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The Billion Dollar Mind Trick: An Intro To Triggers (nirandfar.com)
84 points by nireyal on April 23, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 38 comments

This article skims the surface of habit formation. For a great read on the topic, checkout the current bestseller: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business. http://www.amazon.com/The-Power-Habit-What-Business/dp/14000...

The jist of it is that we all have habit loops that we respond to without realizing it. They flow through the cycle of CUE->ROUTINE->REWARD->CRAVE. Everything starts with a CUE, which triggers the habit. It could be something as simple as the little red indicator on your iphone app. This is followed by ROUTINE - or the series of actions that we normally think of as a habit. Next is the REWARD which can be surprising at times - you might think you get that cookie after lunch to enjoy the sugar rush, but in reality you might just enjoy talking to coworkers in the cafeteria. Lastly, for any habit to stick, you must CRAVE the reward at the end.

The book goes in more depth about how to use this cycle to structure habits in your own life (I have FINALLY started to workout and wake up early since reading the book). It also has great case studies about how advertisers, product managers, people managers, and more are structure these habits to influence consumers, employees, etc

I found this book unusually good for a popular nonfiction book, in the sense that it actually had a decent insights/page count ratio:


I still remember learning about this at Doublerecall HQ in Palo Alto. It was an interesting evening of random charts on a drawing board. The idea was so profounding everyone had to know, immediately. If I remember correctly Nir and one of the founders were at a seminar together where the power of triggers was explained.

That evening I looked at the two websites who have become my daily destinations almost instantly: Buffer and 750words.

Both send you an email every day. It's not spam. It's a useful and interesting email. Something you do want to receive.

It changed the way I think of new project ideas forever.

Sounds like they have you under their spell..

(but seriously I'll probably check out those sites now : P)

Something similar happened to me, it's powerful stuff.

Meh. In this sense one could become "addicted" to writing in a journal. "Addict" is quite the pejorative term to use for someone who likes taking and posting pictures of things.

That said, triggering is a fascinating phenomenon and can be used consciously on yourself for fun or profit.

Because a journal-writing does not give a variable-reward triggered dopamine hit after the activity, it does NOT form a habit in the same way instagram does.

You presumably have some evidence that posting a picture to Instagram gives you such a hit, while posting an article to your blog does not. Or at the very least you have some reason to believe this. Could you show it to me? It's going to need to be pretty strong evidence to convince me that blogging, a medium where some posts get a lot of feedback, others a little, and still others none at all, is a system without a variable schedule of rewards.

I agree blogging can count here, when you said journal I thought you meant pen-and-paper private journals.

It doesn't? What about blogging?

Blogging gives the blogger a rewarding experience of being listened to - I wouldn't say that's a trigger, people enjoy being heard, so while they have listeners, they're gonna speak.

The reader on the other hand gets a new post, which could be about anything, and sometimes the post will be bad, other times good, really good. This will create a variable reward system, and keep the reader coming back.

Blogging can definitely be habit forming, especially micro blogging, or, tweeting. I just didn't think that's what he meant.

I think these triggers are an important insight into human behavior, not just because of the profit that can be had by activating them, but because of the great potential for abuse/utility. On one hand, we see potentially dangerous abuse of these triggers, such setting people up to waste time on Farmville style apps or making repetitive comments on Facebook. On the other hand, there is a potential to train ourselves so that our triggers lead us to more productive situations. Instead of reading a newsfeed generated by people we could ultimately care less about, what if our go-to for boredom is performing some 30 second crowd-sourced task? Or maybe we look at something relevantly educational, like an elegant programming trick of the day.

For the most part, when I get an internal trigger like boredom or anxiety or exhaustion, I go to something non-productive, like /r/wtf. But recently I've been replacing /r/wtf with HN, and while most of the browsing is still mindless, it's a lot more relevant to my career path and often leads me to other useful things like 750words.com

Right now, the most successful companies that make use of triggers are mostly parasitic to our everyday lives, but I'm wondering if that can't change to become something that we benefit from.

Does anyone have good information on "beating" these triggers? Knowing they exist is a good start, but I'd love to be able to stop checking FB / Twitter / HN (gasp) when I'm feeling bored.

For me and my sons, mindlessly checking stuff while bored was rooted in health issues. In other words, we were both bored and too ill for something more challenging than passive entertainment. Working on underlying health issues did a lot to change that. Old habits return when we are somewhat under the weather but it isn't a big issue like it once was.

Best of luck.

what kind of illness?

I happen to have cystic fibrosis, as does my oldest son. I am real sensitive to dust, chemicals, etc. Having spent some time on alternative med sites, I have come to believe that allergens, chemicals and the like leave a lot more people in a mental fog than most people would think.

Interesting, thanks. I am glad you two are better!

How to beat the triggers? Mindfulness (insight) meditation.

(1) When the urge comes, observe the urge as it rises and goes away.

(2) Do not avoid the experience. It will feel like it sucks because it does. There is no magic pill to avoid the experience.

(3) Things come and go, nothing is permanent. This urge will eventually pass.

(4) If you want to take this further: try to discern the physical sensation making up the "urge" with the "mental echo".

(5) It is important not to try to "beat" these triggers. That's a form of avoidance and rejection and will only make the urges stronger. People usually give into the urge to make the feeling of suffering go away; if you accept and experience the suffering for what it is, you break out of the dopamanine/gollumization loop.

For (4), as you know, your neurons do not fire continuously. It's an analog pulse that decays after the peak. The sensations and urges you have feel like they are continuous because you experience other things that fills in the gap. This filler is the "mental echo".

It is possible to develop enough skill in perception to distinguish between the physical sensation and the filler gap. When you can perceive this, you can see how experiences like these "urges" are actually sequences, melodies, and rhythms of sensate pulses that when combined with the mental echo, you normally recognize as a particular "urge" (or thought, or feeling).

Usually, recognizing these component parts as they happen is enough. You can still choose to go with the urge, or you can ... not.

For more information:

- Mindfulness in Plain English. http://bit.ly/mindfulness-in-plain-english

- Mastering the Core Teachings of Buddha: A Surprisingly Hardcore Book of Dharma. http://bit.ly/hardcore-dharma

- The Pomodoro technique accidentally has the features for creating a time-boxed mindfulness meditation as you work. The essential components are all in the first chapter of that book.

1. Pick a deadline for your timeout. 1 day, 1 week, ... 2. Change your password to something random, write it down. 3. Logout. 4. Wait until timeout expires before logging in. See how you feel.

This is such a common struggle in the tech community, yet few have as much self-awareness as you do to admit it. Thank you! I will be blogging about how to unwind habits in my next post but in the meantime understanding the different types of behavior change might be useful to you, see: http://www.nirandfar.com/2012/03/how-to-design-behavior.html I hope this is helpful.

Ramit sethi of I will teach you to be rich once wrote he has a betting label in his email with friends. Bet money with friends about breaking bad habits or forming/maintaining new good ones. Ex. He betted friends who could lose 10 pounds first (or something like that). Good friends hold you accountable and betting money keeps you serious...

Obviously you don't bet the bank....

What works for me is to use a website blocker and find alternative relaxing activities to do instead when I'm tired. I don't care right now though since I am temporarily out of commission from doing anything useful.

Go out for a walk, it's amazing what fresh air does for the needy mind.

Part 2:

The Multi Billion Dollar Mind Trick: Manipulate People by Simulating Success

Computer games are based on psychology, they try to make people think they accomplished something with as little effort as possible. Millions of people are addicted to it.

Do you think that's it? By that logic, I could make a game that's ridiculously easy and become a millionaire like that. People will beat it, no effort, success.

I think there's got to be a perceived effort and learning curve involved.

That can get people hooked initially.

The tricky part is to get people coming back. That involves increasing the difficulty (but not too much), so the user feels a sense of accomplishment.

Throw in elements of randomness and, voila, you have an addictive game.

There are studies that go into more depth than this, but that's the basic outline.

The article isn't half-bad, but must we always refer to things based on "Billion Dollar" money-centric thinking. What happening to "world changing", "breakthrough", etc. hyperbole?

Maybe it's less measurable, but it'd be nice for us to at least frame what we do as trying to accomplish more than deal digital heroin to make GigaBucks.

It's about Instagram, and there are people still mulling the "billion dollar" figure about Instagram getting acquired by FB.

Instagram being cared about because of acquision size is part of this too. I'm skeptical about what "value" is really created with companies like this. Zygna seems like a net-loss for society, "they're gonna make billions!" seems to justify it in the eyes of many...

No, we don't, but billion-dollar is a far more appropriate thing to associate with instagram than world-changing.

"The minimalist interface all but removes the need to think. With a click, a photo is taken and all kinds of sensory and social rewards ensue."

This is drivel. Half of the content is even linkbaited away.

This feels nauseating, considering:

- http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2011/01/06/the-gollum-effect/

- http://dopamineproject.org/2011/12/the-dopamine-matrix-where...

No wonder we have a recent resurgence in Zombie Apocalypse myths in pop culture.

I suppose, this too shall pass.

These desire engine articles make me wonder if similar ideas were circulating around the tobacco industry in the 60's.

Makes me think of "there are no atheists in foxholes". Does religion have a trigger on despair?

This popular phrase often strikes me as untrue. For example, at the end of WWI number of religious soldiers in Russian army reduced drastically. Church in Russia collapsed after First World War/Russian Civil War.

Esp. fear of death and aftermath. If people know what happens after death, religions will be out of business overnight.

I thought this was going to be about database triggers. =\

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