May 14, 2014

Trigger Happy! More on Healthy Habit Automation

photo: wikipedia

Regular readers may recall that I've recently begun experimenting with healthy habit "triggers."

What I mean by that is: I've been trying to create simple pairings between external stimuli and desired actions that will eventually, I hope, become so automatic that I don't even have to think about them. Sort of like the way I say "Yes please!" whenever I hear the trigger "would you like another piece of cake, Crabby?"

Only, um, perhaps a little healthier than that.

Well, the experiment continues, employing a brand new sneaky method that I stole from a clever reader who suggested it in the last post.  Wanna hear an update?

But first...

Brief Trigger recap:

My goal is to initiate only one or two fairly simple positive habits per month, triggered by an everyday object or occurrence. And then keep adding on month by month until my life is a veritable freakin' carnival of effortless healthy habits! Because let's face it, the whole "effort" and "willpower" thing? Best avoided if at all possible.

Last month, remember what I worked on?

Yep--Taking the stairs two at a time.  Everytime I see a set of stairs, which is a daily occurrence because I live with them on both coasts, I try to remember to ascend two at at time and get a little extra leg work.

So how well is that trigger working out going into the second month?

Actually, the remembering part is going great. It's the execution part that's proving problematic.

Sigh. I seem to have fucked up my knee (again).

This is causing me both minor physical pain and major psychological distress. Going up stairs even one at a time can now hurt my right knee. Unfortunately, running, and even my go-to aerobic fallback, the elliptical, are also causing problems. Gahhhhhhh!!!!

This will most likely be the subject of a long whiny post in the future, especially if it doesn't get better soon, but for now I am avoiding anything that hurts more than a little, and stretching and strengthening the bodily parts I'm thinking could benefit from that, and I've resolved to seek medical advice when we shift coasts in (OMG) about a week and a half.

But, here's the thing: I have not stopped going up the stairs two at a time!  Because I am an imbecile really don't want to lose the habit and ruin my shiny new experiment so early in the game.

I have discovered, though, that I can do two steps at a time repeatedly with my left leg for a while, and then cautiously sneak in two with my right without pain. But only if I am very, very careful about how I line up over my feet and make sure to push hard with my glutes and not swing my left leg forward to the next step. Modifying my movements and paying such careful attention to biomechanics may actually be helping! Or maybe not, but at least it's keeping the habit going without totally trashing my knee.

So Next Up: A "Manufactured" Trigger!

For this month's habit, I stole an idea from Death Ride Grandma in the comments to the last healthy habit trigger post.

It's the notion that you can engineer your daily environment to provide helpful triggers for good behavior that you keep forgetting.

Like DRG, stretching is something I need help remembering to do.  One trigger I'd tried to set up before, but kept forgetting to do, was to do a particular hip stretch whenever I floss my teeth.

photo: wikipedia

No, not that kind of hip stretch.

It's a piriformis stretch in which you put a bent leg on a countertop and lean in. (I won't steal the drawing, but if you need a countertop tooth-flossing stretch, just click on the link and scroll down a bit).

Anyway, it pairs perfectly with flossing!  My upper body is busy, but my legs are hanging out right next to the counter which they could be taking advantage of.  Right leg goes with upper teeth, then left leg with lower teeth, and voila, multi-tasking!  But like I said, I kept forgetting.

So what's the sneaky trick?  Now I have started "hiding" the dental floss.

Yep, it now lives in a drawer wrapped in a washcloth.

Hi there, dental floss!

(Actually it's dental tape, which is harder to find but is thicker and is much more satisfying to work with than the skinny regular floss.  But I digress).

Why a washcloth?

Because when I do the countertop stretch, I don't like my ankle bone resting uncomfortably on the uba tuba. ("Uba Tuba" is just one of the cheaper and more common granite countertop options but it's awfully fun to say, isn't it? Uba Tuba! Uba Tuba! Uba Tuba!)

But yeah, uba tuba is a hard ouchy surface, so I generally employ a wash cloth as an ankle cushion.

So when I go to floss my teeth and can't find the dental tape for a moment and then come across the washcloth?  It reminds me to do the stretch.

Progress so far: Since initiating the hide-the-floss maneuver over the last few weeks, my daily piriformis stretching compliance has gone from about 8% to 100%!

Do you guys ever manufacture triggers or would you consider it? Or is this all crazy talk?


  1. I love the hidden floss idea (although I would probably end up skipping the flossing altogether if I couldn't remember where it was after about 3 seconds!!). Love the improvement 8%-100% is huge!!
    So sorry about your knee - injuries suck mud!! I know you are busy planning for the cross country move but if it's not better after the move (hopefully it will just magically improve because that happens!!) I hope you go to the DR.

    1. They do indeed suck mud Kim, well put! :)

  2. I love your dental floss/washcloth/ankle cushioning solution! Clever, verrrry clever. So sorry your knee is hurting (I suspect you and I could have a massive bitch session regarding getting hurt whenever we TRY to do something healthy). I'm going to look for a low counter - I think my bathroom might work for the shortness of me - and do that piriformis stretch, too. Thanks for the tip. :)

    1. YES on the massive bitch session Shelley, I am feeling quite pissy about it!!

  3. Death Ride GrandmaMay 14, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    Too bad about your knee. I hope it gets better very soon!

    You are doing a much better job with my idea than I am. I put the odd box on the counter, then somehow seemed to be using the other bathroom a lot. Plus a bunch of work - and bike - travel right now. But although it didn't work the way I hoped, just thinking about it that much seems to have helped. My quad/knee/hip stretches are happening more consistently. And those creaky old knees hardly complained at all about the last century ride. So, I guess the trigger idea worked. Hurray!

    But I have yet to think of anything other than will power, which I am sadly lacking, that will make me NOT do something. Like eat more ice cream.

    1. I think the only reverse trigger for ice cream, cake etc DRG is physical distance. Or perhaps that wouldn't work for someone who bikes 100 miles at a time!. Or failing that, having someone tie us to a chair and tape our mouths with duct tape. That might work!

  4. You know you could just change the exercise by walking up stairs backwards. I mean not on days your carrying groceries or heaven forbid small children. They do bounce so adorably! Sigh! Good times.

    1. I forgot about backwards Cindy, thank you! (I used to do that right after my hysterectomy when I couldn't use the elliptical and forwards downstairs was causing foot pain. Sigh.) Will have to try that!

      Anyone got any kids that need a good bouncing?

  5. First - SO sorry to hear about that knee :(. But, sounds like you are taking a good approach to getting it back to pre-hurt state :). Will be waiting for the whiny post, just the same so I can scavenge useful tips/info since my own knee decided to 'act up' a little recently.

    And way to stack those techniques!!! Now you have me thinking about what other stuff I might combine to take things 'exponential' :). Talk about 'stretching' yourself ! :):):)

    1. One never needs to wait long for a whiny post at Cranky Fitness, Ultra Kaz! And so sorry your knee is acting up too!

  6. Hope your knee heals quickly. Great idea of hiding the dental tape. I am not doing at all well on my association. May need to rethink it. I certainly have plenty of opportunities but just don't remember. Old age??

    1. Thanks mk!! And yeah, that whole memory thing is even worse when you... when you... Oh crap, I forgot. :)

  7. Manufacturing a cue sounds brilliant, i'll have ti try that!

  8. Boo to the knee! I hope it heals quickly.

    Hiding the floss…probably a way better idea than that hiding the toilet paper thing I tried.

  9. That's a great idea about the flossing. I really need to try some triggers. I can barely remember why I got up to get something by the time I get to the other room though - so I wish myself luck with that. HAHA

  10. I fear that hiding the dental floss would lead me to forget to floss. But the foot on the counter stretch looks like it stretches slightly different things compared to the "rock the baby" stretch I've done in yoga where you hold your lower leg while seated on the floor. More hip stretches are good, as despite thirty years of yoga the stiffness of age is catching up with me.
    Do I dare try going upstairs backwards? My instincts say no.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    my back.
    getting...not young :-) is NOT FOR SISSIES.


  12. So I was thinking about it and I guess I do have triggers in that I have a log for push-ups and a straight away that I like for walking lunges on one of my more regular hikes. That seems to only happen on hikes I do more the way one might do a daily run as opposed to exploring new areas. A LOT can be accomplished while brushing one's teeth. It is a great time for leg stuff. :)

  13. Awesome idea! :-) You are one smart woman.

    Knee wise, I can only understand: this year, my knee has prevented me from training for the race I have run religiously since 2009. What a pain... but mostly a psychological one, as you said it so well:

    « This is causing me both minor physical pain and major psychological distress. »

  14. OMG! I too have an Uba Tuba counters in my bath and knee problems, in general, not now specifically! I'll give it a shot tonight when I floss. See I'm normal. Well compared to you. ;-)

    PS I use those little green floss pick thingies.

  15. Love all these comments! And I gotta apologize that it's one of those "read and appreciate" days without the chance to reply individually, but you guys crack me up, thank you so much!

  16. First, sorry about the knee - :( BUT you are a genius with the trigger to stretch!!!! I need some triggers for certain things I will not discuss here. :)

  17. My dental hygienist would love it if you could get me to floss more. I have the flossy app, every 3 days it reminds me I have to floss if I haven't been doing it, It dings at me and I say "Yeah I know" and still don't. LOL


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