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Use your cues: How to replace unhealthy habits

Why am I having trouble doing things I told myself I would do?

I bet you ask yourself that question from time to time.

Maybe you told yourself that you were going to be more active, lose weight, quit smoking, or eat better.

It is very common to think, “I guess I’m just lazy.” Or you may say to yourself, “Wow, I have no willpower.” That’s really the first thing that comes to mind, because, you know, you meant to do it. Right? You know you wanted to do it. You were sincere.

Why don’t we do what we really mean to do? Why do we continue to do what we want to stop doing? Here is a strong possibility to consider:


Think of a cue as anything that precedes any behavior. The cue presents itself, and then you do something.

Think of a trained dog at a dog show. For each trick, the trainer has a cue to let the animal know which trick to perform. We’re not that much different.

Anything that you do repeatedly, that you do automatically, that you do even as you tell yourself “I told myself I wouldn’t do this” is a habit. Habits are conditioned responses prompted by cues.

Cues are powerful. They’re everywhere.

What are some common cues for eating?

  • The sound of another person using a vending machine
  • The flashy signs above a fast food place on your way home
  • Your cube-mate’s candy dish
  • The sounds/smells coming from the popcorn machine at the movies
  • Someone else eating in your presence
  • Being bored or upset

So what can you do about these cues? You can avoid them. You can endure them without indulging (delay any decision to eat and see if the feeling will pass). Sometimes, just knowing the reason for the impulse is helpful (“I’m feeling like I could eat just because of that commercial, not because I need food.”).

Engineer your environment for success! One of the best ways to do what you want to do is to start using cues to your advantage.

How can you control your food environment?

  • Put sweets and snacks away, and have fruits and veggies available and visible in your kitchen.
  • Take a different way home if the takeout place is on the way.
  • Ask your co-worker (politely) to put the candy dish away.
  • Spend time at the other end of the house party, away from the food.
  • Eat before going to the movies, and immediately go to your seats after entering.

What could prompt you to be physically active?

  • Have your exercise tracker out and visible.
  • Have your workout clothes and shoes out and visible.
  • Uncover the exercise equipment: take your laundry off of the treadmill.
  • Have a motivating quote or photo in plain sight.

What can you do about cues that make you more sedentary?

  • Unplug your TV set when not in use.
  • Hide or take the batteries out of the remote.
  • Shut your home computer down rather than put it to sleep.
  • Don’t go home until after the gym.
  • Don’t put on your sleeping clothes until you get into bed.

Think of your desk. If you know you want to use your stapler every few minutes, you wouldn’t put it in a drawer after each use. You would leave it out in the open, within arm’s reach. Think of the world like that desk, and have the positive cues and positive choices out in the open, within arm’s reach.

Hopefully you can start identifying cues in all aspects of your life, and start adding positive ones. Good luck!