Respect your cues

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

My friend Amy Hoy wrote about habits recently:

A habit isn’t a thing, it’s three things: a cue, a routine, and a reward. And it’s not three things, it’s a loop.

The routine is the practiced set of actions you take — the thing we all call “a habit.” The cue is the trigger on the gun of routine, the thing that says chop chop, brush brush. The reward is the nice thing you get at the end. Behaviorism aside, the human brain really does wire itself up to react to rewards.

Put these 3 things together, in a loop, and run it again & again, and you have the makings of an automatic habit.

Like a lot of people, I have lots of “shoulds” in my life — I should take my allergy medication, I should send out invoices, I should make steady progress ahead of a looming deadline — and worrying about all of those is a source of great anxiety and stress for me. But in all that worrying about routines, and despite all the various rewards I’ve dangled in front of myself, I’ve never really thought about cues as a concrete part of the habit process before.

In the two days since I read that post I’ve come up with a catchphrase that summarizes my new attitude towards habit building: respect your cues. What that means is that if I encounter a cue — either a new one I’ve consciously chosen, or a natural one that bubbles up from my unconscious — I absolutely should not ignore it.

As an example of the latter, if I walk into my room and cringe at the clothes on the floor, I should put some of them away. I don’t have to go on a cleaning spree, but I can at least hang one jacket up.

As for the former — new habits I’m trying to create — I now start thinking about the cues I’ve set up for myself. An excellent example is invoicing. Normally I invoice twice a month, however my current client wants invoices only once a month and on a slightly different date than when I usually send them out. I do have a calendar event set up to remind me to send out invoices, but it’s not on the right dates. Instead of training myself to take care of invoices promptly, I’m training myself to ignore my invoicing calendar event! That’s no good.

This is all still a work in progress — after all I’ve only been at this for two days — but I think I’m at the beginning of an important journey. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have a calendar event to update.


  1. P Barrett replied on March 25th, 2012:

    This book looks good:

    Speaking as music teacher, I encourage my students to find a similar time of day to practice (or a weekly schedule) and to be sure to practice at least 15 to 20 minutes a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but more progress can be made in 15 minutes a day than 60 minutes every four.

    Having a dog helps maintain an exercise routine; the dog is so attuned to the rhythm of the day that she knows when it’s time for the daily walk and makes sure that you don’t forget.

    To get things done, be more like a dog!

  2. Building Habits: Respect Your Cues, & Listen to Your Organs When They Talk « Unicornfree replied on March 29th, 2012:

    […] owe at least 90% [1] of this insight to my friend Colin, who riffed brilliantly on my rambling, incoherent […]