• Andrea Bari Levine

How to Hack Our Habits (Part 2)

Updated: Oct 5


We've already learned that habit formation has four parts: a cue, which triggers a routine, that produces a reward, that drives a craving to repeat the behavior. This week we'll delve into cues--what they are, how to spot them and how to use them to trigger desired behaviors.


Types of cues. Cues, consciously or subconsciously, activate our autopilot mode. These stimuli often take the form of:

  1. a location,

  2. time of day,

  3. an emotional state,

  4. interaction with others or

  5. an immediately preceding action.

For example, you hit a mid-afternoon slump so you order a caramel macchiato for energy. Or you get home and change into sweats and when it gets late at night you turn on the TV to wind down. Even brushing your teeth can be a cue to next wash your face. Our days are filled with these auto-pilot reactions to stimuli, but we're usually so focused on our behaviors we don't stop to think what initiated them. But recognizing our triggers as well as the actions they prompt is key to lasting change.

Identifying your triggers. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says, "The process of behavior change always starts with awareness." To develop this awareness, think of a habit you would like to modify. Some examples include spending less time on social media, going to sleep earlier and focusing on one task at a time, but it could be anything that's important to you. The next time you find yourself falling into your old routine--scrolling through Instagram, staying up until midnight or working with ten tabs open--pause and ask yourself:

  1. Where are you?

  2. What time is it?

  3. How are you feeling?

  4. Are you engaging with anyone else?

  5. What were you doing before this?

As you pause and reflect, you will develop a better understanding of what you hope to achieve--social connection, time to decompress or avoiding difficult tasks. Knowing what you are seeking will help you choose more effective behaviors to satisfy those desires without derailing your wellness or other goals.

Make it easy to do right. According to Clear, "disciplined people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control." To do this, we want to spotlight the cues for positive habits and hide the cues for negative habits. Think of keeping apples on the counter and cookies in the back of the cupboard, deleting Instagram from your phone or pulling out your workout clothes the night before. In this way, we continue to remind ourselves of the small ways we can improve our days.

When stumbling upon a negative cue is inevitable, you can pre-plan how you will respond.

You can structure these intentions as:

  • When I am at [location] I will do [behavior].

  • When [situation] arises, I will respond by [behavior].

This can apply to any number of situations, just as cues fall into any number of categories:

  • When I'm feeling alone, I will call a friend.

  • When I find myself procrastinating, I will break the day into intervals of work and play.

  • When I'm at a bar, I will alternate alcoholic beverages with a glass of seltzer.

This may sound like a lot of work, but our brain is constantly making these calculations, identifying triggers and responding with actions. All we need to do right now is slow down the process so we can eventually improve it.


Part 1 Part 3

© 2017 by Andrea Bari Levine.

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