Make Getting Started Easy With Habit Cues

Nicholas Licalsi
March 13, 2018

It’s March and the fun of the New Year, and its resolutions, has worn off. Previously we talked about why building a habit is more powerful than setting a goal. This week we are going to start to dive into the anatomy of a habit. It’s important to know how one works at its most fundamental level before we start trying to incorporate them into our lives.

Let’s get started with thinking about some habits that we already have in our life. By dissecting those, we can understand the habits we want to build for the future. The two habitual actions I’ll be taking from my personal life are my good habit of writing every day, and my bad habit of binging YouTube videos when I should be working on something else. I’ve been trying to break the YouTube habit for a while, and I’ve made some progress on it. The writing habit has been serving me well, but I want to try and push myself to do more than one hour so I can fit more writing in my life because it’s something I enjoy once I start, but I need help starting it. Luckily part of a habit’s anatomy includes getting started. But first, let’s talk about the habit loop.

Why Do We Repeat Habits?

We repeat habits because they form a loop our bodies want to repeat. This loop is called a habit loop and is the pattern that all habits follow. It consists of three parts, the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue is what tells your brain to start working, the routine is the actual action or habit you do, and the reward is what keeps you coming back after going through the hard work of the habit.

Without any of these three parts, you don’t have a habit. If you’re missing a cue, you won’t do the routine. Without a reward, there is no incentive to repeat it. And since the routine is the meat and potatoes of the loop then without it there is no habit. Today we are going to dig deep into the cue. How it works, how to notice it, and where it fits in my good and bad habits.

What Is A Cue?

A cue is any sensory input that triggers your habit. It can be an image or object you see, a location you’re in, an emotion you feel, or a certain time of day. One habit can have multiple cues, and the cue may not always be what you expect, as we will see later.

My Many Writing Cues

For my habit of writing I have a lot of cues. Anything from my location, time of day and even what I hear will tell my body to start the habit loop for writing.

My Desk At Rockwall OpenSpace

The most significant signal that I should write is when I’m sitting at my desk at the OpenSpace. When I come in and sit down I know I should be working, because that’s about the only thing I do at the desk. I used to write in my house, but that didn’t work for me because my house is where I do a lot of things other than writing. Often, cleaning or napping would distract me, and my productivity nosedived. When I’m at the OpenSpace, then I know it’s a place for work and collaboration. When I’m here, I focus on those things, not distractions.

Mornings Or Evenings

Another cue I have is the time of day. I typically write early or late in my day. If it’s early and I have the time I will write. This is usually because the morning is when least hectic and I’m most creative. If I haven’t written by the time it gets late in the day, then I will take the time to write to make sure I get it done before the day ends.


Another cue for writing is one I created intentionally. When I write or do any focused work, I play a one-hour thunderstorm track in my headphones. When I hear the sound of rain, my body knows it’s time to work. Sometimes the feeling of headphones in my ears is enough of a cue to get me to write. And to me, it feels awkward to write without headphones in.

What Cues My Bad Habits

For my bad habit of watching Youtube, my cue is typically the time of day or my current emotions. It took me awhile to notice the cues because when I’m watching YouTube, my mind is checked out and I’m less self-aware. After I started asking myself what my cue was it still wasn’t obvious.

YouTube In The Morning

Time of day is the most significant YouTube cue for me. It used to be the first thing I did when I woke up which derailed my entire day! I modified that cue by building the habit of putting my phone downstairs and putting my Kindle on my nightstand instead of my phone. Now if I feel like using an electronic device as soon as I wake up, I have a book to read instead of binging YouTube videos.

Relaxing At Lunch Time

Lunch is the other time of day that cues my bad habit. This one I’ve had less success fixing. If I’m eating food, I feel like I need to be watching a video. It used to be Netflix, and I’d waste a half hour or more watching a show while I eat. YouTube is an improvement on Netflix, but it’s still not ideal. Often I will be pulled down the rabbit hole of random videos which is unproductive.

YouTube Is My Xanax

If I find myself watching YouTube outside of my lunch hour, then it usually indicates I’m feeling anxious about my work. YouTube is a comfortable place for me. I watch informational videos, so it feels productive, but I know it’s a waste of time. A good solution for this is to reduce the amount of work I’m telling myself to do. If I have an important task, I will break it down into smaller bits and start with a tiny first step. This typically works but only if I notice why I’m watching YouTube which is difficult sometimes because….

Cues Are Hiding From You

These cues weren’t all obvious. Noticing the emotional cue was the hardest for me. It was challenging because it required me to be self-aware and question my automatic actions. I didn’t catch the cue until I started asking “Why are you watching YouTube?” My honest answer was usually, “Because I know I have something better to do.” That was a good start, however, tying that back to the emotion of anxiety or discomfort was hard. But noticing what triggers your routines, good or bad, is a critical first step to developing new habits and breaking old ones.

Action Items:

For this week I want you to think of a habit you already have and simply try to examine it to determine its cue. Note what caused you to start doing your routine and review it at the end of the week. You might find something surprising. Don’t feel like you have to change your routine this week. We will cover that next week. What you should do is just notice the cue and maybe even write it down.

Next Week: Routines!

If you want to learn more about habits, check out Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, and come back next week to learn more about a habit’s anatomy. We will be diving into the routine and the golden rule of habit change.

Feel free to stop by Rockwall OpenSpace any time this week to talk to us about habits, productivity, or leading with value. And if you’re looking for somewhere to work in the Rockwall area, OpenSpace is a peaceful environment tailored to you.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images, Infomastern, VisualHunt, Smithsonian Institution , Nicholas Licalsi

Nicholas Licalsi