What’s in the cue? Does it matter in habit building?

Cues are the triggers in our environment that make us repeat the action without conscious thinking and thus help build the habit. If we equate habits to a steam engine, where intent or will is the engine and environment or context are the tracks, cues are essentially the green signal that sets the engine in motion.

Cues are the attention-grabbers that seize our attention and lead us to perform an action or activate our habits, such as a specific time of the day. For example, eating medicines after a meal, taking out the trash post-dinner after clearing the kitchen table, or going for a jog after dropping the kids to school. Cues help in building strong habits at a faster pace. Even patients with sufficient motivation for their heart health (intent and belief), when supplied with colorful fancy pill bottles kept near their bedside table (physical environment), failed to achieve optimal compliance if they did not attach it with a stable cue. Attaching the activity to a fixed routine or for the above-mentioned case, using a pill reminder are examples of stable cues that help to repeat the activity reliably.

Couple talking over breakfast

To build a habit, you need to select a stable cue to train your mind for performing the chosen activity repeatedly and reliably without allowing conscious thinking to step in. Cues can be:

  • A specific time of the day – to eat medicine, before or after a meal
  • A specific person in your family – exercise daily after sending kids to school
  • A reliable activity in your surrounding – ordering medicines while paying bills for the month
  • Alarms or reminders – to limit your screen time

To develop a behavior, consistency is the key. Cues are pivotal for this consistency. Want to drink more water? Drink a cup each time you complete one task for the day!

Find your cue!