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How Cues Trigger Habits: Understanding How It Look Like And Creating It
Habit Building

How Cues Trigger Habits: The Habit Loop Explained #1

June 11, 2020


Here at System2, we build habits. Well, more accurately, we help people build new, healthy habits that sticks all by themselves… and we do it with science. 

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be diving deeper into that science— the foundational ideas behind System2. There’s already a pretty substantial amount of research available on why humans develop habits, how they do so, and whether or not they can be broken (in the case of bad habits). What’s more, it turns out there’s actually a reliable, dependable pattern when it comes to habit building: the habit loop.

What is the Habit Loop?

Most of us see a habit as an action (like taking a shower) that happens regularly (i.e., every morning) without a lot of effort or motivation required.

And, on the surface that’s correct. However it’s really only one piece of the puzzle.

In reality, habits are actually slightly more complicated, and made up of three parts:

  1. Cue – What triggers the habit (alarm goes off)
  2. Routine – What you do when triggered (take a shower)
  3. Reward – What makes your brain remember (feel awake, warm, etc.)

The more you successfully run through the loop, the more ingrained the Routine becomes. Eventually getting to the point where you no longer have to think about what you’re doing… it’s just a habit!

As we continue this series, we’ll explore each of the loop’s elements in detail. Today, let’s talk about the starting point for any new habit… the Cue.

What do Cues Look Like?

When building new habits (or breaking old ones) a lot of your success will come from understanding what triggers habitual actions in humans. These triggers, called Cues, are like the sound of a gun at the beginning of a 200m sprint— as soon as it happens, the race is on!

If you think about your own habits, you’ll notice that they’re always triggered by some kind of Cue. It may be easiest to see these Cues as belonging to one of four groups:

Single External Trigger Something auditory, physical, or otherwise externally telling your brain, “Hey, you… It’s habit time!”
E.g., As you come up to a traffic light and notice it’s yellow, you immediately begin to slow down (hopefully!)

Neurochemical/Emotional – Something you can’t quite place; a feeling/emotion that compels you to do something routine.
E.g., Locked in the house during quarantine, you’re hit with a wave of boredom. Next thing you know, you’re in the kitchen looking for a snack.

Location – Pretty straightforward; a real-world location that causes you to start doing something while present.
E.g., When you sit down at your desk, you immediately check your email and create a todo list for the day.

Time – A certain time of day that, for whatever reason, compels you to run through a habit loop.
E.g., As the day winds down, somewhere between 3–4PM, you grab another cup of coffee.

Some Cues are a bit of blend.

For example, let’s say that you’re someone who runs through a morning routine each day. That routine could be triggered by an alarm (Single External Trigger), sitting down at your desk (Location), or simply because you do it at the same Time every day.

However, what’s important to remember is that Cues can be created. In fact, if you’re working on building or changing a habit, that’s actually the first step… creating a Cue.

Creating New Cues

Creating a new Cue (or changing an old one) can be as simple as coming up with a few ideas and testing them to see what works. Try setting an alarm, asking a friend to call you, putting a reminder in your phone, or creating a dedicated space to perform your habit.

For example, if you’re trying to build a daily fitness habit you could trigger that new action by:

  • Choosing a specific time and setting an alarm/reminder.
  • Doing the activity with a friend each day.
  • Creating an area in your house that you only workout in.
  • Keeping reminders and messages taped to your desk.
  • Anything else! – Get creative… only you know what will work best for you.

Being able to successfully come up with a new Cue will make habit-building far easier. You’ll find that paying attention to Cues is important for reshaping bad habits, too.

For example, if you smoke a cigarette everyday on the way to work, examine your behavior right up to the moment you reach for your smokes. Try to identify the cue (clicking your seatbelt in, turning on to Main Street, etc.) that triggers your habit.

At that point, you can either change your Routine (by chewing a piece of gum instead), or by removing the Cue from your life (by taking a different route to work) in order to overwrite the bad habit. Remember, habits are just ingrained neurological patterns… but they’re not permanent!

So start brainstorming, come up with an easy Cue for your new habit and we’ll see you next week when we talk about the second step in the habit loop, Routine.



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