you're not actually going to do 10 pushups every time you walk through a doorway because it's weird and you probably walk through a lot of doorways, so this is a bad trigger/action pair.
The model you should have in mind is that when your brain encounters the trigger, then it searches past experience for the action you usually take and takes that action. The point of practicing is to replace all the past experience with an action of your choosing.
This practice should be as realistic as possible. If the TAP you want to install is "Trigger: hear my alarm. Action: get out of bed" then you should actually change into the clothes you wear into bed, turn off the lights, set your alarm for 5 minutes from now, get into bed, wait for your alarm to go off, then get out of bed.
If you're not able to physically do the exact trigger/action pair, try to come up with close substitutes. One of my taps is "Trigger: alarm goes off. Action: eat my vitamins." It would not be wise to eat many vitamin pills in one day, but I do have various other pill-shaped things that it would not be harmful to eat many of. I used these to practice my TAP (which has resulted in perfect vitamin compliance for the past week).
If you can't do the thing at all, then the next best thing is to vividly visualize the trigger/action pair. By vividly visualize, I mean in as much detail as you can muster. If the trigger/action pair would take 2 minutes to do in real life, the visualization should take about two minutes.
Finally, you must practice ten (10) times. This is because 10 is the number of fingers that most humans have, so it is a memorable number. Recall that 10 = 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1. That may seem like a lot of times, but practicing properly and thoroughly is the most important step when trying to install a new TAP and make it reliable. You should spend about 20 minutes practicing for each new TAP.
It’s important to practice a lot. It’s so important that I will invoke the forbidden power known as mathematics by stating to you a small theorem. Numbers that are less than ten do not equal ten. This trivially follows from the definitions of less than and equality, but many people do not realize this fact. nine is less than ten and so does not equal ten, so when I say to practice ten times I do not mean to practice nine times or eight times or seven times, I mean actually practice ten times.
Here are some examples of TAPs that I've installed (or are trying to install):
- Trigger: open Reddit. Action: close Reddit.
- This might seem dumb, but it works amazingly well. I felt kind of silly opening and closing Reddit ten times, but it works.
- Trigger: notice that someone is trying to explain something to me. Action: I paraphrase it back at them.
- This has helped me understand people much better, especially people that aren't that good at explaining things. One problem with this TAP is that the trigger isn't that specific, but there doesn't seem to be a generalized way to realize when people are trying to explain things to me. It's worked pretty well in practice, but I would like it to be more reliable.
- Trigger: alarm. Action: take vitamins.
- This TAP is strong enough that once, when I had slept extremely late and forgot to turn off my alarm, I got out of bed, took my vitamins, then got back into bed.
- Trigger: say something false. Action: correct it into something true.
- I'm trying to upgrade my ability to detect truth and falsehood inside my own brain and I think that this TAP helps with that. Practicing this one was a little weird, but it works OK.
Sometimes, you can construct trigger/action pairs that are like “Trigger: don’t want to. Action: do it anyway.” Sometimes, these work extremely well. Other times, they are internally violent. If you don’t want to do something, there are good reasons why you don’t want to do that thing. In these cases, such a TAP bulldozes over the issue without properly resolving it. I recommend against bulldozing. However, other times your brain just gets hijacked by Reddit and it’s probably fine to bulldoze yourself.
- Find a (preferably small) bug that is amenable to being solved with a TAP (or multiple, but I would recommend 1 to start).
- Common examples: don't floss enough, don't go to the gym enough, don't stretch enough, have bad posture, browse reddit too much, don't take vitamins, etc.
- Pick an action that solves your bug.
- Flossing, changing into gym clothes, stretching, fixing your posture, closing reddit, taking vitamins, etc.
- Importantly, describe the action in a specific way. For example, for my vitamin TAP, my action is "grab my pill container, open the proper day, pour vitamins into my hand, put them into my mouth, grab my water bottle, drink water, then swallow."
- Pick a trigger that you want to link to your action.
- Time based triggers are good for things that you want to do once per day. Phone alarms are generally pretty good because you can pick unique noises, which strengthens the connection between the trigger and the action.
- Practice 10 times
- If n < 10, then n != 10
- You should actually practice ten times. It might take like 20 minutes, but practicing makes the TAP much more reliable.
- For example, I opened Reddit and closed it ten times. Then, the next day, I opened Reddit habitually, then closed it before I realized what was happening.
- My friend practiced meditating after a phone alarm ten times and expressed large amounts of surprise that they actually meditated after the alarm went off the next day.