Triggers: Use Design To Change Your Habits

No magic formula can lead to behavioral change, but we do know that many problems start as individual actions. These actions often form habits, which are reinforced by a myriad of seemingly-harmless factors which make up a habit loop.

"Habit Loop" isn’t our term. It’s one that we borrowed from Charles Duhigg, who wrote The Power of Habit. These loops consist of a cue, a routine, and a reward. Duhigg thoroughly explains these in his book and uses them to illustrate how we might manipulate our habits as individuals, organizations, and as societies.

  • Cues are the factors that trigger our habits: particular locations, times, emotional states, other people, or an action that immediately precedes the habit.
  • Routines are the behaviors you want to change.
  • Rewards satisfy the cravings that drive our behaviors.
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We were inspired by these insights and used them to challenge Pratt's graduate students in Transformation Design to identify one habit they want to stop or start. Part of Pratt Institute’s GradComD MFA program involves students applying design-thinking methodologies to social issues. This particular class aimed to transform the behaviors of individuals and communities in desirable ways while creating meaningful experiences and interactions.

We called the project “Triggers.” Students partnered with a classmate, identified habit loops, prototyped and tested possible solutions that could bring awareness to the problem (making design changes as needed), then tracked the quantitative and/or qualitative changes, and measured how behavior changed. Topics ranged from procrastination, creative confidence, eating less meat, calling your mom more often, doodling in more productive ways, and grinding your teeth less. We provided a few sample projects below and you can see all 20 projects on our “Triggers” website.

When our students summarized the outcomes of their collaborations, some found that simply bringing attention to the habit caused a behavior change. Other partnerships were less definitive. Most of the projects showed us that design can affect behavior. All of them encouraged us to continue exploring how design can be used to improve even the small facets of our lives. Here are three of the twenty projects...

Putting a Halt on Teeth Grinding

Robert Wilson grinds his teeth sometimes, but he wouldn’t consider it a habit, just something that happens if he's more tired than normal, or if he's trying to choke down words that he doesn’t want to come out. For his test subject, John, he realized that John grinds his teeth when he's stressed. So, Wilson designed a facial massage technique book to help him destress, as well as a teeth grinding logbook.

How to Stop Interrupting People

Lillian Ling has a habit that can sometimes be annoying; she interrupts people during conversations. She was completely oblivious to this, so Jeannette Hodgkins designed a fun and unique way to warrant her attention, by creating a mobile clicker app that would allow her to log how many times she'd do this in a day. She also created a citation packet that Ling's friends could give to her whenever she'd interrupt them.

How to Remember to Call Your Mom


As children we live with and depend on our mothers to teach us how to navigate daily life. Soon enough, however, we grow up and move away; our routine interactions fade. How can we maintain a meaningful relationship with our long-distance moms? Amanda Sepanski and Kristen Myers created a diary log that helps you document your conversations with your mom, so that you remember why you should keep calling.

Read about all of the projects, check out the designs, and download some of the toolkits to change some of your own habits. What habits would you start with?

via Barry Schapiro / Twitter

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