Habit Cues5 min read

The quality of your life is a reflection of the quality of your habitual thoughts and actions. So having good habits is extremely important for living well and achieving your goals. The three core elements of habit-building are cue, action, and reward. Here, let’s talk about the cue element.

A habit cue is a trigger that prompts you to take action for a reward. We all have many versions of Cue-Action-Reward loops. They can be automatic, or they can be purposeful—intentionally created.


CueAutomatic ActionReward
Phone dingsPick up the phone Excitement, fun, information
Smell of coffeeDrink coffeeFeel more awake and comfy
Wake up feeling tiredHit “snooze”More rest
Pile of papers on your deskProcrastinateTemporary relief
Feeling emotionally drainedWatch TV mindlesslyFeel okay
Meeting your partnerComplainAvoid responsibility


CuePurposeful ActionReward
Seeing running shoes by the doorPut them on and go runningHealth and energy
Meditation reminder dingsMeditateCalm, centeredness, clarity
Opening the pantry for snacks and finding only fruitsEat fruitsPleasure of eating well
Finding my journal on top of my pillowDo gratitude journalingContentment
Alarm rings at 7am on a weekdayGo to the gymFeeling on track with my health goals
Finishing lunchWrite in my food journalFeeling in control of my diet
Noticing I’m emotionally triggeredDo a short deep-breathing meditationFeeling well again

With Mindful Self-Discipline, we practice awareness of our automatic habit loops (to change bad habits), and we create purposeful habit loops (to build good habits).

Mastering Your Cues

To break bad habits, begin by noticing the cues—the times, places, people, feelings, interactions, and other inputs that trigger you into negative behavior. This awareness creates the option of choosing a positive behavior instead.

To implement the goal-promoting habits you’ve selected, choose cues/triggers that will remind you to take a step toward your ideal self—and make it easier to take that step. How? You need a cue that is reliable, and specific to the habit you want to build.

Most people find that time cues—such as phone alarms or calendar events—work well for forming new behaviors. 

Do you want to spend the first hour of your day working on your priorities? Create a recurring calendar event called, “Focused Work”. Nothing else will be booked then, and you’ll see it every day. Do you want to do ten minutes on the treadmill before work? Put an alarm on your phone for 7am with the label “Exercise now!”. Want to sleep by 11pm? Put an alarm for 10:00pm with the label “Begin Night Routine”.

If the cue also happens always at the same time (“alarm rings at 10pm”), that is an added bonus, as it brings greater consistency to your routine. This is desirable, but not essential—so work with what you have. 

Here are some examples of other options for cues:

  • When I see my kids at the end of the day, I will hug them and spend time with them. (person)
  • When my salary hits my account every month, I will plan my monthly budget. (time)
  • When I’ve brushed my teeth in the morning, I will meditate for 10 minutes. (activity)
  • When I feel anxious, I will pause and do three minutes of deep breathing. (emotion)
  • When I am at the table, I will put my phone in airplane mode. (place)

Using this “When x, I will y” formula helps avoid decision fatigue. You make your decision once, and when the cue happens, you do the behavior. Nothing new to decide.

For a daily habit, attach it to a cue that reliably happens every day—or create one. “When I’ve brushed my teeth in the morning” is a good cue for a new meditation habit if you brush your teeth every morning—even though the time may vary.

“When I see my kids at the end of the day” may happen at different times, and it won’t happen at all when they stay the night with friends, but it is still a great cue for the behavior “hug them and spend time with them”, because it’s specific to that trigger and thus reliable for the purpose. 

Linking your desired habit to an existing habit is an effective strategy recommended by many experts in this field. B. J. Fogg calls this “using an anchor habit”, and James Clear calls it “habit stacking”. Whatever you want to call it, the idea is to piggy-back on one of your established habits/routines, using it as the cue for the new behavior.

The sequencing of habits can also matter. If your new habit is difficult, unpleasant, or boring, here are two options:

  • Do it after something you enjoy—such as a relaxing shower or good meal—so your willpower is first replenished, then demanded.
  • Do it as a condition for enjoying something else—for example, enjoying your favorite book only when you wake up without snoozing. You snooze, you lose!

Be prepared: a cue is just a reminder and doesn’t mean that you will feel like performing the new behavior. You will likely need some willpower to perform the action, especially in the beginning.

What if your cue stops working? It happens. Either the cue was not well-chosen, or it got worn out before your desired behavior became a habit. You then re-establish the cue with firmer intention, or choose a more effective cue.

What about cues for creativity? It’s true you can’t control inspiration; but you can invite it—habitually. The screenwriter Raymond Chandler had this simple rule for writing: “Either write or nothing. I find it works. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. b. you can’t do anything else.

In the same line of thought, someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”


Choose reliable, specific cues for three habits you want.

Take steps to implement those cues right now. Consider the sequencing, and be ready to still need to exercise some willpower after the cue.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.


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