Step Three: Isolate the Cue
Cues are the triggers for our habitual behaviors. They are often the most difficult part of habits to identify, because there is so much information bombarding us as our behaviors unfold. Do you eat at a certain time of day because you are hungry? Or because the clock says 7:30? Or because your kids have started eating?
To identify a cue amid the noise, we can use the same system as researchers in the field: Identify categories of behavior ahead of time to scrutinize them for patterns. Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, immediately preceding action.
Write down the information for these five things the moment an urge hits. (These are my actual notes from when I was trying to diagnose my cookie habit):
- Where are you? (Sitting at my desk)
- What time is it? (3:36 p.m.)
- What’s your emotional state? (Bored)
- Who else is around? (No one)
- What action preceded the urge? (Answered an email)
I did this for three days, and it became pretty clear which cue was triggering my cookie habit: time. I felt an urge to snack around 3:30 each day. I had already figured out, in step two, that it wasn’t hunger driving my behavior. The reward I was seeking was temporary distraction — the kind that comes from gossiping with a friend.
My habit loop was completed.
Once you’ve identified your own habit loop, you can begin to shift the behavior. You can develop a better routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behavior that more constructively delivers the real rewards you are craving.