The cue is the trigger for a habit. A cue can be external or internal.
Preceding events: What happens is a trigger for what happens next.
e.g. Getting a notification on my phone triggers me to check the message.
Time: The day or the time of the day is a trigger for what happens.
e.g. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I go to the gym after work.
Location: Your environment powerfully influences your behaviour.
e.g Being at the pub triggers many to order a beer even if they are not thirsty.
Objects: This is closely linked to location. The objects in your environment can trigger certain behaviours.
e.g. Donuts on the table at work triggers me to have one even if I am not hungry.
People: The people you spend time with has a significant impact on your behaviour.
e.g. If you smoke, you likely have other people in your life that smoke.
Emotions: Our feelings trigger an action.
e.g. Feeling angry can trigger shouting.
Thoughts: Our thoughts trigger an action.
e.g. Thinking “I don’t want to embarrass myself at the party” can trigger avoiding social interactions.
Now that we understand the types of cues, let’s master them so that we can develop helpful habits and let go of unhelpful ones.
We have 2 options to master the cue.
Change the Cue
Change the cue
You can only apply this to location, objects and people cues.
Change location: Changing your environment can lead to disproportionate results. When people are on holiday, we often hear things like “it was nice for a change”. The stress of daily life disappears when you are on an island resort at least partly due to the literal change of scenery. This has many applications. For example, if you want to be more productive, you could optimise your location by cleaning your room and minimising distractions. If you want to build a successful technology start up, a high yield action would be to change location completely and move to Silicon Valley. If you want to get off drugs, get out of “the scene” first.
Assess your environment and if it is not facilitating useful habits, change the environment.
Change people: Jim Rohn coined the “Average of 5 Rule” which states that we are the average of the 5 people that we spend the most time with. If you look at the 5 people you regularly associate with, you will likely find that they are similar in terms of physical health, mental health, quality of relationships, income and of course, habits. If you want to build a business, hang out with entrepreneurs. If you want to write a book, hang out with authors. If you want to be healthier, hang out with fit people. If you want to be happier, hang out with positive people.
Assess the people in your life and if they are not facilitating useful habits, meet new people.
Change objects. If you want to start a new habit, make the relevant object cue accessible and available. If you want to start exercising, leave your exercise shoes and socks somewhere you can’t help but walk past. If you want to start playing guitar, leave it in the middle of the living area so you walk past it often. If you want to journal more, leave your journal next to your bed so you can use it before you sleep. If you want to change a unhelpful habit, hide or eliminate the object cue. If you want to eat less crappy food, don’t have it in the house. It seems insultingly simple but if you don’t have biscuits at home, it’s really hard to eat biscuits at home. If you want to reduce your phone use, charge it out of sight.
If you want to start a new habit, make the object accessible. If you want to break a habit, hide or eliminate the object.
This is my favourite. You can apply this to ALL the cues. You take a habit that is already ingrained in your life and then piggyback your new habit onto it. Our lives are a series of habits. There are things that we do everyday without much thought. These habits can become the cue for your new habit.
I invite you to create a “Cue Menu” by listing the things that you do everyday. Here is my painfully specific list. Specificity makes it easier to find a point where we can “stack” a new habit.
Alarm goes off.
Get out of bed.
Turn alarm off.
Put kettle on.
Make myself a tea.
Go outside onto deck.
Meditate for 20 minutes.
Read for 20 minutes.
Heat my oats.
Cut fruits for oats.
Eat my oats with fruits. Yum.
Pick work clothes.
Take clothes off.
Underwear first. Then work shirt. Followed by pants and socks.
Put work shoes on.
Hug my wife.
Open door to garage.
Get in the car.
Put seatbelt on.
Call a friend to talk to while I drive. If they don’t pick up, I usually listen to a podcast or drive in external silence (my mind is not silent).
Arrive at work.
Walk into work.
Open necessary applications.
Open patient file.
Call them in.
Help them…or try.
I finish my notes.
I call the next patient. Repeat.
During work, in between patients I will
Finish last patient.
Complete pending notes.
Tidy my desk.
Return my cups to tea room.
Say bye to everyone and thank them for their help.
Leave the clinic.
Get back in the car.
Put seatbelt on.
Drive home. Again I will either call a friend, listen to a podcast or drive in external silence (my mind is still not silent).
Arrive at home.
Open the garage.
Drive car in.
Close the garage.
Get out of car.
Take clothes off.
Change to workout clothes.
Running or weights session.
Take clothes off.
Shower. Warm water then cold water for the last 30 seconds. (I used to have cold showers exclusively but I developed chilblains so I stopped. Look it up. It’s not ideal).
Put home clothes on (underwear optional unless someone is coming over).
Get food out (usually rice and curry).
Heat food in microwave.
Clean up kitchen while I wait for the microwave.
Take food out.
Wash my hands (I eat with my hands. I was born in Sri Lanka).
Plate into dishwasher.
Clean up kitchen.
Compost bin out.
Rubbish bin out if full.
Spend time with wife. Varies from watching TV to foot massages.
Work on book.
Turn off screens.
Check doors are locked and lights are off.
Go to study room.
Gratitude journaling. Up to 7 things. Minimum 1 thing.
Reflect on learnings, progress and review short to long term goals.
Set rules for the next day e.g. no youtube, check whatsapp, email and Linkedin only once, only a handful of nuts (I love nuts. Rules help.)
Set the “main thing” for tomorrow. “The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.”
Go to bed.
Of course there are minor variations during the week. On Thursday nights I do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, on Friday nights we may have ice cream and on Sunday mornings we record the Solve for Greatness podcast. I like to focus on the consistent habits as they are more available for stacking.
Once you have the “Cue Menu”, you can decide where you want to stack on your new habit. For example, if I want to start playing guitar. I can look for an opportunity in my menu. After creating the cue (i.e. getting a guitar, setting it up in a place that is readily available), I can stack it on to a habit that I already do. A good opportunity for me would be after brushing my teeth at night. I like to maximise time off screens before sleep so this might be a two birds with 1 stone kind of situation or out of respect for birds, cutting 2 carrots with 1 knife.
There external cues and internal cues.
To master a cue, you can either change a cue or habit stack.