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Habit Change: Identifying the Cue


Recently I posted about Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit, in which he talks about habits in individuals, companies, and cultures. I mentioned that toward the end of the book he gives a concise method for changing specific habits, using the example of his own habit (which as of the writing of the book he seemed to have entirely kicked) of getting a chocolate chip cookie in the mid afternoon every workday.

The habit process he describes, which seems to be backed up quite well by psychological reseach, has three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. The part we think about changing when we tend to think about kicking a bad habit or acquiring a good one is the routine: the action we take. In order to change the routine–or even in order to figure out what to change the routine to–it’s first necessary to identify the cue and the reward.

The cue can be practically anything, but Duhigg mentions that researchers have found it generally falls into one of the following categories. This is convenient: these categories give us obvious questions to ask ourselves when trying to identify our habit cues.

The categories are

  • place
  • time
  • people
  • emotional state
  • preceding action

For instance, if I have a habit of watching TV late into the night (which fortunately I don’t); it might be because I’m at home and that’s what I’m used to doing when I’m at home (place), because it’s 8:00 and I’m used to turning on the TV then (time); because I’m with my roommate, who likes a lot of the same TV shows I do (people); because I’m feeling anxious and want to be distracted (emotional state); or because I’ve just finished cleaning up from dinner and like to take a break after doing that (preceding action).

Sometimes it’s probably not quite that simple, as when a mix of cues are at work (for instance, I have to be at home and it has to be a certain time and I have to feel a certain way), but this approach is useful even if we’re breaking down a more complex habit.

To identify the cue, Duhigg proposes jotting down answers to each of those five questions every time you find yourself acting out your habit.

  • Where am I?
  • What time is it?
  • Who’s nearby?
  • What’s my emotional state?
  • What did I just finish doing?

Taking note of those five things, on paper, for (say) five or ten executions of the habit will often be enough to shed light on exactly what’s starting your habit process rolling.

Of course, you might recognize your cue just by thinking about your habit for a few moments. For instance, if the habit you’re trying to break is stopping at a particular bar every day on your way home from work, it’s likely that your cue is driving past that bar–a place cue.

Cues are also helpful for creating new habits. For example, I had trouble getting in the habit of flossing my teeth regularly when I first tried, because I would try to fit it in whenever I had time available, morning or evening. There was no clear and unique cue to use.

When I then tried adding it in the morning, I wasn’t successful because I’m often on a tight schedule in the morning, and I wasn’t willing to make myself late by adding flossing when I hadn’t planned time for it in advance.

The point at which I did become successful with that habit was when I started doing it at night, just before brushing my teeth. My cue was standing at the sink and looking over at my toothbrush in the evening, a combination of time, place, and attention. Even though focus or attention isn’t one of the five most common cue types Duhigg names, speaking from my own experience, it certainly seems to play a part in some of my habits.

Once the cue has been identified, there’s still the issue of figuring out a routine–either a changed one to preempt the habit you’re trying to break or a new one to lay the pattern for the habit you want to gain. I’ll talk more about the routine and the reward here in the near future.

If you’re working on ditching a bad habit or adding a good habit, I’d love to hear from you, whether privately (look for the contact form on the right) or through comments here, both to know about what you’re trying and to learn from your results.

photo by Vicious Bits

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